The 2 Most Useful Spanish Phrases I Love to Use

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The 2 Most Useful Spanish Phrases I Love to Use

For those of you who are regular followers of this site, you know that I’ve continued to improve my Spanish-speaking skills since moving to Panama in 2019. That said, some Spanish phrases are more useful than others.

Sure, it’s great to know common expressions such as:

Buenos días (Good morning)

¿Cómo estás? (How are you?)

¿Hablas inglés? (Do you speak English?)

Disculpe/Permiso (Excuse me – disculpe to ask a question and permiso to pass by someone)

Terminology like these examples can help make for some nice words to use in passing. But when you’re trying to have a conversation with someone in a store, a restaurant, or anywhere else, you usually need a little something more.

Unfortunately, most of the ex-pats here in Panama aren’t fluent in Spanish. I’ve been doing really well over the past few years learning the language, but I still struggle in a full conversation.

However, in my efforts to become more versed in the language, I want to tell you what I consider to be the two most useful Spanish phrases I love to use in conversations.

The two most useful Spanish phrases

Ladies and gentlemen, now for the moment that’s brought you here today. Here are what I consider to be the most useful Spanish phrases:

  • Mi español no es muy bueno, pero…
  • ¿Cómo se dice en español?

It’s as simple as that, my friends. If you know those two Spanish phrases, you’re going to have a much easier time speaking to others who only speak Spanish.

Perfect… have a great day and thanks for stopping by!

Oh, you want a little more info on this? Sure – no problem!

Mi español no es muy bueno, pero… means “My Spanish is not very good, but…” (Google Translate link)

¿Cómo se dice en español? roughly means “How do you say it in Spanish?” (Google Translate link)

I added the Google Translate links so you can click through and listen to how to pronounce the Spanish phrases as well.

Now, let’s talk about why these Spanish phrases are so advantageous.

Why are these Spanish phrases so useful?

Assuming you’re not fluent in Spanish, the two Spanish phrases (Mi español no es muy bueno, pero… and ¿Cómo se dice en español?) do two important things in a conversation:

  1. They open up the door to signify that you’re trying. It lets the person know that you’re not like “all the other gringos” in that you’re learning. People love to help others who want to learn.
  2. It generally slows the other person down a little.

When you use common phrases that we talked about earlier such as “Buenos días” or “¿Cómo estás?”, you’re helping yourself feel better because you feel like you fit in a little more. General greetings help you be more polite and when you get a “Buenos días” back or maybe a “Muy bien, gracias”, you want to give yourself a little pat on the back.

While this is nice and something you should be doing, you’re not presenting anything worthwhile to the conversation. And let’s say you’re at a market and fire off a “¿Cómo estás?” and the person replies with…

¡Muy bien gracias! Hoy es un hermoso día. ¿Necesitas ayuda para encontrar algo?

You’re probably going to curl up into a ball on the ground and start crying because you have no idea what they said.

Most folks I know here in Boquete would then just say “no comprendo” (“I don’t understand”) and the conversation would suddenly end before it even went anywhere. That’s just throwing your hands up in the air and saying “I give up” which is frustrating for everyone.

As a side note, although ex-pats tend to use the expression “no comprendo”, it’s more common with Spanish speakers (at least in Central America) to say “no entiendo.” Just shifting to that usage alone gives you a couple of extra points!

Example #1

Let’s say that instead of being an ex-pat drone, you decide to step out of your comfort zone slightly. Rewind to our earlier conversation and see how this would change with one of our useful Spanish phrases…

You: ¿Cómo estás?
[How are you?]

Local Spanish speaker: ¡Muy bien gracias! Hoy es un hermoso día. ¿Necesitas ayuda para encontrar algo?
[Very well, thanks! It’s a beautiful day today. Do you need help finding anything?]

You (with a smile): Lo siento… mi español no es muy bueno, pero tienes piñas?
[Sorry … my Spanish is not very good, but do you have pineapples?]

Now, you’re not going to be winning any awards for being fluent in Spanish. However, you’ve essentially just let the other person know up front where you’re at in learning the language but you’re also not shutting things down either. You’ve continued the conversation, which is extremely important.

A few of the other words from your side you might not have known how to say, but you could have looked those up previously with Google Translate.

At this point, the person will probably smile back at you and help you find the pineapples. Hopefully, they won’t try to speak too fast in responding and they’re usually very helpful with that lead-in we gave.

And yes, you can ding me on using the informal dialect instead of the more formal “ustedes” in the conversation. But, I’ll tell you what – no one’s going to scold you for that in your day-to-day errands.

This was just a very simple example, but I use the “mi español no es muy bueno, pero” expression regularly. When used with a smile, it’s become a great way to make for smoother conversations.

Example #2

Ok, hopefully, you were able to see how “mi español no es muy bueno, pero” can pave the way for showing that you’re not fluent but you are trying. What about the other of my most useful Spanish phrases?

¿Cómo se dice en español?

This one can work in two different ways.

The “un poquito” person…

Sometimes I’m talking to a Spanish-speaking person who also speaks some English. I might ask if they speak English (¿Tú hablas inglés?) and many times the response will be “un poquito” (a little).

In that case, I like to pick his or her brain as we’re talking. This is a chance to learn new words or phrases and in the dialect of the region that you’re in.

So while we’re talking in a mix of Spanish and English, I might say something like, ¿Cómo se dice “gym” en español? That means “How do you say ‘gym’ in Spanish?”

They would reply “gimnasio.” I’m usually asking for more complicated words or phrases, but I hope this conveys the point.

As you start to get to know people, they know that you want to learn more and tend to continue to help. Sometimes it’s a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” as they want to learn English as well. That’s a win-win!

The “no halbo inglés” person…

Many times the person you want to talk to will only speak Spanish. That means our communication is usually through a mix of me stumbling with some broken Spanish, using a bunch of gestures and pointing, and sometimes using Google Translate.

That’s when I like to take things a little further. Let’s say I ordered something at a restaurant and they brought over an unusual side, for instance. I might ask, ¿Cómo se dice en español? (“How do you say it in Spanish?”), usually while pointing to it. He or she will then tell you what it is. It’s as simple as that!

This is a good time to learn a word or phrase you didn’t know before. It’s a fantastic way to build your vocabulary even more.

This is why these are two of my favorite Spanish phrases to use regularly. While living in Panama, we have a great opportunity to have real conversations with Spanish speakers and learn more interactively with others… we just need to actually do that.

If Panama’s on your radar as a possible place to retire to, check out Retire in Panama Tours. It’s a first-rate way to see different parts of the country, learn about the pros and the cons of living here, meet other ex-pats living here, and gain a lot of the right resources to make the transition easier (immigration attorneys, for example).

Oscar, Rod, and Megan are great people, too. They have the knowledge to guide you through Panama, answer your questions, and ensure that Panama’s the right place for you. Check out Retire in Panama Tours for more info!

If you’re learning Spanish and have plans to visit a Spanish-speaking country, use these Spanish phrases. You’ll learn some new words and phrases and might make some friends in the process!

In all reality, I’m just trying to get ahead of my friend Lief at Physician on FIRE. In August, he posted that he had a 660-day streak going on Duolingo. That would put him at around 754 days in a row as of today.

What the what?! I only have a 692-day streak going! Come on, man – I can’t let him show me up… I live in Panama for Pete’s sake! I just need him to lose internet access for a few days or something. 😉

Gracias amigos … ¡hasta luego!

Plan well, take action, and live your best life!

Thanks for reading!!

— Jim

You know you wanna share this!!

18 thoughts on “The 2 Most Useful Spanish Phrases I Love to Use”

  1. Richard Engelhardt

    The only two thing I can say in German are the two most important things.

    Ein bier bitte…
    Wo ist das bad.

    one more beer and where is the bathroom… 😀

  2. I could totally relate to that “frozen” feeling when someone responds to “How are you doing?” with a long sentence in a language you don’t understand. I used to always say “Como Se Va” (no idea how to spell it, but that’s the phonetic spelling for “How ya doing?” in French Quebec). They’d answer, and I’d freeze.

    Glad I’m not the only one.

    So, now I’m curious, how are you going to keep that Spanish up once you move back Stateside?

    1. Haha, goes back to that old saying, “never ask questions you don’t want to know the answers to!” 🙂

      That’s basically the same saying in Spanish (“Cómo se va?” or “Cómo te va?”). That translates roughly to “how’s it going?”. I like to use that sometimes with the security guards at our entrance. We pass by them so often (sometimes several times a day) that I try to change it up.

      Yeah, moving back to the U.S. will make it a little harder to use the Spanish on a day-to-day basis. Wait, don’t they speak Spanish at Taco Bell? 😉 I do plan to keep going with Duolingo and maybe some other courses. We also plan for Faith to do the same since knowing a second language can be a big advantage later in life. That said, I guess we’ll see how it goes without having others to use the language with regularly… maybe some regular Central America/Mexico are in order all in the name of education!

      1. Just an idea…. You could help teach ESL (English as a Second Language) classes back in the states! Depending on where you live, there could be volunteer gigs to help immigrants learn English. Having knowledge and experience speaking Spanish is a huge help to those who only know Spanish, as sometimes you need to translate. A teacher practicing Spanish also helps the students open up to learn English. It can be very satisfying to help others learn and feel welcome in our country!

        1. That’s a fun idea, Kelly – I just don’t think I’m there yet on my Spanish skills. Assuming I keep going at this and become a little better, that could be a pretty rewarding gig to do. Gracias por la idea! 🙂

    1. I can’t argue that those aren’t very important phrases to know! If you’re not looking to get to talk to or know anyone else, that might be enough… maybe add “la cuenta, por favor” for when you’re ready to leave.

  3. Estoy de acuerda que hablar un poco va a abrir la puerta a la amistad. It even worked for me as an anglophone in Quebec when separatism was at its height. Although this West Coaster’s lack of interest in buying the purse to match the shoes did flummox the far more stylish locals.

  4. That’s cool that you are thoughtful that way, Jim. I think too many expats make no effort just because they can get away without making much effort. As a consequence, they both miss out on a lot of the cultural experiences that comes with living abroad (that goes far beyond language, but for which language is required) and unfortunately make Americans appear a bit entitled.
    Your two simple phrases do go a long way in my experience.
    Good luck with continuing your Spanish!

    1. You said it, Steve! In a way, it can sometimes be a little sad. Besides the entitlement, folks just don’t realize how much they’re missing out on. We’ve made a wonderful friend in one of the markets. Between her little bit of broken English and my broken Spanish, we have so many laughs talking to each other when we get together. That would never have happened if we didn’t try to say anything more than “buenos días” and “cómo estás?”.

  5. Jim Cramer from CNBC recently interviewed the CEO of Duolingo on his Mad Money program. The CEO said that Duolingo uses artificial intelligence (AI) to customize the learning experience to maximize results for every student. Duolingo tries to make learning fun, while placing emphasis on the student’s areas of weakness. He said they have a free version with ads and a paid version. I was wondering which version of the program you are using? Living in Texas, I think I could benefit from learning conversational Spanish. I took three years of Spanish at the Univ. of Colorado, which allows me to watch Spanish TV channels with about 75 percent comprehension, but I still can’t converse with native speakers.

    1. Unlike many other freemium apps, the free version of Duolingo is wonderful. That’s what I’ve been using for the past few years (along with several other apps and courses) and it’s been great as is. That said, there are some great features such as offline access that come with the pay-for version that could be extremely important for some folks. My opinion – try it out and see if you find it helpful – it’s free. If you really like it and decide to pay for the additional features later, you can do that at any time.

    1. Haha, yes, I use that one quite a bit as well and I’m in the same boat of only being able to recognize a few words once they say it again. I might add that it seems they always repeat the sentence at the same speed regardless! ?

  6. Those are great. I really need to brush up on my Spanish before taking a trip south.
    That’s a few years off so I have plenty of time. Fortunately, Mrs. RB40 can understand and speaks a little bit. She can be the lead when we go.
    Have a great holiday!

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