I posted on Twitter the other day, and figured I could expand the idea in a post.
Excuse the language...sometimes I get a little excited.
But the point still stands.
You see, learning conversational Spanish is only the half the battle - you also have to be able to handle yourself in social situations while in Latin America.
This is an entirely different beast - it requires perception, and a tuned understanding of social dynamics. Not the easiest thing to develop when you're operating in a foreign country and culture.
After a lot of observing, a bit of screwing up and a lot of practice, I learned how to handle myself correctly in a handful of difficult social situations in Latin America, despite not knowing much Spanish.
Here are 5 social situations you're likely to encounter and how to handle them.
Let's get it going.
5 Social Situations in Spanish And How To Handle Them
Situation #1: When everyone is speaking English
This one is basically summed up in the above tweet. If you speak a bit of Spanish, you'll be anxious to practice. It's normal, and it's fine. However, there's a time and a place for it. If you find yourself in a social situation with bilingual Spanish-speakers that are speaking to you in English, don't insist on replying in Spanish.
Just calm down and speak English with them.
Two main reasons for this. First, their English is better than your Spanish, so all replying in Spanish will achieve is you stunting the flow of the conversation. You'll make yourself a difficult person to talk to. Second, they could take it the wrong way. If someone talks to you in English and you respond in Spanish, it could easily be taken as an insult to their level of English. It's not a good foot to start off on. Understand that you don't always have to be practicing. If the conversation is in English, speak English.
I point this out because I've run into it countless times in hostels. There will always be one person who insists on speaking "the local language" even if everyone in the group is speaking English. Don't be this person.
Now, if someone addresses you in Spanish, or asks if you speak it, feel free to respond in Spanish, you want to flex a little, after all. But don't derail an otherwise smooth conversation.
Situation #2. When nobody is speaking English
You’re with a group of Spanish-speakers. Let’s say, it’s at a restaurant. They’re speaking in rapid-fire Spanish and you’re doing your best to keep up, picking out words here and there. The conversation ends, and last person who spoke turns to you and asks if you understood what was said (entendiste?).
Now, all eyes are on you, kiddo.
What should you do?
A sheepish “no.” is a perfectly respectable response if you indeed did not understand a single word being said. It would be the truth, after all.
However, from a social standpoint, a reply like this is going to do the least for you.
Instead, do your best to piece together what was just said, even if they are only individual words that you recognized.
When asked if you understood, instead of just saying “no,” you can say this:
Entendí unas partes… (fill in the blanks here of what you think you understood). This means "I understood some parts..."
The point of this isn’t to be correct, but rather to prove to the group that you can in fact speak and understand a little bit of Spanish. You can literally respond with “Entendí unas partes…un carro…una mujer…y algo” if that’s all you understood. This will inform people that you’re at least engaged, open and willing to communicate.
If you simply reply with “no,” they might think you’re bored, standoffish or that you don’t speak Spanish at all (not true!). By making an effort, people are more likely to try to include you in the discussion. This is what you want – even if you don’t understand much of what is being said, it beats being nothing more than a prop.
Situation #3. When someone tells you "Your Spanish sucks!"
If you’re at a social event in Latin America, there will occasionally be one or two assholes that feel the need to criticize your Spanish. This sort of behavior can come from two groups.
1. Native speakers
2. Non-native speakers who are more fluent than you
Group number 2. is worse for this; you’ll generally find that local native speakers are helpful and supportive of people learning the language.
Now, instead of focusing on the psychological reasons behind why people do this (insecurity, frail egos etc.), we’re just going to focus on how to handle the situation when it arises.
You’re at a house party, hanging out with a group of people speaking Spanish. You’re doing your best to follow along, contributing to the conversation when you can. After a few exchanges, someone in the group says:
“Your Spanish is really bad! You should practice more.”
Or, something along those lines.
How should you respond to such a useless and incendiary comment?
Well, you’ve got two choices: ignore or engage.
It’s best to ignore, shoot them an amused glance and let someone else pick up the conversation. However, this isn’t always an option. Perhaps there’s a lull, maybe the other members in the group are interested in how you’ll respond.
So, now you’re responding. Again, you have two choices: dismiss or attack.
You’re going to want to dismiss. Attacking the person isn’t worth the energy. Plus, if you get offended, you may make things awkward for everyone.
The way to deal with this situation is to simply dismiss the person with a quip of your own. This would be a good time to switch to your native tongue.
Say something like, “Well, if you were able to learn it, I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
This will get a laugh out of any English speakers in the group and allow the conversation to move forward. It works because it’s playful enough that any reasonable person wouldn’t be offended, but it’s aggressive enough to let the guy/girl know that he/she should back off. You don’t have to use that comment (although you certainly can), just respond with something that’s on the same level of cheekiness. The absolute last thing you want to do is lose your temper.
Situation #4. Dating in Spanish
Let's say you met a woman on Latin American Cupid.
She doesn't speak any English, and you've been relying a bit on Google Translate to articulate yourself and understand what she says to you.
We've all been there. But what happens when you get them out for coffee or drinks? The conversation will have to be slightly more nuanced than “where are you from" (de donde eres?) and “what do you do?" (en que trabajas?), and you won't have Google Translate to fall back on.
Saying “I don’t understand” (no entiendo) is fine for when you’re really lost, but it can’t be your response to every one of her questions.
To avoid a scenario where your date stagnates into a painful series of uncomfortable silences and social media-checking, you’ll need to come prepared.
Here’s what to do.
Make a list of canned responses and questions before you go out on that date. As I mentioned before, there are only a handful of common questions that someone that barely knows you is going to ask. It won’t take long to prepare any number of adequate, natural-sounding responses for each one. Anticipating such questions and having ready answers for them will help you get over the initial conversation humps.
You’ll also want to come armed with a series of questions to ask your date. Fun questions, though. Not the boring questions they’re going to ask you!
The best way to do this is to think about the dates you’ve had in English. What kind of questions did you ask to elicit responses that allowed the other person to open up?
Good news is that these sorts of engaging, comfort-building questions don’t change from language to language. If something works in English, chances are it’s going to work just as well in Spanish.
If you don’t have any ideas, no worries. Here are some questions you can use to get your date talking about her/himself.
***If you want to learn dating-specific Spanish to speed up the process, Pick Up Spanish is the best resource for you.
Situation #5. Contracts and important transactions
If you want to do something like rent an apartment, get a bank account or get a cell phone contract in Latin America, you will need to sign a contract. If your Spanish is still basic, you may not be able to understand said contract. This is an issue.
How can you prepare for this situation?
First, I would suggest having a local, bilingual friend accompany you whenever you have to do something involving a contract. Even if it's just a girl you met online, it's better than nothing - she can translate things for you and help make sure you're not getting ripped off.
If you can't manage that, download an image-to-text app, such as "Text Fairy", take a picture of the document, copy and paste in into a translator on your phone and read over the contract in English to make sure it's sound.
Also, if you know that you'll be headed into a situation that will involve you signing a contract (let's say you've made an appointment to see an apartment you'd like to rent), make a list of questions beforehand about everything you could possibly want clarified. Again, it will help immensely if you have someone along side you to translate, but even if you don't, it'll suggest you're not an easy person to take advantage of. Even if you don't understand all the answers, check to see if the guy seems nervous, unsure or impatient in his answers about the contract.
If you get a funny feeling, they could be trying to take advantage of you.
In short, when it comes to contracts, get local help, get a image-to-text app and translation app and take your time going over it.
Just a few scenarios you'll probably encounter in Latin America and how to deal with them.
Before we go, a quick note on using slang in Spanish: don't do it.
...OK, you can do it, but know that, chances are, it will end up sounding funny or unnatural to native speakers. The only time I use slang is to do it ironically, to subtly poke fun at someone who's using it incessantly.
When you're first learning the language, it's best to keep away from slang. Unless it's with friends you know and ya'll are just talking some bullshit over a bottle of aguardiente or mescal. But for first impressions, leave out the slang.
And that does it! I hope that I've given you some fresh insight that'll help make your travels down here a bit smoother.
Thanks for listening.
Until next time,
Want to learn Spanish? Here's How I Did It.