Tag Archives: Spanish practice

Three Spanish Phrases That Don’t Translate Easily

Cultural differences make it easy for idioms to be easily lost in translation. If you’ve never heard a phrase you didn’t understand in the middle of a Spanish conversation, and you’re a Spanish language learner, then it really shouldn’t be long till you’ll have the chance to feel a bit puzzled. You’ll wonder how it is that a culture can put what seems like the simplest of words into the silliest of contexts. Once you get a chance to digest their meaning, however, you’ll probably want to use them in your regular Spanish conversations whenever you get the chance. And the fact is, there are many common Spanish phrases that don’t translate well into English – you’ll have some fun just becoming acquainted with them. Here are three to get you started.

  1. ¡Aguas! (This is not very common in Spain, but it is in some places in Latin America.)
spanish expressions you may find in a conversation
flickr photo shared by Juanedc under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

One of these days you may be walking somewhere, or carrying a little too many things, and all of a sudden you’ll hear someone in Spanish saying ¡aguas con eso! (waters with that!). You might halt your steps and look around, wondering what in the world that Spanish speaker is talking about. But if you just stop to take a good look at your immediate situation, you’ll actually be doing exactly what you need to do. ¡Aguas! is a warning that there is an accident waiting to happen or that there is something that needs to be avoided. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there are waters gushing out at you, about to knock you over, but it is a phrase that would be appropriately used in situations that have any semblance to a startling moment (such as right before someone is about to step into an unseen puddle!). Another way to imagine this phrase is to think of someone who is about to throw out a bucket of bath water – you would surely want to get out of the way! If someone uses this phrase with you, be quick to react and set things straight for yourself.

  1. ¡Por si las moscas!

Aside from ¡aguas!, though, another good phrase for anticipating accidents is ¡por si las moscas! (for in the case of flies!). If you hear those words, you might ask, “Flies? What flies?” The thing is, the phrase isn’t just about flies. The word illustrates the emotional context for a what-if that can catch you off-guard. It can be irritating to all of a sudden deal with a bunch of flies and not have the appropriate tools to shoo them away (or whatnot), so this phrase is best used when doing things that help avoid being unprepared. It is like saying, “Just in case!” It may also act as the equivalent of “knock on wood,” especially if the speaker accompanies it by making the sign of the cross.

  1. ¡No te hagas bolas!

As with the last phrase (which addresses the what-ifs), there are other phrases that deal with anticipation. One in particular tries to redirect the thinking of the person being addressed. If you hear ¡no te hagas bolas! (don’t make yourself balls), you might ask how anyone could make themselves into balls. In Spanish, someone would explain that this means to not revolve (mix-up) your mind. It is a way of saying that you shouldn’t get yourself caught up thinking about something in a useless manner. In other words, don’t confuse yourself! Ways to make yourself into balls would include having unreasonable expectations and assumptions, or getting your hopes up about something that is not going to materialize. It is like saying “don’t complicate things!” or “don’t fool yourself!”

Hopefully these three phrases spark your interest into learning the creative ways in which Spanish can be used to express oneself. By learning common Spanish phrases that don’t translate as easily as others, you can immerse yourself more fully within a Spanish conversation and even enjoy a knowing smile with a fluent speaker. No te hagas bolas if you don’t get a phrase right away. Have fun while you learn and enjoy those little confusing moments that help you get that much closer to your fluency goal.

Spanish Websites for Spanish Practice

Sometimes it’s hard to fit the right amount of Spanish practice into your schedule, even when you really need it. Maybe you don’t have a fluent Spanish speaker to talk to, or you can’t seem to get good access to a Spanish language radio station. Whatever the reason, the Internet is one of your best resources for darn near everything! If you have a smart phone, tablet, or an eReader (or even an advanced music player) with Internet access, you already have what you need to make those little breaks in your day your Spanish language time. Whatever your interests may be, you should look for topics in your target language that are actually written for a native speaking audience.

Let’s see some websites to practice Spanish reading

A good site for this type of practice is Wikipedia en español. You’ll have, at the click of a button, more than a million publicly-managed articles on any topic! You can follow the link and look at the Spanish version of any Wikipedia entry, while always having the ability to switch to the English version whenever you want (except for when it comes to those rare untranslated articles). This means that you’ll not only be able to practice reading Spanish content, but you’ll also be able to check your reading comprehension. Here is a tip to get more out of each article: click the Discusión tab to see any discussions by Spanish speakers who are editing the entry you are currently reading. Who knows, you may even find yourself participating one day! Looking back at the front portal, you will find featured articles and a listing of current events; you can keep abreast of what is going on in the world and get in some Spanish practice at the same time!

There is another Spanish language website, an encyclopedia of sorts, which focuses on biographical content. It is called Biografias y Vidas (Biographies and Lives), and it will allow you to look up the stories behind the names of very well-known people. It is written by a group of Spanish people and a few freelancers. It has a Monografías (Monographs) section, which has a whole list of key-figures who have impacted the history of Mankind. It also has a Reportajes (Reports) section, which gives the biography, chronology, record of achievements, photos, and videos of famous contemporaries (like the soccer player David Beckham, the author J.K. Rowling, and the singer Britney Spears!).

If you are interested in geography and nature, another good website for Spanish practice would be National Geographic en Español. National Geographic is widely known for its beautiful scenery photographs, but it has been expanding its content and reach. Those people who are not up-to-date on National Geographic content may be pleasantly surprised to even find @RevistaNatGeo on Twitter and Facebook. Its Spanish language website is separated into six different categories, as follows: (1) Traveler; (2) Naturaleza (Nature); (3) El Mundo (The World); (4) Ciencia (Science); (5) Fotografia (Photography); and (6) Video. The Traveler section has the most subcategories, what with Technología (Technology), Lugares (Places), Gastronomía (Gastronomy), Tips, Blog, and Fotogalerias (Photogalleries) all clickable from a drop-down link. You can let your mind soak up all the vibrant colors while getting in a little language practice, too.

Lastly, it is said that one is never too young (or young at heart!) to learn. Depending on one’s language comprehension level, it may also help to look at a country-specific Spanish website, that is, a Spanish website in the Spanish language, directed at children. One such page is called Cuentos y leyendas ilustrados por niños (Stories and legends illustrated by children). The story illustrations were created by around 78 Spanish speaking children, with the help of Spain’s Ministry of Education, Culture, and Sports. The website is broken up into three reading sections (just don’t mind the target age for each level!). Regardless of the level that you choose, there will be several story selections – each will have a dramatic retelling of the story in video form, along with an illustrated version and an interactive activity. There will also be hands-on activities that you may print out.

Going to these sites and practicing your Spanish reading skills for at least fifteen minutes a day will allow you to get a good sense of the little nuances that Spanish may have (when compared with English). If you can print whatever you are interested in (especially as a digital file!), you may save these pages for on-the-go reading. Do what you can, when you can, and you’ll surely be on your way to better fluency.

Common Nonnative Mistakes for Writing in Spanish

At times, writing in Spanish to practice it can be frustrating because the mechanics, nuances, and terms of Spanish language do not translate perfectly to your own native language. Therefore, even learners with a high level of proficiency may still find themselves making nonnative mistakes in their writing after years of practice.

The influence of your native language on the acquisition of a second language is known as language transfer, and this influence can be either positive or negative depending on the similarities between the two languages. Although experience is the most beneficial way to avoid making second language writing mistakes, it can also be helpful to make yourself aware of the most common writing errors that individuals with your native language tend to make when learning a particular second language.

For native English speakers acquiring Spanish, one of the most frequent and noticeable types of errors is making a word order mistake. In both English and Spanish, the basic word order consists of the subject, followed by the verb, followed by the object. In sentences that have this simple structure, the transfer of English to Spanish is actually beneficial because the word order is reinforced in both languages. On the other hand, there are notable differences in the word order of the languages when we get to more complicated structures. For example, in English, the adjective precedes the noun, as in ‘the white cat.’ In Spanish, however, the adjective follows the noun, as in ‘el gato blanco.’ These types of writing errors are easy to make because the learner must think about the language in a manner that is structurally different from how he or she is used to thinking in the native language.

Additionally, another common error for English speakers learning Spanish is the failure to apply the properties of grammatical gender. Spanish has two genders: masculine and feminine. These genders are referred to as ‘grammatical’ in nature when they do not refer to the sex of a living being. For example, the word ‘casa,’ meaning ‘home,’ is a feminine noun in Spanish. The assignment of the feminine gender is completely arbitrary; thus, it is difficult for the nonnative speaker to acquire. When writing, the Spanish learner must not only remember the gender of each noun, but must also be sure to assign the appropriate gender to the article and adjective within the same phrase as the noun. If we want to write ‘the red house,’ in Spanish, we would have to write, ‘la casa roja.’ Each word in this phrase has the –a ending, which is common for feminine words in Spanish.

To make things even more complicated, the rules for marking words as either singular or plural also differ between the two languages. In English, the writer must be sure that the subject and the verb match in number, as in ‘the girl walks’ versus ‘the girls walk.’ When writing in Spanish, it is important to remember that the article, noun, verb, and adjective must match in number, as in ‘la chica camina’ versus ‘las chicas caminan.’ Luckily, the rules for making items plural in Spanish are fairly regular, so this is something that will likely become easier over time.