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Breaking Out of Beginner's Spanish

Breaking Out of Beginner's Spanish

Written by a native English speaker who learned Spanish the hard way--by trying to talk to Spanish-speaking people--this book offers English speakers with a basic knowledge of Spanish hundreds of tips for using the language more fluently and colloquially, with fewer obvious "gringo" errors.

Series: A new edition is now available here.

January 1994
This book is out of print and no longer available.
232 pages | 6 x 9 |

Many language books are boring—this one is not. Written by a native English speaker who learned Spanish the hard way—by trying to talk to Spanish-speaking people—it offers English speakers with a basic knowledge of Spanish hundreds of tips for using the language more fluently and colloquially, with fewer obvious "gringo" errors.

Writing with humor, common sense, and a minimum of jargon, Joseph Keenan covers everything from pronunciation, verb usage, and common grammatical mistakes to the subtleties of addressing other people, "trickster" words that look alike in both languages, inadvertent obscenities, and intentional swearing. He guides readers through the set phrases and idiomatic expressions that pepper the native speaker's conversation and provides a valuable introduction to the most widely used Spanish slang.

With this book, both students in school and adult learners who never want to see another classroom can rapidly improve their speaking ability. Breaking Out of Beginner's Spanish will be an essential aid in passing the supreme language test-communicating fluently with native speakers.

  • Foreword and Forewarning
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Ten Ways to Avoid Being Taken for a Gringo
  • 2. Minding Your Verbal Manners
  • 3. Tricksters
  • 4. Our Fellow Human Beings
  • 5. The Secret Life of Verbs
  • 6. The Twilight Zone
  • 7. Sixty-four Verbs, Up Close and Personal
  • 8. Cranking Up Your Spanish
  • 9. Snappy Answers
  • 10. Invective and Obscenity
  • 11. Which Is Which?
  • 12. Say It Right

Joseph J. Keenan is a journalist, editor, and environmentalist who has lived and worked in Mexico since 1984.


You're on a bus, heading south. You've crossed the U.S. border and entered Latin America. English is behind you; a continent of Spanish lies ahead. Your pocket-size Spanish-English dictionary sits on your lap within easy reach. For practice, you look up the Spanish words for everything you see or think of: "bush," "barbed wire," "roadrunner," "driver." You made yourself understood at the ticket counter and double-checked the bus's destination with a matronly passenger, but you had some trouble telling the driver you wanted to keep your bag with you instead of sticking it in the vehicle's luggage compartment. You've held a brief conversation with the young man next to you, who asked your name, your travel plans, and (you think) your favorite major-league team. You sit back and close your eyes. Already you're a little tired. How many weeks or months of speaking like a small, semiliterate child can I stand? you wonder.


You are at the beginning of more than a bus journey. You are on your way to speaking and understanding a foreign language, a foreign culture, and a foreign people. For most of the world's inhabitants, bilingualism and even trilingualism is nothing out of the ordinary. But for most native English speakers, one language is the norm. Breaking out of that mold will take work. But, as you are about to discover, it is satisfying work, and its fruits—with a little practice—will last you a lifetime.


People's reasons for learning Spanish are as varied as the approaches they take to it. You may be studying it for use in business, school, travel, or the family. Unfortunately, there's no magic formula or secret recipe to speed your way toward fluency. But there are a few pointers that can help. Some fall under the heading of common sense; others are more like folk wisdom. Keep them in mind as your voyage progresses.




The greatest enemy of learning a language, especially as an adult, is a person's inhibitions. These vary with the individual, of course. Some people seem to have been born without any, while others are so afraid of making a mistake that they never give themselves the chance to. Methods of overcoming these inhibitions also vary with the individual. Most people lose their fear of sounding silly after a few weeks of speaking a foreign language; others lose all inhibitions entirely after a few cervezas under the stars on the town plaza. One rule applies universally: to learn a language you'll have to conquer your inhibitions eventually, so the sooner you get started, the better.


One way to get started is to remember that however silly you might sound using your incorrect Spanish, you'll sound a lot worse trying to speak English to someone who speaks none. Then again, you could simply choose to clam up altogether. After all, as they say, better to keep quiet and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt (or, as it might be expressed in Spanish, en boca cerrada no entran moscas—"flies don't enter a closed mouth"). If this is your strategy, you'll neither improve your Spanish nor become acquainted with the new world—the Spanish-speaking one—that for whatever reason you are making an effort to get to know. In fact, you're probably better off staying home.


So relax. You'll definitely make mistakes. But you won't be the first one to make them.


How We Learn


Learning psychologists have covered this theme close to the point of exhaustion (or beyond it, perhaps), but a few observations might prove useful. One maxim says that you can chart your language-learning progress by three landmarks: speaking and understanding the basics, then learning the language well enough to use it and understand it on the phone, and finally being able to understand the jokes. Another common belief holds that language learning tends to be a quantum experience. That is, you will progress by small leaps and bounds, followed by long, frustrating plateaus. The plateaus, furthermore, always seem to hit when you think you should be progressing the most—after an intensive course, for example. At times it will seem that your brain is too busy absorbing new information to be bothered with relaying it to your mouth. Fear not! The information is oozing in and assuring itself a place, and one day it will suddenly be available and act as if it had been there all along. So stick with it. The day will come.


Learning Tricks


Are there shortcuts for getting around the long months, even years, that are needed to reach a level of virtual fluency? In a word, no. But there are some specific teaching tools that can help. One surefire (and entertaining) way to boost comprehension and get a better "feel" for Spanish is by listening intently to songs in Spanish and writing out the lyrics as well as you can. The catchier the song, the better. A friend once learned an important usage of the subjunctive after prolonged, late-night exposure to Ruben Blades's song "Pedro Navaja," about a street tough who keeps las manos siempre en los bolsillos de su gabán, pa' que no sepan en cuál de ellos lleva el pu˜al ("his hands at all times in the pockets of his coat, so they don't know in which of them he's carrying the knife"). Try singing along with radio songs and jotting down the refrains. Learn to equate dance halls with lecture halls. Even if you don't learn much more Spanish, you'll have a lot more fun!


Another shortcut, applicable of course only in certain cases, is to turn your mind to a foreign-language romance. Just as a song can stick in your head for hours at a time, so can Mr. or Ms. Right. Arrange a date with a Spanish-speaking object-of-your-affections, and you'll be amazed how your brain works overtime, for hours and days ahead, thinking up cute and clever things to say at the appointed hour. It's really just an advanced mnemonic device, but a far more pleasant one than, say, word association.


In general—and you'll hear this repeatedly from your teachers and coaches, formal or otherwise—try to speak to as many people in Spanish as possible. While that sounds easy, the sad fact is that it's often awkward to speak to your fellow citizens in a foreign language, and from there it's a short jump to seeking out your paisanos wherever you happen to be and speaking with them in English almost exclusively.


The intellectual energy that goes into starting a conversation in a foreign language can be quite daunting, especially in the early stages. Still, it's worth the effort. Concentrate at first on short "conversations" (or extended greetings) and gradually lengthen them as you find people whom you feel comfortable speaking with (and are able to get away from when your vocabulary expires). When the temptation to chat with a fellow English speaker becomes too great, give in to it—but try to steer the conversation toward anecdotes about the language you are both probably trying to learn.


A useful "trick" to improve your pronunciation, which is handled in more detail in the next chapter, is to practice tonguetwisting words and phrases when you're off by yourself—in the shower, walking down the street, waiting for a bus, or on walks in the woods. Words like problema and refrigerador may require lengthy repetition before they agree to come out sounding more or less like they're supposed to. If in the process some people overhear you and look at you funny, don't worry. In most of the Spanish-speaking world, gringos are presumed to be a little daft almost by definition.


Finally, don't hesitate to ask others to speak slowly. No one expects you to understand rapid-fire Spanish in your first few months of learning it, yet many people speak that way out of habit and need to be reminded that you're comprehending at about one-fifth the rate they're speaking. A simple Más despacio, por favor (or ¿Puede hablar un poco más despacio, por favor?) will do wonders for your ability to understand and respond.


Slang And Cursing


Most language books tell you not to use either slang or "four-letter words" in Spanish. The reasoning is somewhat foolish: by using them in a way that will no doubt be incorrect at first, you are likely to make a fool of yourself. This is true, of course, but if you were worried about that, you would never have left the cozy confines of your native tongue in the first place. Certainly it should be no deterrent to trying your hand at this most lively and emotive aspect of Spanish.


In any case, most students ignore the advice and try to incorporate some slang phrases and even obscenities into their Spanish. They do so for many of the same reasons they do so in English: (a) a little invective can come in handy at times, if only to let off steam as you travel through fascinating but sometimes frustrating new cultures; (b) all your friends—in this case, your new Spanish-speaking acquaintances—are doing it; (c) talking tough can be fun; (d) talking like a schoolmarm all the time can relay an inaccurate image of one's personality; and (e) it can also get insufferably boring.


What the language books should tell you is to slip in a little slang, try out the occasional dirty word (if that's your inclination), and make a go of it. In this book, at the risk perhaps of offending some readers, I've tried to address the issues of using slang and cursing, pointing out what to watch for and when not to use certain expressions (usually far more relevant than when to use them). As with the language itself, there are definite traps to be avoided. The only difference is that in the world of groserías, the penalty for falling into a trap can be considerably more painful, up to and including lengthy hospital stays. That would seem to be reason enough to include a little advice on the subject.


Regional Differences


Wherever you go in the Spanish-speaking world, you will run into speech idiosyncrasies that show up in dialect, word choice, slang, and intonation. A Mexican in Chicago won't necessarily speak the same as one in Guadalajara or Veracruz, and none of them will speak the same as a Guatemalan or a Spaniard or an Argentine. No book can cover all of these variations, and every book contains a built-in bias toward one form or another. This book's bias is toward the Spanish of the Americas, although an effort has been made to call attention to expressions that are regional or that vary significantly from one place to the next. Added emphasis is assigned Mexican Spanish, since that is the Spanish most North Americans will hear—be it on vacation or in their own countries. Aside from a handful of words that are common in one place and considered risqué in another, most regional differences are more a matter of style than substance. In general, you'll be understood regardless. And as an obvious foreigner wherever you go, you'll almost always be humored—or forgiven, in the case of risqué words—for your word choice.


How I Came To Know The Territory


I chose the anecdote that begins this section for a very simple reason: it was my introduction, give or take a few details, to the Spanish-speaking world. When I said you were going to wonder how many weeks or months of speaking like a small, semiliterate child you could stand, I did so because that is exactly what I wondered on my first brusque introduction to the Spanish-speaking world.


Which leads to a confession of sorts. I was not born speaking Spanish, nor did I learn it in those absorptive first years of childhood. I learned it in a way that is at once the hard way and the easy way: talkmg to people, struggling to listen to their answers, and grasping constantly for understanding. It took me ten years to reach a level that I am still reluctant to call "fluency"—though friends, family, and colleagues who speak little or no Spanish are easily wowed by my prowess. Even kind-hearted native-speakers will tell me I have "no accent" or ask what Spanish-speaking country my "slight" accent hails from. But deep down I know better. I still make little mistakes—even frequently when tired or in a hurry—and my accent still seems to have good and bad days. I'm fluent enough for most purposes, but I know there's a next level, and I'm striving to get there.


This book is unusual because it was not written by a native speaker, much less a world-class expert on Spanish. Books that are written by these people are useful—indeed indispensable—because they shed light on the nuances of Spanish that foreigners only rarely manage to grasp. In fact, I used many of these books in preparing this one.


Instead, this book was written by someone whose Spanish was once halting and clumsy and, before that, simply nonexistent. I like to think that's what makes this book special and useful. I know about the frustrations of getting started in Spanish because I've been there. Many of the mistakes I warn against in this book are ones I'm familiar with because I made them. Many of the "trickster" words, discussed in Chapter 3, tricked me. The advice I give on how to learn a language, how to avoid pitfalls, and how to pronounce certain tongue twisters is something that worked for me. It may not work for everyone, but then again it may work for you. All I know is that if I wanted a guide through a minefield, I'd be inclined to choose someone who has made the trip before and not necessarily the person who drew the map. If this someone can also make the trip more fun and less frightening, then time's a-wasting! ¡Vamonos!