Tag Archives: spanish

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5 Tips on How to Learn Spanish before moving to Spain

Learning a foreign language from scratch, as an adult, is a very difficult thing to do, yet something that is fundamentally important if we are to successfully integrate into expat life.

The range of variables that determine how quickly and how well one learns a language is vast. Younger adults, who are recently graduated from University and better acquainted with the core idea of classroom learning, are generally a lot quicker and better placed to apply themselves; they are already well aware of their own, personal learning styles. Older learners – generally speaking – take time to adjust to the learning process and become used to modern teaching methods.

But there are steps we can take before taking that leap into full-on, foreign language immersion, in order to prepare ourselves as best we can.

One: Know your own language

grammar2 e1393902753742 5 Tips on How to Learn Spanish before moving to Spain

While it is not strictly necessary to know the grammatical theory behind our own tongue, it most certainly helps; anyone who doesn’t know the difference between a past simple and past participle verb form in English is going to have a hard time differentiating the same thing in Spanish. Ask yourself how much you know about English grammar, and if all you’ve got is that a noun is ‘a thing word’, a verb ‘a doing word’ and an adjective ‘a describing word’, then you probably need to hit the books before taking on another language.

Two: Buy an audio-learning CD box set

total spanishmt 5 Tips on How to Learn Spanish before moving to Spain

Michel Thomas Total Spanish for Beginners: Newest Edition

If the thought of revisiting the theory of English grammar scares or bores you stiff then there are alternatives. For instance, my first six weeks in Spain were aided considerably by a popular audio-learning CD box set called Michel Thomas Spanish for Beginners. The teaching method employed relies entirely on learner autonomy and speaking practice, deliberately avoiding grammatical terminology and confusing rubrics. Michel – whose life history is utterly compelling – breaks down the language into its component parts and focuses on language building, one chunk at a time.

Crucially, the CD features two other learners – one rather good and the other annoyingly bad – who, as your virtual classmates, are with you every step of the way. The obvious difference in their aptitude is doubtless intended, so as to give you a standard to aim for and another not to fall below, though it does not feel staged in such a way (I’d imagine there a few cases of trial and error before they get it right).

If you are attentive and committed enough (and able to put up with incessant gum clicking), the method works wonders for your confidence. However, until you immerse yourself within actual, real-life Spanish, there is only so far you can go. I would highly recommend the box set, which is available on Amazon for as little as £7, to anyone looking to get a head start on Spanish before moving to Spain, though learners who prefer visual aids may not find it as useful. The box set is also available in eleven other languages.

Three: Make some Spanish friends

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They’ll be easy to spot this summer

Spaniards are everywhere, especially given the current woeful economic climate in Spain, so if you haven’t already got some Spanish friends, you won’t need to look very far to find some. The easiest and most obvious way is to just ask around; one of your friends is bound to know someone. Even better if you’re at University; there’ll almost certainly be some sort of Spanish society where fellow students would love to teach you some basics of Spanish. Spaniards are very proud of their language and I find that they are especially enthusiastic about it when they are in a minority. This method is obviously useful for learning some naughty words and phrases to equip yourself with too.

Four: Buy a Pocket Dictionary

IMG 2988 5 Tips on How to Learn Spanish before moving to Spain

Collins Gem Pocket Spanish Dictionary

This is something I neglected to do before moving to Spain, and I regretted it big time. I now live in Granada, where there are plenty of libraries that stock decent, up-to-date dictionaries, but initially I lived in a much smaller town where I couldn’t find anything suitable. The ones I came across were always either too big to carry around, lacking contextualised examples or inadequately cross-referenced. I went home at Christmas and picked up a Collins Gem Pocket Spanish Dictionary for about £6. It made a huge difference, and it still lives in my backpack (which I take everywhere with me) to this day, all dusty and dog-eared.

Five: Watch Spanish films with English subtitles or vice-versa

amoresperros 5 Tips on How to Learn Spanish before moving to Spain

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros

It’s best to start by adding Spanish subtitles to any English-speaking film you want to watch. This can be annoying at first, but try not to let it be a distraction, rather an aid in helping you become cognizant of the similarities between written English and Spanish. This may even benefit you on a subconscious level.

The next step is to watch Spanish films with English subtitles, though again, don’t allow the Spanish to go over your head, focusing instead on what’s being said and what you’re reading. This will help your listening skills. I’d highly recommend La Mala Educación (Almodóvar),  Amores Perros, Y Tu Mamá También and The Motorcycle Diaries, though there really are hundreds of brilliant movies to choose from. Maybe work your way up to Almodóvar though; his stuff can be very peculiar.

Finally – if you’re feeling up to it – perhaps have a stab at watching a Spanish film with Spanish subtitles. If you can manage that then you really are miles ahead with your Spanish before you even arrive in Spain.


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Expat habits at home

As an expat, the business of settling back into ‘normal life’ back home  – whether on a temporary or permanent basis – can be rather problematic. Naturally, the longer you’ve been away the harder this process will be, and personally, I’ve never been out of Britain for longer than seven months (a Christmas elsewhere is unthinkable).

Even so, I feel as though after 3-4 years’ experience living abroad, despite the periodic homecomings in between, I’ve learned a thing or two about this business of ‘re-adapting’ yourself to life as it was.

In my last post, I discussed (with myself) the difficulties in accepting change at home, and trying to keep a hold of things so as to prevent total alienation. Today I’m going to keep it cheerful, by relaying you all with some of the unexpected and quietly amusing oddities I’ve encountered back home since I moved to Spain in 2010. Perhaps a few of you can relate!

One: Talking

‘Pleases’, ‘thank-yous’ and ‘sorrys’ are, needless to say, rather commonplace here in jolly old England. The other day at Victoria Station somebody rolled their suitcase over my toes as he crossed my path. I said ‘perdona’. Two things obviously wrong there: the first, that I shouldn’t have been the one apologising – but we Brits simply can’t help ourselves – secondly, I said it in Spanish, and this happens a lot. I couldn’t count how many times I’ve accidentally let slip a ‘gracias’ in a newsagent or a ‘por favor’ in a bar or restaurant.

Depending on how good your second language is, in my case Spanish, these language gaffes can also extend further into your English language repertoire. For instance, there have been occasions on which I’ve caught myself saying things like ‘It didn’t give me notice that…’ or ‘it costs me (to do something)’, arising from the grammatically dissimilar Spanish translations ‘no me di cuenta de que…’ and ‘me cuesta (hacer algo), meaning ‘I didn’t realise’ and ‘I find it difficult to…’ respectively. I have to say it’s a bit embarrassing when it happens; friends often cock an eyebrow and I suddenly realise my error. But it’s actually quite funny, and a sign that you’re at a good level.

Two: Eavesdropping

If your return home involves living or staying in a place where there are bound to be lots of foreigners who speak your second language, like London for example, you’ll quickly find that you rather helplessly begin to eavesdrop on their conversations. On the tube, train, bus or just when out and about, it’s impossible not to listen in the moment you hear that familiar tongue­ – especially when it is in an unfamiliar context. I keep thinking I’ll catch out a Spanish person slagging me off for no particular reason, but it hasn’t happened yet. Nor will it, of course.

On the downside you sometimes have to put up with inane chatter in English that you don’t want to listen to and, unlike when in Spanish, this cannot be blocked out quite so easily.

eavesdropping isnt just a modern day occurrencenbsp Expat habits at home

Three: Eating

Meal times are notoriously late in Spain, and if you’re an English teacher who works until 21.45 every weeknight then they tend to be even later. So when it comes to re-adjusting to regular, early evening (or late afternoon as it’s considered in Spain) meal times back home, you may find that you’re just not hungry enough to feast on your Mum’s signature shepherd’s pie, or the enormous portion of greasy fish ‘n’ chips that your Dad brought home as a special ‘welcome home son’ sort of gesture. Obviously you do eat it – you wouldn’t want to go upsetting dear old mum and dad now – but I’ve found this is harder to re-adjust to than the other way round.

3985934474 96569ac5dd o Expat habits at home

For all those who’ve never heard of Shepherd’s Pie, this is it. Mmmmmmm…… (Source) (mmmmmm…sauce)

Portion sizes are all back to front in Spain too. Breakfast, for most, tends to amount to nothing more than a slice of toast dripping with oil or mushed tomatoes, a piece of fruit, a glass of orange juice, a coffee or nothing at all. Lunch is the biggest meal of the day; some people can spend up to two hours preparing it and businesses regularly close for anywhere between 2-3 hours for lunch during the week. Dinner, in Granada at least, typically consists of either two or three tapas, an omelette, leftover lunch or just a quick something before bed – not our idea of teatime at all.

sp break Expat habits at home

Average Spanish Breakfast…

Four: Going out

Three years in Spain hardens your threshold for alcohol intake and your staying out power. The routine for a standard night out is more or less the same as anywhere else: pre-drinking at home, then maybe a bar or two before continuing on to a club. The timetable for these stages is, however, drastically different. I find that pre-drinking tends not to get underway until around 11-12 o’ clock and clubs don’t fill up before 2-3am. Thus, most nights out – if you’re hardcore enough to go the distance – last all night. And I mean all night. In fact, going home before 6am is generally considered bad form.

So when it comes to going out back home, wherever that may be, there is inevitably some difficulty in trying to slot back into the old routine. However, providing that you didn’t go overboard on the earlier-than-usual pre-drinking, your friends will be mightily impressed with your newly developed partying stamina. Just remember one thing though – there’s no churros con chocolate waiting for you at the end of the night back home… (sad face)

late oclock1 Expat habits at home

Late night o’ clock!

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Spanish Breakfast

img 0420 copy Spanish Breakfast

A Spanish Breakfast (my version anyway)

This is what I make for breakfast most mornings. It looks time-consuming but after four or five gos you get surprisingly good at it. These days it takes me about fifteen minutes to have it all laid out and ready to eat on my terrace. It’s delicious:

Grated tomato, garlic and oil, with bakery-fresh bread and manchego cheese for dipping, and fresh fruit and freshly squeezed orange juice to boot.

I’m not entirely sure what constitutes the classic Spanish breakfast but I’m guessing this comes pretty close.

Where are you in the world and what’s your country’s typical morning meal? Maybe you’d like to post your own picture to your blog and link back to this post? Just a thought… J

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Mistakes. And why they should be cherished.

We all make them. We all wince with embarrassment the moment one inadvertently escapes our lips, or as we gradually fathom in the aftermath of making one just why exactly asking for a ‘coño de chocolate’ from an ice-cream vendor is so funny to everybody else standing in line. We curse ourselves afterwards, and spend the next few seconds muttering under our breath what we should have said in a slightly deranged and neurotic way, until we get it right.

“Idiot. Stupid, feckless idiot. How can you get that wrong? UN CONO. UN CONO for god’s sake!”

This clanger was indeed one of my own, back in my early, early days in El Puerto de Santa María. If you speak a little Spanish, then you’ll probably have already pictured the scene quite accurately. If you don’t, then let’s just say that I picked a highly inappropriate moment, and establishment for that matter, to request a female sex organ of a darker variety. Yeah. Now you probably get the gist of it. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I then went on to say

“Estoy tan embarazado”

This was neither the right word nor an actual word, as embarazada is exclusively feminine (notice the final ‘a’) and, contrary to logical translation, actually means ‘pregnant’ ­– not ‘embarrassed’. So not only had I asked for a chocolate-covered youknowwhat but I’d also declared that I was prenatal afterwards. The latter of these, as I have recently come to learn, is not an uncommon mistake. Take this unlucky chap for instance. And Fiona, of Scribbler in Seville knows only too well the resulting agony of such blunders.

mistake2 Mistakes. And why they should be cherished.

But once you’ve made a fair amount of them, the pregnancy embarrassment starts to wear off a bit. In fact, with a little time, mistakes actually become the best reference points for learning a language, whether hilarious or not. If the making of them is contextualized and dealt with appropriately, then the chances are that that mistake, if corrected, will never be forgotten, nor repeated.

mistakes Mistakes. And why they should be cherished.

This is a mindset I encourage in my students on an almost daily basis. Most of them don’t quite get it yet, but then making a mistake in a classroom filled with intently listening strangers is a very different matter. Adults, unsurprisingly, get the most hung up about it – nobody wants to look a fool. Kids, on the other hand, couldn’t give less of a shit. And I love it. Evidently, they love it too.

“Profe, profe! Puedo ir al baño por favor!?” pleads one as he wiggles before me, his crotch grasped by both hands.

“In English please.”

“Can I borrow your toilet please?”

I sigh.


Two nearby girls overhear and burst into fits of giggles, before summoning the strength to repeat the error to the rest of the class, who then join in with the giggling. The perpetrator has long since departed, but upon his return is met with yet another wild outburst of laughter, which I unsuccessfully attempt to put a stop to, for fear of having to deal with a crying child (not one of my strong points as a teacher).

So you can imagine my delight when the child, upon realising his error, laughs instead of cries. Actually, he laughs more than anybody, and goes on to repeat the mistake over and over again. This pleases the others, and “Can I borrow your toilet please?” has now become something of a running joke, which I have given up correcting.

I realised after several tries that there was just no point. They were going to say it no matter what, purely to get a reaction out of their classmates. But that’s absolutely fine by me, because now everyone knows why it’s funny, and what the actual sentence should be. There’s no need for correction, because the mistake was contextualized and subsequently remembered by not just one student, but the whole class. Even if it has now become the most irritating thing in the world.

If you’re a language learner, do you find that making mistakes is the best way to learn? If not, what is?

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How to (sort of) have an argument with your penny-pinching landlady whilst maintaining a decent and proper gentlemanly manner…in Spanish.

Silly title isn’t it. Long, wordy and totally ignorant of that thing they call SEO. If I were a sensible blogger then I imagine I’d have probably gone for ‘How to use ‘usted’ in Spanish’, as this is in essence, the gristly meat and marrow of what I’m about to regale you with. But then that would be tantamount to false advertising, or just pure and simple deceptiveness – for I am no expert on the matter. I am but a mere specimen, raconteur and passer-on of my valuably learnt lessons. At least I am when I decide it’s high time I rambled on about how to do something in Spanish again.

Yes, this time I thought it necessary to enlighten anybody who cares enough to listen about my woes with the infinitely problematic (for me at any rate) formal tongue of Spanish: ‘Usted’. I very rarely have to use it. In fact, I’d never had to use it until I suddenly found myself facing the inevitability of having to contend with my brusque and blinkered landlady on the subject of unreturned deposits.

I didn’t have to use it, but I wanted to ­– it was an element of Spanish I had until then avoided, due by and large to an overall lack of opportunity. As a señora*, Conchi (her name) could reasonably expect to be addressed as one, which meant the shifting from regular Castellano to this, foreign, guiri-trying, genteel version. Essentially, any verb I conjugated which directly referenced her had to change from the regular second person form, for example ‘¿Como estás?’ to what would normally be the regular third person form, for example ‘¿Como está?’ Along with this omitted ‘s’ it is also necessary to insert ‘usted’ after the main verb and substitute ‘te’ for ‘se’ in a reflexive verb structure such as ‘¿porque se enoja?’ (why are you getting angry?) as opposed to ‘¿porque te enojas?’**.

After only having recently and properly got to grips with normal verb conjugation, I must admit that the task did seem rather daunting. I would, nonetheless, endeavour to do my best, not just because I wanted to practice using ‘usted’, but also in owing to the fact that I was a young English fellow eager to stamp certitude on the myth of impeccable British manners what what?

Before I disclose to you the rather sketchy dialogue of that haunting experience, perhaps illuming you with a word or two on the landlady who to her credit made this post possible wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

Throughout my first year in Granada, I steered well clear of the woman, leaving the terrifying exchanges to my female Spanish housemates, who would spend half an hour mentally preparing for the ordeal pre-arrival, only to be rendered flattened, figuratively disemboweled and scared beyond their wits post-arrival. When we had wanted to change a light bulb, for instance, but were unable to find another that matched the busted and wire-exposed deathtrap sprouting from our corridor ceiling, we were shouted at and told to stop being so lazy; we weren’t looking hard enough.

We searched high and low, chino por chino, and nary a fitting light bulb was found. We doggedly explained the futility of the situation and that the electrician whom she had had wire the place up must surely have known one’s whereabouts. But still, nothing. Eventually, we gave up and lived without light. Then one day, untrue to form, I absent-mindedly wandered down the pitch-black corridor, assuming one foot was being placed directly in front of the other, when I met with a protruding section of wall in a most abrupt and untimely manner. Blood literally gushed from my eyebrow and I had to pay a visit to A&E. Next day, when I rang Conchi to give her a piece of my now dented mind, I was, rather than grovelingly apologised to, politely reminded that it had been my responsibility to find a replacement in the first place. I was shell-shocked and incensed. Yet words deserted me. Instead I hung up, and hoped that I would never have to deal with the vile scorpion woman again.

Fast-forward six months and I’m the only one left in the flat. The Spanish girls have gone, and so too have the Frenchman and Italian Erasmus student. The latter had been the second-to-last to leave, and he did so without paying his last month’s rent. This left me in a rather sticky situation, as I had already paid my last month’s rent and was owed my deposit. Naturally, I was furious with him for leaving me in the lurch and facing the prospect of losing €220. Conchi, rather predictably, didn’t take the news well either, as she had neither the bank details nor phone number to debit the money/contact him with – we had always paid cash in hand. She did, however, assure me that his not paying would not affect the safe and full return of my deposit. This was a highly dubious promise and one that I fully anticipated to be broken.

Fast-forward another three months and the missing rent had still not been paid. And unsurprisingly, neither had my deposit. I called her from my mobile. No reply. I called her again. Nothing. Again, this time from a friend’s phone:

Conchi: Dime.

Me: Hola señora Conchi soy Josh. ¿Como estás? Digo ‘está’, perdona.

Conchi: ¿Que?

Me: Nada, lo sien-

Conchi: -Dime. ¿Que quiere?

Me: Si. Erm… me gustaría saber porque no me ha devuelto la fianza del año pasado. Me dijiste – digo ‘dije’, perdona ‘dijo’ – usted que iba a hacerlo incluso si no pagaba Fabio su alquiler. Y no me ha contestado cuando he intentado llamarte – perdona ‘le’ – digo ‘la’.

Conchi: ¿Como?

Me: Perdone señora Conchi, quizas no he estado cla-

Conchi: ¡E’cuchame! ¡Dile a Fabio que tiene que pagarme el alquiler de Junio! ¡Si no lo paga no puedo devolverte nada!

Me: Si, Conchi le he dicho pero no puedo hacer más, y tu – perdona ‘usted’ – me dij-

Conchi: -¡E’cuchame! ¡Dile al Fabio que tiene que pagarme el alquiler de Junio!

Me: Señora Conchi como te – perdona ‘usted’, digo ‘le’ – he dicho ya, he hecho todo lo que puedo-

Conchi: -¡Dile al Fabio que tiene que pagarme el alquiler de Junio y ya está.

Me: Pero-

usted2 How to (sort of) have an argument with your penny pinching landlady whilst maintaining a decent and proper gentlemanly manner…in Spanish.

‘If you love a woman, leave her to drink by herself. If she calls you when drunk she’s all yours – if she turns off her phone, she never was yours’ Source


Conchi: Tell me.

Me: Hello Mrs. Conchi it’s Josh, how are you? I mean ‘how are you?’ (formal) Sorry.

Conchi: What?

Me: Nothing, I’m sor-

Conchi: -Tell me. What do you want?

Me: Yes. I’d like to know why you haven’t paid back my deposit from last year. You told me – I mean ‘I told me’, sorry ‘you told me’ (formal) – that you were going to do it even if Fabio didn’t pay his rent. And you haven’t answered me when I’ve tried to call you – sorry ‘you’ (formal).

Conchi: What?

Me: Sorry Mrs. Conchi, maybe I haven’t been cle-

Conchi: -Listen to me! Tell Fabio that he has to pay June’s rent! If he doesn’t pay it I can’t give you anything back!

Me: Yes Conchi I’ve told him but I can’t do any more, and you – sorry ‘you’ (formal) – told me th-

Conchi: -Listen to me! Tell Fabio that he has to pay June’s rent!

Me: Mrs. Conchi as I have told you– sorry ‘you’ (formal) – already, I’ve done everything that I can-

Conchi: -Listen to me! Tell Fabio that he has to pay June’s rent and that’s the end of it.

Me: But-

She hung up. Just as well really– my (almost) impeccable British manners were wearing pretty thin after a mere two-minute exchange, though I could see her point, even if she had lied to me. All things said and done it was probably time to cut my losses, but not before one last dashed attempt at convincing Fabio to pay up. I did so via Facebook and heard nothing for weeks. Then, miraculously, a message appeared in my inbox that read:

‘Hola Josh, I paid Conchi the deposit two weeks ago and asked her to let you know. I hope she has done it. Fabio.’

She bloody well hadn’t done it. Enraged, I grabbed my mobile and called her. No reply, obviously. Again from a friend’s phone:

Conchi: Dime.

Me: Hola Conchi soy Josh. Acabo de hablar con Fabio y- (I’ve just spoken to Fabio and-)

She hung up. And that was the last time we ever spoke – I was past caring after trying to contact her for several weeks following that. It was over, and while she may have robbed me of my money, I could take solace in the fact that my manners had stayed well intact. And in some ways that’s a victory. In some ways.

*the actual crossover point from señorita to señora is a blurry one and can often lead to impromptu looks of horror and outrage/bumbling awkward apologies, but more on that another time

**there is no doubt, a whole lot more to it than that but as I said – I am no expert. I only know and use that much!

When do you use ‘usted’ if you speak Spanish? Do you find it easy to shift into it? Have you ever encountered a similarly horrid landlady or had trouble with claiming back deposits?

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