Monday, September 06, 2010

Spanish quick reference

Update: please use the new version!

When I went to Mexico recently, it would have been useful to have a Spanish quick reference. I looked online and didn't find one. Then a friend went to Cuba, and I decided to make one myself. My reference requires only one sheet of paper (two-sided), but it goes well beyond the usual pleasantries like "buenos dias" and "¿Donde está el baño?", and will hopefully allow you to express almost any thought in "pidgeon Spanish".

The reference has been updated since this blog entry was posted (last update: Sept 25, 2010). I rearranged it so the English words are first rather than second and sorted by the English word, as my friend wanted. I have also added various new words and phrases and replaced "world" with "money", thinking the latter to be a more important noun for a tourist. I also noticed that a lot of Spanish common verbs conjugate irregularly, so I now provide the irregular first person present form beside every verb, e.g. tener (tengo). Probably the gerund form (teniendo) would be more useful, but the verb table is really full and wouldn't have room for those extra letters. Unlike English, Spanish gerunds may have irregular conjugations too.

Before using this reference, I recommend that you take some Spanish lessons first. Here are some essential points to know about Spanish.
  • Spanish is phonetic, but you must learn and practice the Spanish pronunciation rules. No one will understand you if you use English spelling rules to pronounce Spanish. There is a pronunciation section in the quick reference, but you need a few hours of careful practice to get the hang of it.

  • The basic word order of Spanish is SVO (subject-verb-object), like English. However, occasionally the pronoun will come before the verb and other word orders often occur in Spanish that are invalid in English.

  • All Spanish nouns are masculine or feminine, including inanimate objects and concepts. "The" and "a" translate as "el" and "un" when used with masculine nouns, but "la" and "una" when used with feminine nouns. Nouns ending in "o" (but not "ó") are usually masculine; nouns ending in "a" are usually feminine. Nouns not ending in "a" or "o" do not reveal their gender, but such words are more likely to be masculine than feminine.

  • Usually, Spanish adjectives come after the noun, and must match the gender and number of the noun that they are attached to: mesa roja = red table, ojo rojo = red eye, mesas rojas = red tables, ojos rojos = red eyes.

  • As for any foreign language, Spanish does not translate word-for-word from/to English. To say something in pidgeon Spanish, try to boil your idea down to simple, independent components. Don't try to translate "I have just eaten the whole thing" word-for-word, instead identify the concepts and translate them: I, eat (recent past), all-of-this => yo, comer, hace poco, todo de esto. Conjugate if you can: yo, comí, todo de esto. Your Spanish grammar will probably be wrong, but there is a greater chance that it will be understood than a word-for-word translation like "Yo tener comido el todo cosa" (I can probably think of a better example).

  • If you can't find a translation with my quick reference sheet, look for a different way to say the same thing. If you use Google Translate, give it a whole sentence at once to get its best translation.

  • The system of Spanish verbs is terrifyingly complex, no doubt one of the most complex in the world. There are three types of verbs, each with their own set of conjugations: verbs that end in -ir, verbs that end in -ar and verbs that end in -er. Some, but not all, conjugations are the same between the three types.

    There is a different conjugation for each combination of tense, person and number; for example, there are separate words for "I eat", "we eat", "you eat", "you will eat", "you ate", "he/she ate", "they ate", "they would eat" and so forth. There are also special conjugations for imperative (eat this!), negative imperative (don't eat this), gerund (eating), and past participle (eaten). Finally, some verbs are irregular, meaning they have their own special conjugations.

    There are 17 verb tenses (give or take depending on how you count them), and 6 combinations of person and number; basically, a table of conjugations for one verb fills a page. A verb contains so much information that the pronoun is often dropped from the sentence.

  • Learning the pronouns is a smaller crushing burden. English has two categories of pronouns (I/she/he/they and me/her/him/them), but Spanish has about five. My reference sheet shows three of those categories. "Subject" means before the verb, "Object" means after the verb, and "Prepositional" means after a preposition (in a prepositional phrase, e.g. para mi = for me, fuera de ti = outside of you). Tip: all pronouns that start with "t" mean "you".

  • There are a ton of words that mean "is", plus the "va" family of words that mean "is going". "is" is the most complex verb in English, too, but in English it has only seven forms.

  • As in English, words can have many synonyms; usually I did not list them on the quick reference unless there was unused space. I can only hope that a Spanish person doesn't have to continue learning new words into adulthood like an English person (as the English language contains around a million words).
Here are some patterns I've noticed for all three verb types:
  • When you want to use a verb pair like "I can say", "I want to eat", "He learns to swim", etc., the first verb gets the tense information and the second verb is simply the infinitive, e.g. "Puedo decir hola"(I can say hello), "Quiero comer" (I want to eat), "He learns to swim" (Él aprende a nadar). Roughly like English, some verbs require the "to" (Spanish "a") after the first verb while others do not.

    On the plus side, Spanish doesn't seem to have the helping verbs that make English grammar more complex (except for the many forms of "have"--haya, hubiere, etc.--which I counted as part of the 17 verb tenses, but which my quick reference does not cover at all).

  • "er" and "ir" verbs conjugate similarly, so on my quick reference I only show conjugations for an "er" verb, not an "ir" verb.

  • For most verbs, a simple "-o" ending means "I" + present tense, e.g. como = I eat

  • Verbs that end in "s" usually mean "you" or "we", e.g. comes = You eat, comemos = We eat, comías = you used to eat, comimos = we ate. Some "you/we" conjugations do not end in "s", but if it does end in "s" then you know that the verb includes the concept of "you" or "we". The "we" verbs usually end in "mos" so you can tell them apart from the "you" verbs.

  • "you" plural familiar (vosotros) and its many conjugations are only required in Spain. Latin America uses "ustedes", which conjugates the same way as third-person plurals like ellas/ellos.

  • "-a" and "-e"verb endings (habla = speak, come = eat, vive = live) are the closest thing Spanish has to "generic" present-tense verbs. If you want present tense but do not know what conjugation to use, I hypothesize that you will be understood if you just drop the "r" from -ar and -er verbs, or replace -ir with -e. You could also try the Spanish equivalent of "ing", which is "iendo" or "ando": está comiendo = is eating, está hablando = is speaking.

  • If you need past, future or some other tense, I hypothesize that you will be understood if you just use the infinitive form (hablar, comer, vivir) plus a time phrase (en el pasado, en el futuro, hace poco, pronto). When possible, use "va a" (El va a comer = He is-going to eat) or "voy" (I am going) so that you do not need to conjugate the verb.

    By the way, "va" or "voy" themselves can be used like a verb that means "going" (Voy ahora = I am going now).

  • There are two different verb groups for be (is/am/are): estar (estoy, está, ...) and ser (soy, es, ...). I haven't figured out all the details, but as a rule of thumb, I you should use estar with "ing" verbs and prepositional phrases (él está comiendo = he is eating, él está en el tren = he is in the train), and use ser with adjectives (él es alto = he is tall, ella es bonita = she is pretty).
There are, of course, thousands of nouns to learn. The ones I selected for the quick reference are optimized for the needs of a tourist.

I'm a beginner at Spanish so there may be some mistakes. Let me know if you see any. If you use this quick reference, let the Spanish person see you use it--maybe they will be more patient with you.