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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:
- 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.
- 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!
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.
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!!