As an unapologetic language nerd, I love discovering new phrases, especially ones that don’t translate directly into English. It’s like a puzzle, figuring out where words originate, connecting words linguistically to other languages, unearthing a bit of history or culture behind a phrase. Spanish, the second-most spoken language in the world, is a particularly fascinating one to study, with influences from languages such as Latin and Arabic, imperial and regional history, the Catholic Church, and both Atlantic and Mediterranean coastal cultures.

Spanish around the world. Source: worldmapsonline.com


Working towards fluency is one of my biggest goals while in Spain, and although I’m nowhere near perfect, already in 5 weeks I’ve noticed major improvement in my language skills. A textbook will never adequately substitute immersion if you truly want to master a language. Think about it, how many Americans speak textbook-perfect English without regionalisms or colloquialisms? Sometimes things just don’t translate, but if you live the language, you begin to understand the context of phrases. In fact, more and more I find myself reacting in Spanish before I react in English.  Here are a few phrases I’ve picked up as I’ve tried to blend in with native speakers:

Vale-  If I were to make a list of the most common words I use on a daily basis, vale would be at the top. This is how the Spaniards say “okay.”  Technically, vale comes from the verb valer, to be worth. So it’s kind of like saying, “Okay, what you just said has value/meaning, I understood it.”

Venga-  The formal command for “come,” but that’s not what it means all the time. Actually, the Spaniards use the informal “you” much more now than in the past, so I was confused by this phrase at first, especially between friends or a parent to a child. Venga means “come on.” Interesting that both Spanish and English use the verb “to come” for a similar colloquialism.

Y ya está–  Literally, “and already it is,” which sounds strange in translation, y ya está means “and that’s it.”  My host sister was explaining to us how picky of an eater her niece is: “A ella le gustan spaghetti y arroz…y ya está.”  “She likes spaghetti and rice…and that’s it.”  (I’ve already told you, this is one carb-dominated place).

Merece la pena-  Literally, “It merits/deserves the pain.” This is how the Spanish say, “It’s worth it.”  I was surprised by this phrase because in school I always learned vale la pena, which is a more direct translation to “it’s worth the pain,” but in Spain at least, I have always heard it with merecer, to deserve or to merit.  You can use this phrase even if whatever is worth it doesn’t actually require painful sacrifice; it could just mean that it’s worth giving your time or attention to.

Madre mía de mi alma-  Best for last. Meaning, “Mother of my soul,” this phrase has become somewhat of a motto in my host home because our host mom, Puri, says this all. the. time. You can also shorten the phrase to Madre mía (without the “soul” part), but whenever Puri does this we finish it for her just for fun. It means “Oh, my God,” for instances of horror (for example, our host mom used it last night when we saw the earthquake in northern Spain on the news. She also uses it when we tell her we’re getting up early to explore or travel (“8 in the morning?! Madre mía de mi alma.”)  and instances of awe (like when you wake up in Morocco to the sun rising over the mountains outside your window). Don’t use this phrase in a Hallie Parker-Parent Trap­-Valley girl sense of “OhmyGod!” It just doesn’t sound right.  (P.S. My goal in life is to make as many Parent Trap references as humanly possible in daily life, because what else am I supposed to do when I can quote the entire movie verbatim?)

The interesting thing about Madre mía de mi alma is that I had always literally said, “Oh, my God” in Spanish, ay, Dios mio, yet I rarely hear this version in Sevilla. I asked my host mom about it, and she said that they’re synonymous and it’s fine to say either. But I think the fact that I hear references to “the Mother,” as in the Virgin Mary, more than to God himself reflects the strong Catholic tradition in Spain, especially in the more traditional southern region of Andalucía. In contrast, because I grew up in the US, where Protestantism dominates daily life, my mind would never automatically turn to Mary.

In addition to learning how to verbally communicate in a language, it is essential to also practice nonverbal communication skills. Thomas and Inkson define communication as a set of “codes—systems of signs in which each sign signifies a particular idea,” and “conventions—agreed-upon norms about how, when, and in what context codes will be used” (85-86). It’s not just what you say, but how you say it. A major shock to me was how direct and personal the Spanish are. As a shy introvert, I tend to keep my personal life among my close friends (and in my writing, but in published writing that is majorly self-censored).

So you can imagine how surprised I was the very first day in our host home when our host sister, whom I’d known for maybe an hour, asked us about our love lives and told us about her own boyfriend. I mean, I had figured we’d start by talking about school, where we’re from, siblings, hobbies, travel…something a little less intense. Guess not. During our first lunch in our host home, we watched a show similar to The Bachelor (I think that’s the closest US show, but this one had more guys? I don’t know, this type of show isn’t really my thing), and we talked about which guy on TV we found most appealing, interesting, etc.  (We’re a house full of 7 girls, what did you expect? If you’re rolling your eyes at that, don’t worry, I was too, haha).

This is when I made my first big communication blunder in Spain, both in terms of “codes” and “conventions.” A couple of the guys on the show were sort of dark/edgy-looking, black hair/clothes, tattoos, etc., and most people in our house weren’t really into that look. So I tried to be direct and personal like the Spanish. “Pues, me gustan los hombres malos,” I said, attempting to say that I like the dark and dangerous “bad boy” type.

This did not translate well. Language and context…they matter.

First, I’ve learned in school not to use me gusta for “I like” with people, because it literally means someone “gives you pleasure.” It just came out before I thought about that. I told my intercambio, conversation partner, this story, however, and she said that it’s fine to use it if you’re interested in dating someone or find someone attractive, just not for friends, family, etc. So me gusta Mr. Darcy is perfectly A-okay, for example. Well thank goodness for that, at least.

Second, I learned later that my host mom is divorced, so “bad” men had a very different connotation for each of us. She expressed concern for potentially abusive relationships, whereas I only intended “bad” to imply a certain style and certainly nothing about how a guy would treat me. My host sister said that instead of using malo, I could just describe the general style. It’s important to remember that direct, literal translation does not mean you are communicating the same idea in two languages. Aside: At this same time, I also got a lecture about why I shouldn’t get a tattoo unless I can cover it up easily, so that when (not if) I get sick of it “at least I won’t have to look at it all the time.” Madre mía de mi alma.

I can only imagine what she thought of her new host daughter.  Luckily, another great thing about Spanish directness is that they tend to speak their mind and quickly move on if the situation isn’t super important.  So Puri and I are amigas and enjoy talking just fine now (actually it’s great because now that I can understand her Spanish better I get to see how sassy she is). But it does go to show that learning a language isn’t just a matter of memorizing vocabulary and grammar rules. To truly communicate, understanding when and how to express yourself verbally and non-verbally is an absolute must.


Source: Thomas, David C. and Kerr Inkson. Cultural Intelligence: Living and Working Globally. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2009.

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