When you first start learning Spanish, the gap between putting a few broken sentences together and mastery of the language seems huge.
And it is true—there is a lot to learn.
But, there is a point somewhere between just starting out and mastery where your abilities allow you to start having fun.
These enjoyable moments show up when you can communicate without needing to stop and look up every other word.
So, if you are not yet at the point where you can communicate without using English, this needs to be your top priority.
And to get there as quickly as possible, you need to learn how to say more with what you already know.
Luckily there are a number of language hacks for Spanish which allow you to express more ideas with fewer words.
So what is a language hack?
A language hack is a small tweak that could involve a word, phrase or rephrase that will simplify the translation of an idea.
Language hacks are shortcuts which allow you to communicate more and make less mistakes, while you continue building your knowledge of the language.
When you move past the beginner and early intermediate stages, you will need to move away from these hacks in order to advance—using the most accurate words, verb conjugations and phrases instead. But in the meantime, these shortcuts can significantly help with some of the frustrations of starting out.
In this post, you will learn nine Spanish hacks that will help you get to the point where you can start enjoying the language without needing to use any English.
These nine hacks are broken up into three categories: How to express more ideas (1) with fewer nouns, (2) with fewer verb conjugations and (3) without the subjunctive.
9 Easy Shortcuts for Speaking More Spanish with Less Vocabulary
How to express more ideas with fewer nouns
This first category of Spanish hacks is about replacing complicated nouns, nouns that you don’t know or nouns you can remember with a few simple substitutes.
1. It — lo/la, ello
Let’s say you are speaking with a native Spanish speaker and they ask you if you have seen, done or heard of something. You want to respond to the question, but the word is difficult to pronounce. In this situation, you can replace the noun with lo/la or ello (it).
For example, if someone asks you, “¿Has visto ‘El Laberinto del fauno’?” (Have you seen “Pan’s Labyrinth”?) and you want to say “yes” but aren’t sure how to pronounce the name of the movie properly, you can say:
Sí, la he visto.
(Yes, I have seen it.)
Here you would say “la” because you are referring to a movie, la película, which is feminine.
Alternatively, someone might ask you “¿Has pensado en mi sugerencia?” (Have you thought about my suggestion?) Maybe they have proposed to go on a trip or work on a project together. You could respond:
No, no he pensado en ello.
(No, I haven’t thought about it.)
You need to use ello here in this example because it comes after a preposition: en. In Spanish, lo is the translation of “it” when it is next to a verb, and ello is the translation of “it” when used in prepositional phrase.
2. This — este | that — ese
These two words are extremely useful.
There are male, female, neutral and plural forms for both words:
- This — Este (m), esta (f), esto (n), estos (m pl), estas (f pl)
- That — Ese (m), esa (f), eso (n), esos (m pl), esas (f pl)
If you see something—for example in a shop or market—and you have no idea of what it is or how to say it in Spanish, you can say:
¿Qué es esto?
(What is this?)
Imagine you walk into a Spanish market and you see a few things you want to order. You could say while pointing:
Quiero este, esa y esos.
(I want this, that and those.)
3. Thing — cosa | something — algo
On top of replacing nouns with “it,” “this” or “that,” you can also substitute “thing” or “something” for a Spanish noun you don’t yet know.
For example, imagine someone asks you “¿Cuál es tu parte favorita de tu país?”(What is your favorite part of your country?), and immediately you think of a long list of features which are difficult to describe in Spanish. You could say:
Hay muchas cosas. Hay demasiadas cosas.
(There are many things. There are too many things.)
You also could walk into a shop and ask for something that goes well with a dish you are cooking. For example:
Busco algo que vaya bien con marisco.
(I’m looking for something that goes well with seafood.)
When you are searching for a noun in Spanish, both algo and cosa will be invaluable to get you speaking more. When you need “something,” or can’t remember “something,” you can always ask with one of these two words.
See these two super useful words in action on FluentU.
How to express more ideas with fewer verb conjugations
Learning and memorizing verb conjugations is one of the biggest challenges of the Spanish language.
The conjugation for each person is distinct (i.e. I, you, he, we, etc.). Moreover, you also have the formal and informal versions of “you,” tú and usted.
To add insult to injury, about 40% of all Spanish verbs are irregular.
So to avoid getting overwhelmed when you are first starting out, you can simplify the massive task of learning conjugations of hundreds of verbs by focusing on learning just four verbs, which you’ll find in this section.
With a little paraphrasing, you can combine the words sí and no with the verbs for “to able to,” “to like,” “to want” and the phrase “to have to” to express almost any action.
4. To be able to — poder
Imagine it is dark and you can’t see anything. You could say “No veo nada” (I don’t see anything) but if you can’t remember the first person conjugation of ver you can say:
No puedo ver nada.
(I can’t see anything.)
If you are running late to meet a friend you might want to say “Voy a llegar tarde” or “Llegaré tarde,” both of which mean “I’m going to arrive late”). However, to say this phrase, you either need the first person conjugation of ir or the first person future conjugation of llegar. If you can’t remember either of these, you can simply rephrase slightly and say:
No puedo llegar a tiempo.
(I can’t arrive on time.)
5. I like it — me gusta
You can use the verb gustar in the positive or negative to rephrase many verb actions.
For example, imagine you want say “Odio volar” (I hate flying). If you can’t remember the verb for “to hate,” or how to conjugate it in first person, you can say:
No me gusta volar.
(I don’t like to fly.)
Another way you can use gustar is for rephrasing preferences. If you wanted to say “Yo prefiero estudiar solo” (I prefer to study alone), but you can’t remember that preferir is irregular, you can say:
Me gusta estudiar solo.
(I like to study alone.)
6. To want — querer
Similar to how we used gustar, you can use querer to state preferences. You can also use it to talk about things you do regularly, and to talk about the near future.
Imagine you want to express something complicated, like “Cada vez que digo algo en español, se me olvidan las palabras” (Every time I say something in Spanish, I forget the words). Here you need to know the first person conjugation of decir and the complicated construction of forgetting things with olvidar. Instead you can simplify by rephrasing with:
Cada vez que quiero decir algo en Español, no puedo recordar las palabras.
(Every time I want to say something in Spanish, I can’t remember the words.)
Here we have used the Spanish hack with poder to rephrase the complicated construction of olvidar for “not being able to remember,” and avoided the first person of decir by combining it with querer.
Here’s another example. Say you and your friends are going to go out in the afternoon: Salgo esta tarde (I’m going out this afternoon). If you can’t remember the first person singular conjugation of salir, you can say it in another way:
Quiero salir esta tarde.
(I want to go out this afternoon).
It is true that the meaning of this phrase is slightly different from the original, but you are expressing an idea that is still very close, but avoiding the first person conjugation of a less common irregular verb.
7. To have to — tener que
In addition to querer, you can also use the phrase tener que as a substitute to talk about the future.
For example, imagine you are planning to go to the bank, “Voy a ir al banco” or “Iré al banco” (I’m going to go to the bank). Here, you need the first person conjugation of ir in combination with a to say “I’m going to” or you need the future conjugation of ir. But if you can’t remember either of those you can rephrase the action and say:
Tengo que ir al banco.
(I have to go to the bank).
As well as the present tenses, the four verbs in this section are also a good starting point for when you want to start building your knowledge of verb conjugations in other time tenses—such as the past or future.
For example, if you wanted to tell someone about the time you left a party yesterday, “Nos fuimos de la fiesta ayer a las diez” (We left the party yesterday at 10 p.m.), you can express a similar idea without the past conjugation of irse:
Tuvimos que irnos de la fiesta ayer a las diez.
(We had to leave the party yesterday at 10 p.m.)
How to express more ideas without the subjunctive
The subjunctive mood can be scary, especially if your first language is English.
Technically the subjunctive mood exists in English, but we don’t need to know about it since verb conjugations don’t change when we are using it.
In case this is the first you are hearing of the subjunctive mood, here is a quick explanation.
Whenever you are expressing certain ideas in Spanish that have an element of uncertainty, they are often expressed in the subjunctive mood. Moreover, when you are making predictions about the future, you will generally need the subjunctive mood.
There are a lot of rules for using the Spanish subjunctive; this is why it is so scary. But, if you are still working on the fundamentals of Spanish, you don’t really need to worry about it.
In fact, you can use the following two hacks to avoid the subjunctive without making any technical errors.
8. Maybe — a lo mejor
There are a number of phrases in Spanish that call for the subjunctive mood. Some of these include phrases that convey probability:
- es posible que (it is possible that)
- es probable que (it is probable that)
- puede que (maybe/perhaps)
In the context of making a predication about something that will happen in the future, the three phrases above all require the subjunctive mood.
Yet, all of these phrases can be replaced with a lo mejor, which means “maybe” or “perhaps.” And the best part of using a lo mejor is that it always has to be used with the indicative (normal) mood.
For example, if you want to make a prediction about whether it is going to rain, you could say “Es posible que vaya a llover hoy”(It is possible that it is going to rain today). Here, because you have said es posible que, you have to use vaya which is the subjunctive of ir. However, you can avoid the subjunctive by saying:
A lo mejor va a llover hoy.
(Perhaps it is going to rain today.)
You may want to make a predication to a friend about a football match that Real Madrid is about to play. You can, again, avoid the subjunctive mood with the phrase a lo mejor:
A lo mejor el Real Madrid va a ganar el partido de fútbol esta noche.
(Maybe Real Madrid will win the football game tonight.)
9. I don’t think that… — no pienso que… | I don’t believe that… — no creo que…
In addition to making predications, you also need the subjunctive mood when you are talking about doubts.
If you say “I don’t think that…,” which implies doubt, you will need to use the subjunctive mood. But you can avoid the subjunctive by rephrasing almost any expression of doubt in the following way:
“I don’t think that my parents are going to come.”
This can be changed to:
“I think that my parents aren’t going to come.”
These two sentences are only separated by the slightest of subtleties, but the first requires the subjunctive in Spanish and the second doesn’t.
Just to be clear, the key trick here is that the negative part of the sentence moves from before the “that” to after it.
The second sentence in Spanish is:
Creo que mis padres no van a venir.
(I think that my parents aren’t going to come.)
If you can rephrase all expressions of doubt from “I don’t think that…” to “I think that…,” then you can be safe using the normal indicative mood.
Here are a few more examples:
Creo que la semana que viene no va a ser divertida.
(I believe that next week isn’t going to be fun.)
Creo que no hay una cafetería por aquí.
(I think that there isn’t a coffee shop around here.)
If either of these last two examples started with no creo que, you would need the subjunctive but with the simple rephrase hack, you can express almost exactly the same idea with the present indicative mood.
Although the gap to mastery of the Spanish language can feel far-reaching, there are shortcuts you can use to quickly communicate much more freely as a beginner. Focus on the nine hacks in this post until they become second language. The key to mastering any language learning technique is to use it as often as you can.
Once you are comfortable communicating using these shortcuts you can then start to really enjoy the best part of language learning—speaking! This is all while you continue to build your knowledge and improve your ability to express ideas in greater and more intricate detail.
And as you fill in the basics, though, remember to move away from these hacks in order to advance to the next level. Good luck!
Andrew Barr is a native English speaker and has studied Spanish for 8 years. He writes and podcasts for language students who want to be conversational in Spanish at RealFastSpanish.com.
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