Merry Christmas in Spanish

If you are spending Christmas in Spain this year, you will need to be prepared with the seasonal greetings to get you through any family or work parties that you have been invited to. I’ll actually be in England myself but several years of spending Christmas in Barcelona has taught me a few useful Spanish phrases.

Let’s start with the basics:

  • Merry Christmas in Spanish is feliz Navidad.

To ask what someone is doing for the Christmas holidays:

  • ¿Qué haces para las Navidades?

Christmas day itself is known as el día de la Navidad, but in Spain it is Christmas eve that is the more important day. Nochebuena is celebrated with a family meal (what a surprise). El día de la Navidad will usually involve a family lunch, but traditionally there would still be no presents. In Spain presents are given on the 6th of January el Día de Reyes. It makes sense to link it with the 3 Kings bringing gifts, although more and more it seems like children receive gifts on the 25th of December as well. By the way, a gift in Spanish is a regalo and to ask someone what they got for Christmas you would say ¿Qué te regalaron para Navidad?. The verb here is the third person plural form, meaning “What did the 3 kings give you for Christmas?”.

Things have an added twist in Catalunya where children sing a song and use sticks to beat a log with a face drawn on it until it poops presents! I am not making this up, I have seen it with my own eyes. The log is called Caga Tió which translates to a Poop log.

Here is a Caga Tió video to prove that I am not lying.


Examples of Spanish Conversation Starters

My level of Spanish is pretty good. I have been living in Spain for over 5 years now and I can hold a conversation about pretty much any topic. South American history, online marketing technology, the world economic situation. No problem. But there is one thing that I still freeze up over. Chit chat. Just hanging out with a bunch of people and talking about nothing. Running into a friend in the street and catching up quickly for 20 seconds. These situations leave me stumbling and tongue tied looking for the right words.

If I could crack this problem, I am confident that my level of Spanish would jump up another level.

So it’s time to do something about it. The core of the problem seems to be that my brain is not quick enough to come out with the appropriate Spanish conversational phrases. Everything is happening too quickly and I don’t have time to think ahead about genders, verb conjugations or, my personal weak point, the vosotros verb forms if I am in a group. What I need is a plan.

I am going to memorise a few key phrases until they pop out of my mouth without thinking. Phrases for running into a friend, a neighbour, meeting a group of people in a bar etc. I hope that you will help me out and leave some other Spanish conversation examples in the comments as well.

Meeting One Person (tú form)

  • ¿Cómo andas?
  • ¿Cuánto tiempo? ¿Qué tal todo?
  • ¿Qué te cuentas?

One small positive step towards improving my Spanish. If you want to join in with another way of gently keeping the focus on your studies, then sign up below to receive my bi-weekly Spanish Challenge emails. The challenges are to help me and you make some good progress with learning Spanish. They are pretty simple, to give us teh best chance of actually doing them, but every small completed bit of practice is a victory when life is busy.



Qué tal

Qué tal is one of the first phrases that you will notice if you are in Spain. It is used most commonly when greeting people informally, to ask how they are or how things are generally. e.g. Hola, ¿qué tal?

It can also be used to ask how something is or was, such as some food or a holiday. It can be used without a verb if it is obvious what is being talked about.

¿Qué tal la comida?

¿Qué tal anoche?

¿Qué tal tus padres?

¿Qué tal las vacaciones?


Bolsa or Bolso?

I have been looking for a new bag for a long time, and this last weekend I finally spotted one that I liked, so I bought it. Now the tricky part. Is it un bolso or una bolsa? This has been one of those facts that lives in my head and pops out a different answer each time I have to refer to any type of bag.

To put it finally to rest here is the definitive definition.

When to use una bolsa or un bolso.

A bag (such as a messenger bag) is una bolsa.
A woman’s handbag is un bolso.
A plastic bag from the supermarket is una bolsa.
A back pack is una mochila.

I think it was the masculine/feminine cross over with the men’s and womens bags that had me confused. Now it is written down, I will never get it wrong again. And I have a nice new bag.


Abrir or Abrirse? Spanish Sticking Point no.1

Even after years of study and actually living in Spain itself I still have a whole list of word choices that trip me up every time. I usually know the right answer it’s just that when the moment arrives to use a word my brain comes to a momentary halt hovering between two possible choices. My flow gets interupted and I get a bit angry that I can’t get that particular grammar point to stick in my mind.

These are my Spanish Sticking Points and I have decided to make them the focus of my learning efforts for the next few weeks. The theory is that if I can crack these recurring obstacles it will make my whole flow improve and increase my confidence again, which has been a bit low lately. A new job plus the excessive Spanish Christmas celebrations have taken their toll on my fragile study habits.

But that’s why I write this blog. To shame myself into practising more, so here goes with sticking point number one.

Confusion about when to use abrir or abrirse.

I open a box – abro una caja. OK simple example. Abrir. Someone opens something. Easy.

What time do you open the restaurant? – ¿A qué hora abres el restaurante? Still easy. Someone opens a restaurant. Subject and object. Simple.

What time does the restaurant open? – err.??! Reflexive? Does the restaurant open itself or does an unmentioned person open it? This is where I get confused. The native experts I know say non-reflexive, so ¿A qué hora abre el restaurante?

But what’s this? Cuando se abrió la puerta, se rompió. Did the window blow open, hence the reflexive use, or does it matter if someone opened it?

And using my previously mentioned super Spanish example research technique, I find this use in El Pais. Si se abre el restaurante de noche puedo ver problemas. My experts tell me this is a bit fussy but correct.

So, I am still slightly confused but justifiably so I think. Do any of you have some more usage examples to help me towards some clarity? Please leave them in the comments below if you do. Thanks.


My free Spanish podcasts & TV

I cannot imagine trying to learn Spanish before the internet existed. When I was still living in the UK, I had never heard of intercambios and I did not have cable TV so finding a source of Spanish to listen to was tricky. Then along came free Spanish podcasts, internet streaming radio and TV from all around the world. These days a multitude of programs is available to us, covering many different subjects in the Spanish language, and there is no excuse not to be regularly listening to something. I am a bit of a news freak so most days I listen to the free BBC Mundo podcasts in Spanish. Five days a week they put out a 15 minute summary of 4 or 5 news stories from around the world. There is a heavy South American focus and most of the journalists are from Latin America but, although I am learning mainland Castillian Spanish, I find it good to hear a variety of accents. UPDATE: This has now changed format to a once a week podcast on Thursdays. The first one comes out tomorrow so we shall see if it is longer or more in depth.

There is a good science program on Spanish TV hosted by Eduard Punset, called Redes. Each episode is available as a TV podcast on iTunes as well.

I also watch the main TV channel here in Spain, La 1, and also the local Catalan station TV3. Living in Barcelona I must at least be able to understand Catalan, but I have to be honest, I did not expect to be learning two languages when I started planning my move to Spain 5 years ago.

One tip for using these podcasts and programs for learning, if you are finding them too fast to understand, is to slow them down a bit using a playback application. I have Intervideo WinDVD installed which works OK for me. There may be better ones out there these days. I usually find that just slowing things down by 10% or so gives my brain a chance to follow along.

If you follow any good free Spanish podcasts, please let me know in the comments. I wear my iPod at work every day, and that learning opportunity cannot be wasted.


The best Spanish Grammar book.

Spanish grammar book
A new reference grammar of modern Spanish

I have realised that when I try to learn anything new (not just a language), I need to see examples and walk-throughs in order for me to comprehend the general rules of a system. It is only when I have an overall mental map of how a system works that I can start to fit the examples that I see into this model.

Learning Spanish while I was still living in England meant that I had to rely on using course books and language CDs rather than regularly meeting native Spanish speakers. At that point I did not know about the wonderful boost that a language exchange partner can give to your learning. I could have arrived in Spain with a much higher level if I had been meeting with someone to have regular Spanish conversation practice. Anyway, the books were my main resource and I did a bit of research to find a good Spanish grammar book that would explain the ‘rules’ of Spanish to me. The one I ended up buying was A New Reference Grammar of Modern Spanish pictured above (Amazon link).

I love this textbook. It is not too dry, but very comprehensive in its explanations, but above all it is stuffed full of example sentences taken from many different Spanish language books, newspapers, radio broadcasts and even conversations overheard on the street. The Spanish examples come from all over the world too, and the authors hi-light the fact that, for instance, a certain phrase comes from Argentina, and would not sound right if used in Spain.

Because of the diverse sources for their examples they are definitely not on the boring side. If you still need a Spanish grammar reference book (and if you are in anyway serious about learning the language you should have one) then have a read of the reviews on Amazon and see if you like the sound of it. Amazon allows you to read the first few pages on their site so you can get an idea of the readability of the text, and here is a photo of a typical page to give you an idea of the grammatical examples and style of writing.

example page from my chosen Spanish grammar book
example page from spanish grammar book

See the latest edition on (US)
See the latest edition on (UK)


Will living and working in Spain help me learn Spanish?

When I tell people that I have been living and working in Spain for over four years, they often say “You must be fluent by now”. Well, this is a sure fire way of knowing that they have never studied a foreign language abroad. There seems to be a belief that just by being in Spain, that Spanish will somehow creep into my brain at night and come popping out of my mouth fully formed in the morning. It’s true that you get more casual input from hearing people speaking around you or from the TV, but the hard study and practice still needs to get done.

There are many factors that will impact how quickly you pick up the language when you decide to study Spanish abroad.

Who do you spend your time with?

Is it with Spanish people or do you hang out with English speakers? If I wanted to meet English people I would have stayed in England. I made a choice when I arrived to only share apartments with native Spanish speakers and preferably only ones who did not speak any English (this was a bit harder to stick to). I had only one English friend, who I didn’t see that much. This setup forced me to listen and learn as quickly as possible.

Only date Spanish speakers.

An extension of my previous point. Tricky I know, and love is blind blah blah blah….If you’re really serious about learning Spanish you’ll resist English speaking temptation until the right Spanish speaker comes along. OK, maybe joking slighty and a slight fail for me here. I am with someone who does speak good English, and also prefers to speak Catalan over Castellano.

Where do you work?

Getting a job when you have a low level of Spanish can obviously be very difficult, but if you end up working for your local Irish pub serving tourists and other expats, you are missing out on 8 hours a day of golden practice opportunity. I have failed at this one, I have to admit. The company where I work now uses both English and Spanish interchangeably, but I only speak Spanish regularly with the minority of my colleagues who do not speak English. Must try harder at this one.

What do you spend your time doing?

I remember how it was not knowing anybody in a foreign country and trying to resist just staying indoors with a good English DVD and Facebook. Big fail. At least make it a Spanish DVD. If you don’t know anyone yet, get yourself an intercambio. Your Spanish level will improve rapidly and you may make some good friends. I certainly did.

If you’re feeling brave you could even sign up for classes in something like any other Spanish person, such as cooking, film appreciation etc. You may not get much at first but you will avoid the main problem with Spanish language classes. They are full of foreigners!

If all else fails you could actually study.

If you’re not abroad specifically to take an intensive Spanish language course, then at least get the books out and put the time in. Before I had a job here I spent many hours in the wonderful public libraries of Barcelona just going through my Spanish grammar excercises. I know some people are a bit dismissive of using standard Spanish grammar and excercise books, but as part of a mixed way of learning I think that they are invaluable.

I’d love to hear from anybody who has studied Spanish abroad, and get your opinion on how quickly you progressed. Just leave a comment below.


Sometimes it’s best to stay in your comfort zone

IMG_0371 One of the things that I still haven’t got used to, even after four years of living in Spain, is the number of public holidays there are here. Yesterday was All Saints’ Day where people traditionally visit the tombs of family members to give them a quick clean. Not having any deceased relatives here, myself and a group of friends spent the long weekend in the country with a plan to roast a whole sheep on an open fire. That explains the photo.

A great opportunity to practice some Spanish, you might think. Well, with 15 adults, 3 children, the village cat and enough supplies to keep us going for 3 days, things were a bit chaotic. Being mixed in with a group of friends who all know each other and talk non-stop without any concessions to the poor foreigner resulted in an unproductive time. Good fun, but not much useful Spanish conversation practice.

I think this is one of those occasions where staying in my comfort zone would have given better results. I am much more comfortable talking one-on-one or with a handful of people, and I tend to say a lot more in these situations. A big crowd or a noisy bar is simply not the right place for getting valuable Spanish practice, no matter how many times you are told to get out and meet people. If we are judging purely on language practice value, then 20 minutes conversation in the right setting beats 4 hours of hectic socialising.

<a href=”” title=”IMG_0371 by stvcr, on Flickr”><img src=”” width=”180″ height=”240″ alt=”IMG_0371″ /></a>

What is an intercambio, and why you must get one.

We are all trying to learn Spanish, and 99% of us are trying to learn so that we can speak with Spanish speaking people (I imagine the other 1% to be studying to be able to read some obscure academic texts only available in Spanish). The best way to improve at something is to do it, so it is vital to practice actually speaking the language. An intercambio is a language exchange partner. Someone who will talk with you in Spanish, an then in exchange you will talk with them in English.

During my first, blissfull months in Barcelona when I had no steady job and not much money to spend, I filled up my days with meeting intercambios for coffees and having long conversations about whatever. This habit has dropped away recently with work commitments taking more of my time. But today was a public holiday in Spain, so I called a friend of mine who started off as an intercambio, and we met for a good 90 minute chat over coffee and great ensaimadas.

We spoke 90% in Spanish and I hope this will help me to get out of the English speaking habit that I have fallen into recently.