Sunday, 4 December 2011

Back in Andorra

This summer I showed myself how hard it is to stay motivated to keep my Spanish moving forwards while I was in France. I didn't abandon Spanish completely, but I did put a lot less energy into it. I also did the obvious thing and tried to learn some more French while I was there. This blog was an obvious casualty of all this, as can be seen by the fact that this is the first post since late July.

So, here are the things I kept doing -

Watching Telediario en 4 minutos a couple of mornings a week on the RTVE website.
Speaking to Spanish speakers on the few occasions when I had the chance.
Watching El Aguila Roja (also on the RTVE website).
Visiting a couple of favourite Spanish websites.
Cooking dishes from my Spanish recipe book (in Spanish).

And things I should have done but didn't -

More of all of the above
Writing this blog
Reading Don Quijote
Looking for other Spanish websites
Reading Spanish newspapers
Looking for other Spanish sites

Back in Andorra it is time to 'poner las pilas' and get a bit more motivated, now that there are a few more people to speak Spanish to.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Useful website for Spanish and recipes

I am always on the look out for Spanish and Latin American recipes to try, and I have just seen a great one for Cuban Arroz con Pollo (Chicken with rice) at Learning Spanish is Fun which is a great Spanish blog and resource. I think cooking dishes and learning the words for different foods and ingredients is a great way to learn about a culture. The recipe is well written and illustrated with a really mouth watering photograph - you can tell that the blog's author, Sabrina, really has a passion for her subject matter. I'm really looking forward to trying out the recipe if I can track down some of the ingredients.

Friday, 22 July 2011

The weather

Image: Idea go /

Sitting and watching torrents of rain beating against the windows, it seems a good time to get out the dictionary and revise some weather words. Like in English there are nouns (the rain) and verbs (to rain / it is raining). In English we also use a lot of adjectives to describe the weather - 'it is cold / hot / windy', whereas in Spanish nouns are also used for these. It is like saying 'there is wind' or 'it makes heat today'.


la lluvia = the rain
llover = to rain
llueva = it rains / it is raining
está lloviendo = it is raining (right now)
va a llover = it is going to rain
lloverá = it will rain
llovió = it rained
ha llovido = it has rained
llovía = it was raining


la nieve = the snow
nevar = to snow
nieva = it snows
esta nevando = it is snowing (right now)
va a neva = it is going to snow


el viento = the wind
hace viento = it is windy (lit. it makes wind)


hace calor = it is hot (it makes heat)
hace frío = it is cold (it makes cold)


el sol = the sun
hace sol = it is sunny (it makes sun)
soleado =sunny


los nubes = the clouds
nublado = cloudy
la niebla = the mist

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The Spanish Civil War - Guerra Civil Española

75 years ago this week, on the 18th July 1936, the Spanish Civil War began, entering Spain into four years of war and forty of facist rule under General Franco. Although in Europe and worldwide, World War II still casts a long shadow, the Spanish Civil war probably cast an even longer shadow over that country. The Spanish had to wait until the mid 1970s before they had a vote again. Their war was particularly nasty in that it pitted neighbour against neighbour, and even family members against each other. The depth of feeling the war and the Franco era still evoke can be seen by the number of comments on this newspaper article -

It is easy in hindsight to paint one side as the bad guys, but the truth is that both groups did some pretty bad stuff before and during the war, and that either side could probably have averted the war if they had wanted to pursue a diplomatic solution. Wikipedia has a good article covering the causes and events of the war in a lot of detail -

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Notes on the simple past

Yesterday's conjugation of the simple past gives a way to express the past. Harder than learning the verb forms though, is learning when to use it. The good news is that if you use the wrong past tense you will nearly always be understood, in the same way that a foreign person speaking English will often make mistakes but still be understood. The simple past is used to represent a single event, a point in the past, never for something that is ongoing.

Therefore 'tiré' can translate 'I threw', but never 'I was throwing' or 'I used to throw'  which would be translated using the imperfect tense - more on that in future posts. However, 'I threw' is not necesarily translated as 'tiré'. 'I threw a ball every day' would also be translated using the imperfect tense because it refers to a repeating, ongoing event. Practise of reading and listening is the best way to learn when Spanish people would use each tense.

There are another couple of points which are important to note. Firstly the pronuncuation - it is important to stress the accented sylable, otherwise the words will be heard as the present tense. The stress in the simple past falls nearer to the end of the word in most cases.

Secondly, the first person plural ('tiramos' / 'we throw') is the same in the present and simple past tenses, so the context has to be relied on to indicate which is meant.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Conjugation of the week - 13. Tirar - to throw, simple past

This week it is back to the regular -ar verbs with the simplest of the many past tenses in Spanish. The simple past tense is also known as the past historic tense or the preterite tense. It is similar to the simple past tense in English, but is perhaps used less. It refers to a specific event in the past, that is now finished. See previous posts in this series for more about conjugations.

Tirar - to throw, simple past tense

tiré = I threw
tiraste = you threw (sing. fam.)
tiró = he/she/it/ you (sing. pol.) threw
tiramos = we threw
tirasteis = you threw (pl. fam.)
tiraron = they/you (pl. pol.) threw

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Telediario en 4 minutos

I have mentioned RTVE's four minute online news bulletin before. I find it is a great way to keep my Spanish from getting too rusty if I am not using it, as well as keeping up with events in the Spanish speaking world. I thought it was worth mentioning again here as I have just discovered that I can now watch it on my Android phone. I don't know whether it is down to a change on the site, or an Android browser update, but when I tried previously I could not view the video.

I have no idea if it works with other phones. The site uses Flash to show video, so I suspect iPhone users will be out of luck. I should mention that this is not a mobile site and is therefore quite bandwidth intensive. You will need to use wifi to view it unless you have a really good data plan. I guess you need an up-to-date version of Android with Flash enabled as well. Even so, I find it is great to watch over breakfast without having to drag a laptop to the table.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Pedido - order/ordered

I was halfway through a sentence on the phone today when I realised that I didn't know the word for an order. I knew the verb 'to order' ('pedir') and hence how to say 'I have ordered' ('he pedido') but the noun escaped me. It turns out, after a quick check on Word Reference, that it is 'pedido' - a word I could perhaps have guessed at but didn't. I am not sure if there is any advice to avoid that situation when it happens, although usually it will be possible to think of another way to say something. When asking a more complicated question it is often worth mentally rehearsing it in your head, but it is impossible to do this in a conversation if you want to sound fluent.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Despedirse - to dismiss oneself

Reading the Spanish news coverage (above on of the recent demise of the News Of The World, an interesting phrase I came across was 'News Of The World se despide'. This is a good opportunity to mention reflexive verbs, as well as the verb 'despedir', which has a few related meanings.

Basically 'despedir' means 'to dismiss'. Depending on the context this can mean anything from 'to say goodbye' to 'to sack/fire somebody'. A 'fiesta de despedido' is a leaving party for example. Used reflexively (when the verb refers to itself - me despido, se despide etc.) it means to dismiss oneself. Usually this means to quit, leave or resign. In this case of course it means the newspaper is closing itself down.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Ojalá - Hopefully

Yesterday I mentioned the simlilarity between Spanish and other Latin based languages. In addition though, Spanish has been influenced by Arabic over the years. This is not surprising given that Spain was occupied by the Moors (los Moros) from northern Africa for over 700 years.

One of the commonest examples is 'ojalá', meaning 'hopefully' or 'God willing'. This is derived from the commonly used Arabic phrase 'insha Allah' meaning 'God willing'.

A few other examples of Spanish words with Arabic roots are -

aceite - oil
azucar - sugar
rincón - corner
barrio - neighbourhood
sofá - sofa
naranja - orange

Saturday, 9 July 2011

French words in Spanish

I mentioned a few days ago the similarities between Spanish and other Latin based languages. French is not as close to Spanish as Italian or Portuguese. but is is the language I learnt at school (a long time ago) so I have often found it useful in guessing Spanish words. Here are a few examples that have helped me.

From the French word 'plein' (full)  I guessed 'pleno' at a petrol station and was understood, even though 'lleno' is probably more common. 'Pleno' would be used more often in a phrase like 'full speed'.

Reading the Spanish newspaper I could deduce the meaning of 'pais' (country) and 'rey' (king), from the French words 'pays' and 'roi'.

On TV, 'canal' means 'channel' in both languages.

Knowing the difference between 'conaitre' and 'savoir' (both meaning 'to know') helped understand the difference between 'conocer' and 'saber' (the equivalent words in Spanish). In both languages the former is to know a person or place ('to be aquainted with') whilst the latter is to know a fact.

Of course there are hundreds of other examples, and even more in other languages.

Useful Website -

I have just revisited one site I used a lot when I began to learn Spanish, and it has been revamped and updated so that I barely recognised it. is a site with a lot of information that has clearly been accumulated over a good period of time. There are 100 news letters, 11 podcasts, a forum, and a few recipes. In the past, the site was useful but looked a little dated, but now it has a clean modern look.

The biggest new addition is the Flash based eLearning programme. The sample lessons show the characteristic features of the newsletters - use of songs and lyrics, games and quizes to teach vocabulary. There is also quite a lot of emphasis on pronunciation and listening comprehension. All in all the programme seems similar in subject to the newsletters on the site but taking advantage of the interaction that a Flash application can provide to give a fun and rounded learning experience. The full package is available on a subscription basis, but there is plenty of free material to look at before deciding whether you want to subscribe.

If I were...

I promised to share some examples of the complicated sounding imperfect subjunctive. One common, and not particularly difficult usage is in sentences of the type 'if I were ... I would ...'.

In Spanish, the imperfect subjunctive is used for the first verb (were) and the conditional tense is used for the second verb (after the 'would').

A few examples to clarify:-

Si yo fuera tu, hablaría con ellos. - If I were you I would speak with them.
Si fuera un hombre rico, lo compraría. - If I were a rich man I would buy it.
Si fuéramos mas joven, iríamos a la fiesta. - If we were younger we would go to the party.
Si fueras mas listo, ya sabría - if you were smarter you would already know

The first verb does not have to be 'were'. 'If I had...' phrases are also common, such as this example from Mario Benedetti's 'Esta Mañana'

Si yo hubiera tenido padre et madre, todo habría sido diferente. - If I had had a father and mother, everything would have been different.

Notice that the two 'hads' in the English translation represent diferent verbs in Spanish - 'haber' to indicate the past (perfect) tense and 'tener' to show posession.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Ir and Ser

Yesterday's post covered the complicated sounding 'imperfect subjunctive' form of the verb 'ser' ('to be'). In fact this is also the imperfect subjunctive tense of 'ir' ('to go'). The verbs 'ser' and 'ir' share two other tenses as well - the preterite, or simple past, and the less commonly used future subjunctive. I like to think of this being similar to 'been' in English. 'I have been eating' or 'I have been a waiter' express the past tense of 'to be' but 'I have been to Spain' expresses the past tense of 'to go'.

More on imperfect subjunctives tomorrow. I just wanted to share that idiosyncracy of the language which I rediscovered whilst writing yesterday's post.

Conjugation of the week - 12. Imperfect subjunctive of 'ser' - 'to be'

Having covered a few of the more straightforward conjugations over the last few weeks, I think it is time to throw in a more advanced verb tense. Don't be put off by the name though, the imperfect subjunctive form is not uncommon, nor that difficult. Although it takes a long time to perfect exactly when to use it, knowing the form makes it easy to recognise in written text or conversation. In the next post I will give an easier example of when to use it. It can often be translated into English as 'was' or 'were'. See previous posts in this series for more about conjugations.

Ser - to be, imperfect subjunctive

yo fuera/fuese
tu fueras/fueses
el/ella/usted fuera/fuese
nosotros fuéramos/fuésemos
vosotros fuerais/fueseis
ellos/ellas/ustedes fueran/fuesen

Notice that there are two versions, with -ra and -se endings. The two versions are identical as far as I can tell (and I have asked a few Spanish speakers and teachers). Some dictionaries only show the first, which is probably more common, but you will find both used frequently in books, sometimes together e.g. 'fuera lo que fuese' (loosely - 'being whatever it was' or 'whatever it may have been').

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Using other languages to help with Spanish

If you speak another foreign language already, especially a Latin based one, it can really help with learning Spanish. Like most people who grew up in the UK, I was taught French at school, and whilst at first listen it sounds nothing like Spanish, it is quite similar both in grammar and in the roots of a lot of words. The accent and pronunciation is very different, as are the spelling rules, but there are many words which are basically the same, just following the pronunciation rules of each language. Some words are spelt identically, but pronounced very differently - 'jardin' (garden) for example. This means that it is often possible to guess the meaning of an unfamiliar word from a similar word in another language. It is also quite often possible to guess how to say something, although this will probably work less of the time.

More on this, plus a few examples, in the next few days

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

What to wear

I have just spent a fortnight in Les Deux Alpes, in France, hence the sporadic posting and break from the blog recently. One thing I learnt is that it is still possible to practice Spanish in a French speaking country. As I was ski training, I was usually wearing either an Andorran ski club jacket, or an Andorran ski school soft shell. Because of this I found myself being spoken to in Spanish by the Spanish skiers in town who recognised the name 'Andorra'. This made it a lot easier to start conversations in Spanish, and I met a few Spanish skiers over the course of my visit.

Whilst on this occasion my choice of clothing was a complete accident, it made me realise that deliberately wearing something Spanish, particularly with the name of a Spanish speaking place on it, can be a great way to meet Spanish speakers who happen to be in the same part of the world. This obviously won't be a lot of use in Spain itself, but it might be quite useful in places where a lot of Spanish people go on holiday.

Monday, 27 June 2011

A short break

I'm away from home for a week or so and finding Internet access a bit harder to come by than I expected, so I'm going to apologise now and have a week long break from the Blog. Normal service will resume Monday 4th July (or earlier if the appartment I'm staying in gets its long overdue phone and internet connection).

Hasta lunes (until Monday)

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Homophones (sound alikes)

There is another common but false belief amongst Spanish speakers about their language. They say that unlike English, Spanish contains no homophones (words that sound the same but are spelt differently and have different meanings). Admittedly there are many times more homophones in English than Spanish, due to Spanish being a phonetic language, but I have still managed to find a few examples:-

hecho (done, fact) vs. echo (1st person of echar - to throw, cast, put)
ha (2nd person sing. of haber – to have) vs. a (to, at)
hola (hello, hi) vs. ola (wave)

These examples rely on the silent ‘h’, there are others which might depend on the regional accent, as in most places ‘v’ and ‘b’ sound alike, and in some places ‘ll’ and ‘y’ do as well. In Latin America the ‘z’ and soft ‘c’ both sound like ‘s’ rather than being lisped like in Spain, so there are words like ‘la olla’ and ‘la hoya’ (the pan and the river bed), tubo and tuvo (tube and 3rd person past tense of tener – to have), or ‘la casa’ and ‘la caza’ (the house and the hunt) which might sound identical or merely similar depending where you are.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

El murcielago – the bat

Image: luigi diamanti /
Murcielago is a Spanish word that has appeared in English speaking culture more than once. It was the name of a Lamborghini supercar, which was in turn named after a famous fighting bull of the 19th century. Since the word actually means 'bat' it must have been a confusing name for the bull in question – a bit like having a dog (perro) named 'cat' (gato).

Murcielago is also a well known word in the Spanish language because of a popular myth that it is the only Spanish word containing all five vowels. In fact, those who think that are equivocado (mistaken, wrong), and should perhaps blame their education (education). Other examples of words containing all the vowels include 'equitation' (horse riding) and 'arquitecto' (architect).

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Useful website - About Spanish have sections on hundreds of topics – some good and some bad. The Spanish section, run by Gerald Erichson is a site I visit fairly regularly. There is a lesson section, with new articles posted regularly, and an active forum. Lessons are pitched at a variety of levels, and often aim to clear up areas of confusion such as multiple meanings in English for a Spanish word or vice versa. There are also good lessons explaining many of the finer points of Spanish grammar.

There are also some useful email lists to subscribe to, such as the Spanish Word of the Day list and a list to advise when new lessons are available (which is ofter).

There are some quirks to the site, such as the way example sentences seem to be taken from literature or newspapers – this gives an accurate usage, but taken out of context the phrases can sound a little strange. For example, to illustrate the verb 'nadar' (to swim) he uses a sentence about the discovery of a boy’s body who disappeared swimming in a river.

If the site has a downside, it is that it can feel a little dry and classroom like compared to the real everyday Spanish of Ben and Marina for example. Having said that, the nitty-gritty details of grammar and vocabulary are important if you want to master a language.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Conditional tense examples

The conditional tense shows how Spanish often changes the endings to verbs to form a phrase which would use extra words instead in English. In this case the conditional tense ending is equivalent to putting 'would' before a word in English.

me gustaría = I would like
nos hablarían = they would speak to us
lo haríamos pero... = we would do it but...
iría allí = he would go there

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Conjugation of the week - conditional tense of hablar

Having covered the regular verbs in the present tense, as well as some of the most useful irregular verbs, this week we are going to look at the conditional tense. This can be recognised by the endings which contain -ría, and is equivalent to putting 'would' before a verb in English. Hablar is a regular verb, so all other regular -ar verbs form the conditional tense in the same way. See previous posts in this series for more about conjugations.

Hablar - to speak

hablaría - I would speak
hablarías - you would speak (sing. fam.)
hablaría - he/she/it/you (sing. pol.) would speak
hablaríamos - we would speak
hablaríais - you would speak (pl. fam.)
hablarían - they/you (pl. pol) would speak

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Unusual (English word) - defenestrate

Sometimes learning Spanish can teach you new words in your own language. Yesterday I saw a Spanish Facebook post using the word 'defenestrando' from 'defenestrar. The dictionary translation of 'defenestrar' is 'defenestrate' which is not a word I have ever come across and certainly not one I would use on Facebook. I am sure it is a pretty rare word in English, but it doesn't appear to be so uncommon in Spanish.

For those who are wondering, the literal meaning is to throw somebody through a window. It can also be used figuratively as a swift dismissal (from a political party for example).

Friday, 17 June 2011

Interesting word - postre

Well, after 74 daily posts I finally slipped up and missed a couple of days posting. Apologies to regular readers wherever you are.

I have come across a couple of interesting Spanish words recently. Today's was 'postre' - a fairly familiar word meaning 'dessert' or 'pudding'. What I hadn't realised until today was that

el postre = desssert/pudding

but that

a la postre = in the end

So changing the gender of the noun from masculine (el) to femenine (la) changes its meaning. I'm sure there are a few other words like this, but I can't think of any off the top of my head so they can wait until a future post.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Keep trying

Learning a language can be hard. It is all too easy to watch someone speaking Spanish well, and assume it is as effortless as it sounds. In some cases it might be, but most people who have learnt Spanish as an adult will have struggled at some stage, will have worked hard and persevered. People say "I wish I could speak Spanish like you," as if Spanish is something you just pick up by accident. Now I don't speak Spanish perfectly, far from it, but unlike a lot of English speakers in Spain I try. For most of us it is hard, but it is well worth the effort. Some days it can feel effortless to chat to people for hours, but more often it will feel like there is a mountain to climb. The only trick really is not to give up.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Useful website -

I have just stumbled across the site whilst doing some research for this blog. At first glance it looks like it is a site dedicated to residential Spanish courses in various Spanish speaking countries. As this was not what I was looking for at the time (although I am sure they are well worth doing), I almost dismissed the site. However, as well as the courses, there is a wealth of learning material, online lessons and Spanish learning community. I plan to spend some time getting to know the site and seeing what it has to offer, but my first impression is that there is lots there to keep me coming back.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Regular -er verbs

Following yesterday's conjugation, here are a few of the many regular -er verbs which follow the same pattern.

aprender = to learn
beber = to drink
comer = to eat
comprender = to understand
correr = to run
deber = to owe, to have to (do something)
esconder = to hide
meter = to put in
prometer = to promise
romper = to break
vender = to sell

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Conjugation of the Week - 10. Aprender - to learn

This week we have the third and final series of regular verbs - the -er verbs. Again this means that all regular verbs ending in -er are conjugated the same way, and most irregular -er verbs will also follow a similar pattern with some variations. Notice that in the present tense, only the nosotros and vosotros forms are different from regular -ir verbs. See previous posts in this series for more about conjugations.

Aprender - to learn

aprendo = I learn
aprendes = you learn (sing. fam.)
aprende = he/she/it learns, you learn (sing. pol.)
aprendemos = we learn
aprendeís = you learn (pl. fam.)
aprenden = they learn, you learn (pl. pol.)

Friday, 10 June 2011

Shakira - Grandes Exitos

Yesterday I mentioned that listening to music can be a good way to learn Spanish. I have been listening to Shakira's first greatest hits album (which came out before a lot of the hits she is currently known for). To be honest, this isn't the type of music I would normally listen to, but Shakira has a great voice, the music is full of latin passion and I get to learn some Spanish as well. Some of the songs are Spanish versions of hits you will have heard in English, others are in a more latin dancing style that you might here in clubs across South America.

The album is pretty cheap these days, as it has been around for a while. You can find it on Amazon UK, Amazon US or your usual download store. Where else would you learn a phrase like -

Suerte que mis pechos sean pequeños, y no los confundas con montañas
(Lucky that my breasts are small and humble, so you don't confuse them with mountains)

Okay, that isn't quite an exact translation, but it's close enough and it's how it was translated for the English version of the song.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Learn from music

Songs can be a great way to learn Spanish. If you translate the chorus from a familiar song from Spanish into English the chances are that those words will stick in your head for a long time. For example the verb 'bailar' - 'to dance' has been with me since I learnt the meaning of the opening line of 'La Bamba'

Para bailar la Bamba - To dance the Bamba

I also will always remember 'marinero' (sailor) and 'capitan' (captain) from the line

Yo no soy marinero, soy capitan, soy capitan - I am not a sailor, I am a captain, I am a captain

Of course there are many more Spanish songs out there, or songs with Spanish parts. Pick your favourites, or search some out on You Tube. If you are stuck for ideas I plan to post the occasional Spanish album review on this blog in the future.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Notes in Spanish - new release

I have mentioned the fantastic site Notes In Spanish before. It is one of my favourite sites for learning Spanish on the web, and Ben and Marina really are inspiring teachers. They have just released Season Two of Notes in Spanish Gold, so it is a good time to go and visit their site if you haven't already. As usual there is a special price for a limited period (click on Store on their menu when you get to their site). As well as the new material there is still a wealth of older resources on the site, both for free and to buy.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Present Participles

If you start to learn Spanish grammar it isn't long before  you come across participles, past and present. Whilst using big grammar terms like past participle and present participle can be daunting, they are not really that difficult to understand. Hopefully if I keep using the words enough times they will get less intimidating through repetition. They are words you will generally find at the top of verb tables in the dictionary.

The present participle is the one I find simpler. In English it always ends in 'ing'. In Spanish it usually ends in 'ando' for -ar verbs and 'iendo' for -ir or -er verbs. Here are a few examples (with the full Spanish verb in brackets).

talking = hablando (hablar)
eating = comiendo (comer)
running = corriendo (correr)
going = yendo (ir)
walking = andando (andar)
raining = lloviendo (llover)

These verb forms can often be used in the same way as in English.

estoy comiendo = I am eating
estaba hablando = I was talking
está lloviendo = it is raining

In English, 'ing' words are also used as adjectives and nouns, but these uses don't generally use the present participle in Spanish.

the walking man = el hombre que anda (literally 'the man that walks')
I like skiing = me gusta esqíar (lit. 'I like to ski')
all the living things = todas las cosas vivientes

Watch out for past participles in a future post.

Monday, 6 June 2011


The biggest stories in the Spanish press today, apart from Nadal's victory over Federer in the French open, are the results of elections in Portugal and Peru yesterday. Here is a little background to help you read the stories in the Spanish press.

In Peru the Nationalist candidate, Ollanta Humala defeated the Populist party's Keiko Fujimori by a very tight margin in the country's presidential elections. Humala is a left-wing ex-army commander who led an unsuccessful coup attempt supported in the 1990s. The right wing Fujimori is the daughter of ex-president Alberto Fujimori who is currently serving a 25 year jail sentence for corruption and human rights violations during his time in power. If you want to follow this story in Spanish you can read more in El País.

In Portugal, the political landscape has taken a turn to the right, as Pedro Passos Coelho's Social Democrats defeated the current prime minister, Jose Sócrates' Socialists. Again, you can read more, in Spanish, in El País.

Regular -ir verbs

Just a quick post today to give a few examples of regular -ir verbs which are all conjugated the same way as 'insistir' in yesterday's post.

abrir = to open
admitir = to admit
añadir = to add, join, increase
asistir = to attend
confundir = to confuse
cumplir = to complete, achieve, to have a birthday
decidir = to decide
escribir = to write
insistir = to insist
ocurrir = to occur
permitir = to permit, allow
recibir = to receive
subir = to go up, ascend
vivir = to live

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Conjugation of the Week - 9. Insistir - to insist

After a few weeks of the most common irregular verbs, this week we have another regular verb. The second of the three families of regular verbs are the -ir verbs. This means that all regular -ir verbs are conjugated the same, and most irregular -ir verbs are conjugated in a similar manner. See previous posts in this series for more about conjugations.

insistir - to insist

insisto = I insist
insistes = you insist (sing. fam.)
insiste = he/she/it insists, you insist (sing. pol.)
insistimos = we insist
insistís = you insist (pl. fam.)
insisten = they insist, you insist (pl. pol.)
Following on from recent posts on 'ser' and 'estar', I thought I would add to the confusion by throwing in an example which completely threw me when I first heard it. I was standing at the bottom of a ski slope (a common place for me to be as readers of my other blog will know) talking to a Spanish friend who was trying to explain to me when to use 'ser' and when to use 'estar'.

He explained that 'ser' is for permanent things, and gave an example -

la nieve es blanca = the snow is white

He then explained that 'estar' is for more temporary things. The example was -

la nieve está fria = the snow is cold

Now this just added to my confusion, because I have seen snow that is pink from the sunset, red or orange with sand blown from the Sahara to Europe, brown from mud close to the surface, blue on a cold shady morning or grey on cloudy days. But I have never once come across snow that is not cold. I still don't understand why the above examples are correct, other than colours generally use 'ser' and temperatures 'estar'.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Using Chat

Image: Michal Marcol /

Conversing in Spanish can be difficult - you have to think fast both to phrase your own thoughts and to understand the other person, and it can be harder to work out new words without seeing how they are spelt. Writing to somebody in Spanish gives you time to think, but it can be tedious. There is less leeway to make gramatical errors, and the lack of interaction and feedback can be discouraging.

Halfway in between the two is chat. Whether it is Facebook, MSN or any other instant messaging service it doesn't matter. If you get the chance to chat to a Spanish speaking friend then take it. It really is the best of both worlds. You get interaction, feedback and corrections for your mistakes. The grammar is less critical than in a letter. You don't have to think as quickly as when speaking, and you can see what the words look like. There are still a couple of downsides though - one is that it can be hard to enter special characters - ¿ ¡ ñ á é ú í ó. There are ways around this which I plan to cover in a future post. Other downsides are that you might have to get used to the Spanish version of text speak - q for que etc. and that it won't help much with your pronunciation.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Regional diferences - be careful

Most of the time regional differences do not cause huge problems. A person from one region might sound a little odd, or overly formal to the ears of somebody from a different region, occasionally they might have to repeat themselves to be understood. Occasionally however, a perfectly inoccuous and common word in one region can be very offensive in another.

The most obvious example is the verb 'coger'. As a European who learnt the Spanish of Spain first, this is a common word meaning 'to take'. As such I shouldn't feel in the slightest bit uncomfortable writing it here. Phrases such as:-

coger el autobus = to catch the bus
¡cogelo! = take it!
cojo el tren = I take the train

are all perfectly common in Spain. In Argentina though, Spanish people quickly discover that 'coger' has quite a different meaning - one that I am not so comfortable discussing in a blog for a general audience. Because of this, the phrases above sound ridiculous or offensive in Argentina, and Argentinians have a perception that Spaniards are oversexed as they want to c***r everything - busses, trains, etc.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

More on haber

I have already written a couple of posts about 'tener', whish is the verb for 'to have' in the sense of possessing something. There is another word for 'to have' though - 'haber'.

Haber is used in forming compound tenses in the same way that 'have' is in English.

he hecho = I have done
ha comido = he/she has eaten
han llamado = they have called

Using different tenses of 'haber' allows more complicated expressions

había llegado = I/he/she had arrived
habiamos puesto = we had put
habría dicho = I/he/she would have said
habrán ido = they will have gone

Note that all the phrases above use the past participle of the second verb, both in Spanish and English.

Haber used alone means 'there is' or 'there are'.

hay mucho viento hoy = there is a lot of wind today
hay una buena tienda allí = there is a good shop there
¿hay pan? = is there (any) bread?
hay tres arboles = there are three trees
había una casa = there was a house
había cuatro gatos = there were four cats
habrá dos sillas = there will be two chairs

Finally for today, like 'tener', 'haber' can be used to say 'have to' or 'must'. In this case it is used with 'de' for a specific person and 'que' in an impersonal sense.

haber de = to have to
ha de = he/she has to, he/she must
hay que = one has to, one must (this is much more common than in English)

Monday, 30 May 2011

Conjugation of the Week - 8. Haber - To Have

This week we have the other word for 'to have' in Spanish. The first one was 'tener'. Tomorrow I will talk about when to use which. See previous posts in this series for more about conjugations.

Tener - To have

he = I have
has = you have (sing. fam.)
ha = he/she/it has, you have (sing. pol.)
hemos = we have
habéis = you have (pl. fam.)
han = they have, you have (pl. pol.)

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Most useful verbs

In learning any language there are certain verbs (almost always irregular and difficult ones) that are essential to learn early on. The most important are the words for 'to be', 'to go' and 'to have'. This is because those verbs are used so often both individually, but also because they can be combined with other verbs to make different tenses - past, present or future.

For example, using the verb 'comer' ('to eat') -

I am eating (present, using 'to be') - estoy comiendo
I was eating (past, using 'to be') - estaba comiendo
I am going to eat (future, using ' to go') - voy a comer
I have eaten (past, using 'to have') - he comido

These compound forms are not the only ways to express the past present or future, but they are extremely useful. It is also useful to learn the past participle (e.g eaten/comido) and present participle (e.g. eating/comiendo), but that is something I will cover in another post.

In Spanish there are five verbs to learn, as there are two words for 'to be' and two words for 'to have'.

ir = to go
ser = to be
estar = to be
tener = to have
haber = to have

I have recently covered some of the differences between ser and estar. Over the next few days I will cover some of the differences between haber and tener.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Champions League Final

I have said before that watching the news is a great way to learn Spanish, especially if you have an idea of what is going on in the Spanish speaking world. Well today, the biggest news in Spain is likely to be the UEFA Champions League Final between FC Barcelona and Manchester United. You can find extensive coverage and videos of the build up at in Spanish. I won't tell you where to find it in English because you can all use Google. For those with their heads in the sand regarding European football, here is some basic background to make the Spanish easier to follow.

Both teams are on top form form having won their domestic leagues. The match will be played at Wembley, giving United a home advantage although London is a long way from Manchester. Barcelona are being tipped as the favourites, with their star player, Lionel Messi widely regarded as the best player in the world.

The biggest news in Spain outside of sport is the continuing protests in Madrid against the government, the elections and the political system in general. The protesters, under the label 15-M, are mainly young and angry. The economic crisis in Spain is hitting hard, and unemployment is highest amongst the younger generation. Yesterday police charged protesters leading to over 100 injuries.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Useful website - Typically Spanish

Whilst not a Spanish speaking resource as such, the website Typically Spanish is really useful if you plan to learn Spanish from reading the newspaper or watching the television news. Following the news in Spanish, either written or spoken, is much easier if you have an idea of current events in the Spanish speaking world, and of the general political background in the country. This is where it is really useful to have an English language site covering Spanish news.

Typically Spanish seems to be aimed at English speaking ex-pats living in Spain. It has an extensive and up to date news section in English, which is why I am recommending it here. There is a lot more to the site as well - features on Spain, events, a directory and so on. It claims to be the largest English site about Spain on the web, and it may well be true.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Cup and glass words

Using the correct word for drinking vessels can sometimes be a little tricky, because the English words 'cup' and 'glass' translate to three Spanish words: 'taza', 'vaso' and 'copa'.

una taza = a cup (as in a china or ceramic cup or mug with a handle)
un vaso = a glass (but also a paper cup
una copa = a glass (more like a wine glass)

The difference is down to the shape, not the material. A 'taza' always has a handle but a 'vaso' never does. A 'copa' generally refers to a wine glass type shape with a stem - something more elegant than a 'vaso' which is more straight sided like a tumbler. 'Copa' is also used for 'cup' in the sense of a trophy for sports etc. 'World Cup' = 'Copa del Mundo'.
Image: Meawpong3405 /

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Book Review - El Arbol de la Ciencia, Pío Baroja

A year or so ago I walked into a Spanish bookshop with no idea what to buy or even who was a well known author in Spain, aside from Cervantes of course. I asked for some advice and told the lady behind the counter I was looking to read something by well known Spanish authors. I ended up walking out with a science fiction book by an author who claims not to like science fiction, a period novel written in 2005 using the Spanish of the 1600s, and this - 'The Tree of Knowledge'.

The book tells the story of the life of a young doctor - Andres Hurtado - from the start of his university studies through a few years of his medical career. It was published in 1911, but set about fifteen years before that. The story takes place partly in Madrid and partly in a small village in the Spanish countryside. I have to say that unlike the last book I reviewed (El Principe de la Niebla) this one is definitely not for beginners to the Spanish language. It is definitely literature, in that is is hard to read and a bit pretentious. Large chunks of the book are devoted to philosophical discussions between the protagonist and his uncle.

I found the book interesting in a historical sense, in that the political divisions that led to the Spanish Civil War are visible (in retrospect) in a book written several decades before it. I also learnt about aspects of Spanish history I was quite ignorant about, like the Spanish American War of 1898.

The story itself though is really hard work due to an almost complete absence of plot (apparently one of Baroja's trademarks). Page after page passes without anything happening in story terms. There are endless detailed descriptions of minor characters who contribute nothing to the story and never reappear later in the book. The aim I think is to give the reader a feeling for what life is like in a relatively poor neighbourhood in nineteenth century Madrid. The author succeeds in this, and produces a work that is unrelentingly bleak and pessimistic in tone.

There are some very favourable reviews of this book on Amazon but for me the lack of plot, and the string of irrelevant characters and the philosophical breaks make for a tedious read. If you want literary writing in Spanish with a heavy dash of philosophy, then Borges, for example,  does it much better to my mind.

Although not for beginners, and not particularly to my taste, this is a well regarded novel and gives a good picture of late 19th century Spain. If you want to read it you can find it on Amazon UK or Amazon US.

Ser / Estar - Exceptions?

As I said yesterday, ser and estar can be really tricky to get to grips with for English speakers, as we use 'to be' for both. I get this wrong plenty of times, as do many much more fluent Spanish speakers. Some examples that really confuse me are where 'estar' is used for pretty permanent situations which I would expect to use 'ser' for, whilst some more transient things use 'ser'.

For example -

Está casado = He is married
Estoy vivo = I am alive

Both of these are generally considered to be pretty long term situations, if not totally permanent. But on the other hand

La comida es muy rica = The food is very good (the chances are it won't be for long though as it will be eaten)

So the rule that 'ser' is for permanent and 'estar' for transient can't be relied on. One final example

Está muerto = He is dead

This is about as permanent as anything gets, but despite this 'estar' is the correct verb to use. I still have no idea why.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Ser / Estar

Using ser and estar correctly is one of the hardest things for an English speaker to get right in Spanish. Even pretty fluent speakers of the language can get it wrong now and again if Spanish is not their first language. Generally, 'ser' is used for permanent or long term things, whilst 'estar' is used for more transient things.

soy alto = I am tall
soy inglés = I am English

because if I am these things today, I was yesterday, will be tomorrow and probably will be in ten years time. On the other hand

estoy cansado = I am tired
estoy feliz = I am happy

Because these are things I am right now, not necessarily at another time.

For saying where someone or something is, 'estar' is always used, even for pretty permanent locations like cities.

Estoy en Londres = I am in London
Londres está en Inglaterra = London is in England


Soy de Manchester = I am from Manchester

So 'ser' is used with 'from a place' and 'estar' with 'in a place'.

Finally for today, the choice of which verb is used can change the meaning of the adjective it is used with.

Estoy aburrido = I am bored
Soy aburrido = I am boring
Está listo = He is ready
Es listo = He is smart/clever

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Conjugation Of The Week - 7. Estar - To Be

Last week we had one of the 'to be' verbs in Spanish (ser). This week we have the other 'to be' verb - 'estar'. Tomorrow I will run through when to use which one. See previous posts in this series for more about conjugations.

Estar - to be

estoy = I am
estás = you are (sing. fam.)
está = he/she/it is, you are (sing. pol.)
estamos = we are
estáis = you are (pl. fam.)
están = they are, you are (pl. pol.)

Confusing verbs

Two verbs I tend to confuse in Spanish are amanecer (to dawn) and amenazar (to threaten). This is something that my Spanish friends can find highly amusing of course, but I have heard of many people having similar problems with certain pairs of words. Everyone has their own mental blocks when learning a language, and you will find your own problem words as you go along.

For me, the solution is to identify the problem words and come up with a way to remember or distinguish them. With my example above, I think of the verb 'to menace' as being similar to 'to threaten', and look for 'menace' with an 'a' in front becoming 'amenazar'.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Cooking Empanadas

I have just got to give a mention to the website Empanadas Criollas. I had decided to do an empanada dinner party, and invited a few guests, assuming it would be easy enough to find plenty of empanada recipes online. For those that haven't tried them, empanadas are small pasties or pies with a variety of fillings which are a common snack throughout South America. The most common fillings are based on minced beef (carne picada) but there are many different options - chicken, fish. vegetable, cheese, and even a few sweet versions as well. My intitial recipe research on Google last night produced page after page of recipes for minced beef empanadas but no alternatives. I really wanted to have five or six different recipes, including a couple of vegetarian options. Eventually I stumbled on the site I mentioned above which has absolutely loads of different empanada recipes - sweet and savoury, meat, fish or veggie. It is all in Spanish, so it is a good opportunity to practice. Unless you are really fluent you will have to look up a few words for ingredients or cooking techniques, but that just helps with the learning.

Have fun cooking

Whales and Wales

I have been asked a few times how to say 'Wales', the country, Spanish. The answer is 'Gales', or 'el país de Gales' (the country of the Welsh) but I am always tempted to say 'ballenas' meaning 'whales', the marine mammals. A childish pun I know, but I have been on the recieving end of plenty of similar ones before.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Pronunciation matters

How you pronounce words in Spanish can matter a lot. Speaking as if you are speaking English can make it difficult to be understood, and putting the stress on the wrong sylable can totally change the meaning of a word. The rules of Spanish pronunciation are consistent, so once you have learned them you can pronounce any word. I am not going to go into too much detail here, but I will throw in a few more pronunciation tips in future posts.

To start with, the stress in a word comes on the last sylable, unless it ends in 'n', 's', or a vowel, when it falls on the second last sylable. Words that do not follow this rule always have an accent over the stressed sylable.

For example -

inglés = English (stress on the 'é')
ingles = groins (stress on the 'i')
esta = this (femenine, stress on the 'e')
está = he/she/it is, you are (stress on the 'á')

So as you can see, putting the stress on the wrong part of a word can drastically change its meaning.

Watching the news - RTVE website

Watching the TV news is a good way to hone your Spanish listening skills. A great place to do this in manageable chunks is RTVE's Telediario en 4' (Daily news in 4 minutes). For one thing, four minutes is a good length - long enough to learn something but short enough to keep concentrating. There is also a good written summary of the report which really helps with understanding it. The newsreaders do speak pretty fast, so the extra help is welcome. There is a good mix of national and international news, sport and weather so it is a good way to keep up with what is happening in the Spanish world, whilst the big international stories will probably be familiar from news in English making them easier to follow. It is free to watch as well, so there is no excuse not to give it a go.

Monday, 16 May 2011

More on 'ser

Yesterday's conjugation of 'ser' ('to be') was only half the story. You don't have to study Spanish for long before you realise that there are two words for 'to be' in Spanish, and figuring out which one to use in a given situation can be pretty tricky for an English speaker. The other verb for 'to be' is 'estar' which we will cover in more detail next week. In general, 'ser' is used for more pernanent things and characteristics whilst 'estar' is used for more transient things, as well as for locations.

I will give a few examples here, and a few more with next week's post to help give you the idea.

soy inglés = I am English
es rubia = she is blonde
es alto = he is tall
las montañas son altas = the mountains are tall
somos profesores = we are teachers
eres muy inteligente = you are very clever

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Conjugation of the Week - 6. Ser - To be

This week another essential and very irregular verb - 'ser', meaning 'to be'. Ser is actually one of two verbs in Spanish for 'to be' and the choice of which one to use can be quite subtle. More on that in future posts. See previous posts in this series for more about conjugations.

Ser - to be 

soy = I am
eres = you are (sing. fam.)
es = he/she/it is, you are (sing. pol.)
somos = we are
sois = you are (pl. fam.)
son = they are, you are (pl. pol.)

Talk to people

The only way to get really good at speaking Spanish is to speak it. Lessons, books, TV, the Internet and so on are all great for learning words, phrases, comprehension and grammar, but the only way to speak fluidly is to speak a lot. 

If you are in a region of Spain or Latin America where there are a lot of English speaking visitors it can be hard to speak Spanish to the locals, as they all speak English and want to speak it - either to practice or because they theink they are being helpful. Sometimes the best thing is to just persevere. If you keep speaking Spanish they might figure out that you want to practice and go along with it. Sometimes it feels like a battle of wills - a competition to see who will drop back into their own language first. Sometimes it is worth explaining that you want to learn Spanish and ask the other person if they mind speaking Spanish even if it makes the conversation slower. Only one person has ever complained to me that they wanted to speak English instead, because they wanted to practice it.

It is also worth seeking out Spanish speakers, rather than hanging out with the English all the time in a new place. Many people are happy to help out with learning their language, and will appreciate a little help in learning English in exchange.

I think the best advice it to treat every Spanish conversation, or exchange as an opportunity rather than a hurdle, and learn what you can from it.

Friday, 13 May 2011

El Príncipe de la Niebla - Book Review

I am starting my series of book reviews with the debut novel from one of my favourite authors - Carlos Ruiz Zafón. He is probably best known for 'La Sombra del Viento' ('The Shadow of the Wind), which was his first book for Adults and his first to be translated into English. Before that though, he wrote four books for younger readers, by which I guess I mean older children and teenagers.

The title of the book means 'The Prince of Mist' although I think it sounds better in Spanish. Like most of his books there is a supernatural theme, but unlike his later books it is set in England in 1943 rather than in his native Barcelona. The story is about Max, and the events following his family's move to the coast to escape the city and the war. Max, his sister Alicia and local boy Roland gradually begin to uncover dark secrets in the seaside village where they find themselves. The book is easy to read if you have a reasonable level of reading Spanish, and the pace is quick enough to keep it interesting. It is a little odd as an English reader to be reading a Spanish book set in England, but I quickly got used to that. Plot wise, I found myself gradually being drawn into a supernatural world. It feels a bit like a children's version of a Stephen King novel. Several of Ruiz Zafón's trademarks from his later books are already there, such as the many flashbacks gradually filling in the missing pieces.

This is not the author's most accomplished book but it is still an excellent read, and it is the easiest of his books to read for a student of Spanish.

If you want to buy the book, you can find it here (in Spanish) on Amazon (UK) or here on Amazon (US).

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Reading to Learn

Reading is a great way to learn Spanish, but it can be hard to find suitable books to get started. One approach is to find books you are already familiar with in English. That way you have a good idea of the level of difficulty, and of the general plot of the book which makes it easier. I always felt that I wanted to read real Spanish books, rather than translations, but I have to say that to begin with it is easier to stick to familar authors. Popular choices are favourite children's books, especially those like Harry Potter which appeal to adults as well. The advantage of these is that they are written in easier language and are often shorter (not the later Harry Potter books though). When you start to read in Spanish it will be a slow process, so a shorter book makes it easier to stay motivated until the end.

That said, there is a wealth of Spanish literature out there, some of it very good. I find it an incredibly rewarding experience to read a Spanish novel in its original language. Starting tomorrow I plan to write an occasional series of reviews of Spanish novels to help pick out some good ones for Spanish learners of different levels.

One last tip - try not to use the dictionary too much when reading - it makes for a slow and frustrating experience. It is not essential to understand every word, as  long as you can get the gist. I only look up a word if it is key to the meaning of a sentence, or if it appears several times.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Bastar - Enough

Following on from yesterday's post on 'bastante', I thought I should mention the related verb 'bastar' - 'to be sufficient' or 'to be enough'. 'Suffice' is probably the closest verb in English, but it is not quite as commonplace.

Some examples are -

¿basta con esto? - is this enough?
basta con cuatro - four are enough
bastan dos cebollas para hacer este plato - two onions are enough to make this dish

My favourite though is when it is used by itself, often shouted, meaning 'Enough!' or 'Stop that!'.

¡Basta! - Enough!

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Bastante - quite enough

One of the things I always found a little confusing in Spanish was when meanings overlapped, so that a Spanish word represents two or more English words or vice versa. One example is 'bastante'. This word can be translated as either 'enough' or 'quite'. Basically the meaning depends on the context, but it is worth noting that in English the two meanings are not that different - the biggest difference is that 'quite' goes before a word and 'enough' goes after, e.g. quite good or good enough. Bastante is a word I like to use at times instead of a simple yes or no answer, just to show that I know a little more Spanish than 'sí'and 'no'.

Some examples -

bastante bien = quite well / well enough
es bastante grande = it is quite big / big enough
¿es bastante ancho? = is it wide enough?

Monday, 9 May 2011

More on ir (to go)

Like in English, the verb 'to go' - 'ir' can be used in several ways, so it is important to be familiar with it. It can be used in the sense of 'going somewere', as in a place, or to indicate something happening in the future - 'going to happen'. In both these uses, 'ir' is followed by 'a', meaning 'to'. For example:-

voy a Londres = I go to London (or I am going to London)
va a Madrid = he/she goes to Madrid
van al restaurante = they go to the restaurant (note 'a' + 'el' becomes 'al')

va a nevar = it is going to snow
vamos a hablar = we are going to talk
voy a correr = I am going to run

It can also be used by itself e.g.

 ¿Vamos? = Shall we go?

'Ir' can also be used in the sense of 'to go away', or 'to leave'. In this case it is used reflexively, so I can say 'I go myself', to mean 'I leave'.

me voy = I am leaving
me voy a ir = I am going to leave
se va = he leaves
¡Vayate! = Go away!

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Conjugation of the Week - 5. Ir - To go

Take a few minutes each week to learn a verb conjugation and help your grammar improve painlessly. See previous posts in this series for more about conjugations.

This week, an essential and very irregular verb. It isn't the easiest verb but is is important to learn.

Ir - To go

voy - I go
vas - you go (sing. fam.)
va - he/she/it goes, you go (sing. pol.)
vamos - we go
vais - you go (pl. fam.)
van - they go, you go (pl. pol.)

Usted/ustedes - Why third person?

I often wondered why the 'usted' form of a verb is the same as the 'el' or 'ella' form, and likewise for the 'ustedes' and 'ellos' or 'ellas' forms. So the formal version of 'you' is referred to in the third person. This can be confusing to a student of Spanish because the pronoun (el, ella, usted etc.) is usually omitted, so it may be difficult to see who is doing the action. For example -

el habla = he talks
usted habla = you talk (formal, singular)
habla = he/she talks, you talk

ellas corren = they (female) run
ustedes corren = you run
corren = they/you run

This seemed a little strange to me until someone pointed out that 'usted' can be loosely translated as 'your honour'. Admittedly it wouldn't ever be translated that way in reality - the dictionary definition is 'you', but it helps to understand why the third person form is used. Imagine talking to a judge, or anyone else you might call 'your honour', compared to speaking to anyone else -

Your honour is too kind.
You are too kind
He is too kind

Your honour does well
You do well
She does well

Your honour talks
You talk
He talks

Notice that in each example the 'your honour' form is the same as the 'he/she' form, rather than the 'you' form. The 'usted' forms in Spanish work in just the same way.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Regional differences - words for car

There are many differences in vocabulary between different parts of the Spanish speaking world. One word with several regional variations is 'car' (as is 'automobile').

Spain - the car = el coche
Argentina, Chile - the car = el auto
Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America - the car = el carro

The more formal word 'automóvil' would be understood anywhere though. Note that all of these words are masculine nouns so would be preceded by 'el' or 'un'.

Thursday, 5 May 2011


Image: nuchylee /
I always think it is a good idea to try to learn or revise a few words each day, usually related ones. Following on from 'desayuno' for 'breakfast' a couple of days ago, here are the rest of the day's meals. Just like in English there are many regional variations on how these words are used.

desayuno = breakfast
almuerzo = lunch / brunch / mid-morning snack (late morning or mid-day)
comida = food / meal / lunch / dinner (mid-day meal in Spain and Mexico, may be evening meal elsewhere in Latin America)
cena = dinner / supper (evening meal)

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Recommended website - Notes in Spanish

One of the websites I keep coming back to in my journey towards learning better Spanish is Notes in Spanish. The great thing about this site is that it caters for so many levels, and at the same time keeps the Spanish real. Their aim is to teach Spanish as it is spoken by real people in Spain. There is a wealth of free material on the site - podcasts, videos, blogs, free reports and useful forum. I particularly recommend the podcasts which come in three levels and which are great for listening to in the car.

The site is run by Ben and Marina who also narrate the podcasts, write the worksheets and make the videos. As you listen to the podcasts you start to feel as if you have known them for years. Ben is English but moved to Madrid several years ago where he met and eventually married Marina. This means we get to hear Marina's native Madrid accent as well as Ben's perspective on learning the language.

As well as the free material on the site there is also lots more available to buy and download in the shop section. If you sign up for the newsletter then they will occasionally email you with special offers.

It is hard to come up with any downsides to this site. The Spanish is generally that from Spain, so those wanting to learn Latin American Spanish need to bear in mind that some things may be a little different. Also, the starting point is a little beyond complete beginner, so it is best to learn a little of the very basics elsewhere before tackling the beginner material on this site. Overall this is a fantastic Spanish resource, with lots of material for free and even more to buy at a reasonable price.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Interesting words - (des)ayuno

Image: Paul /
I like it when Spanish words are logical, or when they relate to English words in ways that are not immediately obvious. One example is the word for 'breakfast' - 'desayuno' which on the face of it has little in common with the English equivalent. However 'ayuno' is the Spanish word for 'fast' in the not eating sense. So when you fast you 'ayunar' and when you break your fast you 'desayunar', just like in English.

ayuno = fast
ayunar = to fast
desayuno = breakfast
desayunar = to breakfast
estar en ayuno = to be fasting

The phrase 'en ayuno' is sometimes used in a medical appointment letter to mean 'don't eat beforehand'.

Note that ayunar and desayunar are both regular -ar verbs.

Monday, 2 May 2011

More slightly irregular -ar verbs

Yesterday's post looked at the conjugation of cerrar - another -ar verb that is slightly irregular, but in a pattern followed by many other -ar verbs. It is similar to last weeks verb, contar. In Spanish pronunciation, the stress falls on the last sylable, unless it ends in an 'n', an 's' or a vowel, or unless an accent changes the stress. A stressed 'e' or 'o' often does not sound good in Spanish, so these sounds often collapse to 'ie' and 'ue' respectively. This means that verbs with an 'e' in the second last sylable often follow a similar pattern where in the present tense only the 'nosotros' and 'vosotros' forms are regular and the rest add an 'i' before the 'e' in the stressed sylable.

A few verbs which follow this pattern are -

calentar = to heat up / to warm up
confesar = to confess
despertar = to wake
encerrar = to lock / to shut up / to contain
enterrar = to bury
gobernar = to govern / to rule
helar = to freeze
nevar = to snow
pensar = to think
recomendar = to recommend
sentar = to sit
temblar = to shake/to shiver/to tremble

And some examples -

siento aquí = I sit here
piensa demasiado = he/she thinks too much
¿lo recomiendas? = do you recommend it?
le enterramos = we bury him
nieve ahora = it is snowing now

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Conjugation of the Week - 4. Cerrar - To close

This week another slightly irregular -ar verb. This time it is the forms with a stressed 'e' which change to 'ie'. Again this is quite common in Spanish, with many verbs containing an 'e' in the second last sylable transforming in the same way. See previous posts in this series for more about conjugations.

Cerrar = To close

cierro = I close
cierras = you close (sing. fam.)
cierre = he/she/you (sing. pol.) close(s)
cerramos = we close
cerráis = you close (pl. fam.)
cierran = they/you (pl. pol) close

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Please, like, and dodgy translators

When first learning Spanish I put the simple word 'please' into the translation app I had on the old Nokia I had at the time (I don't think they were called apps back then, but I can't remember what we called them). The translator popped up with the anwser 'gustar'. Now this is technically correct but definitely not what I was looking for, nor what anybody would be likely to be looking for as a translation for 'please'.

As any beginner student of Spanish knows, 'please' is 'por favor', meaning 'for favor'. However in English there is also a verb 'to please' which translates as 'gustar'. It isn't that common a verb in English but in Spanish it is used all the time to express liking. If I like something then I can say it pleases me, and in Spanish that is the only way to say it.

For example -

me gusta pan = I like bread (bread pleases me)
nos gusta bailar = they like to dance
le gustan las montañas = he likes the mountains
¿que te gusta comer? = what do you like to eat?
no me gusta la comida = I don't like the food
me gustas = I really like you

Be careful with the last one - this implies being attracted to someone. If that isn't what you want to say then use 'me caes bien' instead.

Friday, 29 April 2011

El Aguila Roja

It is often said (including earlier on this blog) that watching television programmes is a good way to learn a foreign language. The problem though is that it can sometimes be difficult to find interesting material to watch. Personally I cannot stand watching most dubbed programmes, so I like to find good programmes that were originally made in Spanish. My favourite at the moment is 'El Aguila Roja', which means 'The Red Eagle'. The concept is similar to Zorro or the Scarlet Pimpernel, i.e. a period twist on a superhero theme.

The action takes place around 400 years ago, which was a pretty interesting time in Spanish history and literature. The hero is Gonzalo, schoolteacher by day and masked crime-fighter by night. After the murder of his wife he is sworn to track down her killers and avenge her death. Following the trail leads to a much bigger conspiracy which is gradually revealed to both Gonzalo and to the viewer. The only people who know about Gonzalo's secret identity are his sidekick, Satur, and the mysterious monk Agustín. Gonzalo's son Alonso starts to suspect the truth as well. The villain of the piece is the Comisario - a kind of medieval chief of police - and romance wise there is a complex love polygon involving Gonzalo, his sister-in-law Margarita, Juan the local doctor, Marquesa Lucrecia and the Comisario.

All in all it is an enjoyable period action series with plenty of swordfights and stunts plus a bit of romance, conspiracy and intrigue. It is good fun but definitely not to be taken too seriously. It is not really suitable for kids, despite having a similar feel to many English language shows that are family viewing, because it can get a bit graphic at times both in violence and sexual scenes.

One of the best things about the programme is that you can watch it for free courtesy of Spanish network RTVE at (click on Capitulos completos). There is also an upcoming Film version to look out for.

Some useful vocab -

amo = master / boss
cuñada = sister-in-law
comisario = police captain / superintendant / commisioner
marquesa = marchioness
el aguila roja = the red eagle

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Seven essential Spanish words

When learning any language, I think that there are seven words that can be considered absolutely essential to know - basic greetings, yes/no, please and thank you and so on.

Here are my seven essential words in Spanish -

hello - hola
goodbye - adios
yes - sí
no - no
please - por favor
thank you - gracias
beer - cerveza

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Using the library

There is a wealth of useful material out there when it comes to learning Spanish, but a lot of it can be pretty expensive. The Michel Thomas course I reviewed a couple of weeks ago is one example - it is not bad value for money but it is still quite a lot to spend if you are not sure whether you are going to benefit from it. Personally I love Michel's style of teaching, but it might not suit everybody.

Fortunately there is a place where you can try out these courses for next to nothing, as well as read a reasonable selection of Spanish books for free. I am talking about the often overlooked local public library. My local library back in the UK (and it was a fairly small one) had a selection of Spanish audio and video courses from Michel Thomas, Linguaphone, the BBC, Berlitz and Pimsleur amongst others, as well as plenty of reference books on grammar etc. and a selection of novels in Spanish. This really is a great resource for learning Spanish (or other major European languages) and one that I think everybody should support.

I haven't visited libraries in the rest of the English speaking world, but would welcome any comments from readers about the library system in their part of the world.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

What's with the question marks?

There are a couple of punctuation marks used in Spanish which are not seen in English, namely the upside down question mark and exclamation mark '¿' and '¡'. They can look a little confusing at first, but are simply used to begin the question or exclamation. Often they come at the beginning of the sentence, but this is not necessarily the case. The upside down symbol appears at the start of the actual question or exclamation even if this is mid-sentence.

A few examples -

¿Como estás? - How are you?
Y la restuarante, ¿donde está? - And the restaurant, where is it?
¡Qué lástima! - What a shame!

Monday, 25 April 2011

Slightly irregular -ar verbs

Yesterday's conjugation of the week was 'contar' - 'to count' or 'to tell'. Like most Spanish verbs with an 'o' in the second to last sylable it is conjugated slightly irregularly. In verb forms where the 'o' is stressed it becomes 'ue', with the 'u' being pronounced a bit like a 'w' in English.

There are many verbs which follow this pattern. Here are a few of them -

costar - to cost
descontar - to discount
recontar - to recount
probar - to prove, to test, to try
aprobar - to approve, to pass (an exam or a law)
acordar - to agree, to remind
acordarse - to remember (using the reflexive form of acordar which is something for another post)
recordar - to remember
mostrar - to show
rodar - to roll
sonar - to sound
soñar - to dream
soltar - to release, to let go of

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Conjugation of the Week - 3. Contar - To count or to tell

Like last week's example, 'contar' is an -ar verb, so it has the same endings as andar and other regular -ar ending verbs. However it is slightly irregular, like many Spanish verbs that have an 'o' or an 'e' in the second to  last sylable. More on that tomorrow. See previous posts in this series for more about conjugations.

Contar - To count or to tell (a story)

cuento = I count
cuentas = you count (sing. fam.)
cuenta = he/she/it counts, you count (sing. formal)
contamos = we count
contáis = you count (pl. fam.)
cuenten = they count, you count (pl. formal)

Useful Website - Word Reference

When learning a language a good dictionary is invaluable, and these days they are found online as much as in the bookshops. My personal favourite is This site has a wealth of resources in many languages. There are bilingual and monolingual dictionaries, verb conjugators and specific dictionaries such as a legal dictionary. If a word is not found in the bilingual dictionaries you can search the monolingual Spanish dictionary and there will always be a link to search the RAE (Real Academia Epañola) dictionary which is the official authority on the Spanish language.

In addition to the various dictionaries, there is also an active forum for language questions. This can be a great way to find out how a word or phrase might be used or translated in real life. There is often some discussion about the different ways a word might be used in different parts of the Spanish speaking world.

Finally there are a few useful extras including iPhone and Android apps and a mini-site which can be embedded into a website (which may well make an appearance in this blog's sidebar very soon).

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Correction - Andar

Just a quick correction - or note - to the Conjugation of the Week post on Andar. Andar isn't actually a completely regular verb as I said it was in the post. It is regular in the present tense though, which is the only one I posted, so all regular -ar verbs are conjugated this way in the present tense. It is irregular in some other tenses though (the preterite past for example) so I probably should have used a different verb as an example of a perfectly regular verb.

A big D'oh from me. And a mental note to check more carefully what I write, especially when there are hundreds of regular verbs to choose from.

Apologies to all the readers.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Andorran Elections

Reading newpapers or watching news reports can be a great way to learn Spanish, but it can be difficult to follow the news if you don't know the political background of a country.

Starting with where I am right now, Andorra has just held a general election, and has had a change of government as a result. For such a small country (there are just over 20 000 voters out of a population of around 90 000 as many residents do not hold Andorran nationality) there are a lot of political parties. The most significant, at least this time around, are the Social Democrats (Partie Socialdemócrata - PS) to the centre left of the political spectrum, and the Democrats for Andorra (Demócrates per Andorra - DA) to the centre right. Despite the similarity of names the parties seem to have quite different policies with PS taking a more interventionist approach than DA.

In the recent election, the result was a substantial win for DA, making Toni Martí the new head of the government (jefe del gobierno). DA are the orange (naranja) party here, so the papers were talking about a sea of orange.

You can read more about the Andorran election (in Spanish) in this article from El Periodico.