Sunday, January 30, 2011

Spanish Quick Reference v2

The four-page Spanish course

When you go to a foreign country it's comforting to know that you have a way to communicate if you need to. To this end, I looked online for a Spanish Quick Reference and didn't find one. Then a friend went to Cuba, and I decided to make one myself. Later, a hard drive crashed and I lost the original document (only the PDF remains), but I wanted to make a new-and-improved reference with more information.

The new reference (update 2.20: Sept 2014) requires two double-sided sheets of paper, but the first sheet is most important (the second sheet contains supplemental information, so you can generally go without it). My reference 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". It is designed primarily to help you learn and speak Spanish rather than understand it; for the purpose of understanding Spanish, perhaps later I should make a mini-dictionary so you can look up the most common words.

Sorry about the strange file name. The reference is hosted on, which requires the name to be scrambled. Updated to v2.1 Feb. 8 with various minor revisions, such as a new list of "no translation needed" adjectives, and a few more words and phrases such as "mucho gusto" (pleased to meet you) and "probablemente" (probably).

I used various techniques to pack a lot of words into a small space. For example, the verb table on page one is divided into three columns. Each column is a different size, and I divided the entries into columns according to how much space each one required. I put the widest entries in the large left column, and the smallest entries in the thin right column. The nouns, adjectives and adverbs are divided the same way, except with two columns instead of three.

This blog entry is a combination of the tips I wrote for the first quick reference, plus the final page of the new quick reference, which is a very quick introduction to grammar in general and Spanish in particular.

My ambitious goal with this reference is that you can go to any Spanish-speaking country with a double-sided sheet of paper and engage in basic pidgeon conversation. To do this, you need to understand basic Spanish grammar and how to use this reference. Good eyesight also helps!

To say something in pidgeon Spanish, don't try to translate word-for-word. Instead, try to boil your idea down to simple, independent components, and translate those. Also, study the reference sheet in advance, and look specifically for things that are said differently in Spanish than English. Some examples:
  • As I will mention again later, object pronouns typically appear before the verb, so someone might say "yo te invito" for "I invite you", (where yo = I, te = you).
  • "An hour ago" translates to "hace una hora" (literally "ago an hour"; "hace" also means "do").
  • Never leave out the word "that" (que): say "I think that we're going to eat" (Creo que vamos a comer), not "I think we're going to eat". Say "the boy that I saw" (el niño que vi), not "the boy I saw". And watch out, "que" has many different meanings.
  • Some verbs are spoken in a reverse style: "It pleases me" (me gusta) instead of "I like it", "the face hurts me" (me duele la cara) instead of "My face hurts", and so on. There is a small section on this topic on p.2
  • One says "I have 15 years" ("tengo quince años") instead of "I am 15 years old".
  • There are many "fixed phrases" in Spanish (little phrases one should memorize). For example, "aquí tienes" ("here you have") is equivalent to the English fixed phrase "Here you are", meaning "I present this to you". Far too many of these exist to list them on the quick reference, but a few are provided in the "Small phrases" section on p.2. It is not uncommon that a fixed phrase in Spanish has a different meaning than its direct translation suggests. For example, "otra vez" ("another time") actually means "again" (because Spanish has no word for "again"). Another example is "Dar la mano" ("to give the hand"), meaning "give a handshake".
If you can't find a translation with my quick reference sheet, look for a different way to say the same thing. For example, it doesn't include the noun for "work" (trabajo), but it does include the verb for "work". You won't find "thirsty" or "to drink", but you can find the words "quiero", "agua", and "bebida" ("I want", "water", and the noun for "drink"). I didn't include the word for "clean" ("limpio") but "dirty" ("sucio") is on there, so after you review the "small phrases" section, you could ask someone: "¿Cómo se dice (how to say) lo contrario de sucio (the opposite of dirty)?"

If you use Google Translate, give it a whole sentence at once (including the period!) to get its best translation. Be careful: Google Translate often does not translate correctly or faithfully. has a good dictionary.

The reference can only be so tiny because Spanish is phonetic. The spelling of any word tells you how to say it! Study the rules on p.2. Practice pronunciation as much as possible, and remember: H is silent! Note: “y” (and) is pronounced “i” as in “sí”. Ordinarily "y" can sound like "j" in "joy", but it must makes more of an "i" sound if it appears at the end of a word.

Languages are never translated word-for-word, but all languages have the same basic elements: nouns, pronouns, verbs, descriptive words (adjectives, determiners and adverbs) and connective words (conjunctions and prepositions). The reference is packed with all of these.
  • Nouns (people, places, concepts) are the things we talk about. For example, a boat (un bote) is a noun.
  • Pronouns (e.g. he, they, it) refer to nouns introduced elsewhere.
  • Verbs (e.g. jump, speak, seem, be) combine with nouns to make sentences: un bote va (a boat goes).
  • Adjectives (e.g. tall, happy, late) describe nouns: bote pequeño rápido (fast little boat). Note that Spanish adjectives normally come after the noun, but a few are normally placed before it, e.g. otro (other), bueno (good), mejor (better), pocos (a few). Put numbers in front, too.
  • Determiners (e.g. the, an, each) are little words that come before nouns: el bote (the boat).
  • Adverbs (e.g. today, there, happily, very) describe the time, location, or manner of verbs (llueve hoy = it rains today) or adjectives (muy mojado = very wet) Conjunctions (and, or, if) combine two phrases of the same type: estes y esos (these and those), ver o ser (see or be).
  • Prepositions (e.g. to, for, on, except) serve the same purpose as adverbs, but are followed by a noun: a casa (to home), en la piscina (at the pool)
In the examples section,
  • Verbs are underlined,
  • Nouns/pronouns are bold, and
  • Descriptive words are italicized
  • (In parenthesis: literal translations and words needed in only one language).
This is to help you to see how the English and Spanish sentences are related. (Ésto es para ayudarte a ver cómo las frases Inglés y españoles están relacionados.)

Spanish grammar is more complex than English. Firstly, all nouns have a gender (masculine “m” or feminine “f”) that affects nearby words:
  • Un hombre bueno: a good man
  • Una mujer buena: a good woman
  • El otro horno: the other oven
  • La otra esquina: the other corner
Feminine forms most often end in “a”, masculine forms most often end in “o”. When space permits, this guide marks masculine nouns “el” and feminine ones “la”. The word “the” can also be plural (e.g. los hornos, las esquinas). To make a plural noun, just add -s (or -es if the word does not end in a vowel.) Even adjectives have plural forms: palabras importantes = important words.

Luckily, the order of words in Spanish is often the same as English. For example, the order of the words in this sentence is exactly the same in both English and Spanish: Por ejemplo, el orden de las palabras en esta frase es exactamente el mismo en ambos Inglés y español.

However, pronouns tend to be in different places in Spanish. The pronoun table is on p.1. Here are three rows from it:
I/me yomememí*
you (fam.)tú*teteti
he/him él*loleél*
The star * marks words with multiple meanings. Pronouns are complicated, so study this well:
  • There is no word for “it”, so it is usually translated as “lo” or “la” (him or her): lo for masculine “it”, la for feminine “it”. Use lo if you are unsure.
  • Subject pronouns are the ones that come before the verb in English, e.g. “I, we, he, she”. So “él cocina” means “he cooks” or possibly “it (m) cooks” (as in “the oven cooks”). One can move a subject pronoun to the end (“cocina él”).
  • The direct object comes after the verb in English, e.g. “me, us, him, her”; however, in Spanish it often comes before the verb. So “él cocina” means “he cooks”, but “lo cocina” means “sb. cooks him/it.” (“sb.” is short for “somebody/something”) An indirect object corresponds to the third, middle noun in English sentences. For example, “I give him a bird” translates to “Yo le doy un ave”, and “He gives it to me” translates to “Él me lo da”. The direct object may not be present, so “le voy a mostrar” means “I'm going to show (something to) him/her”, but “lo voy a mostrar” means “I'm going to show him/it (to someone)”. However, notice that “te” or “me” can be a direct or indirect object. So “te voy a mostrar” means “I'm going to show you”—either “show you something”, or “show you to somebody”.
  • Prepositional pronouns come after prepositions, e.g. a mi = to me, para ti = for you, como él = like him.
  • There are also “formal” ways of saying “you”. It's very confusing; just remember, use “le” or “usted” when saying “you” to old people.
By far the most complex issue is verbs. The system of Spanish verbs is terrifyingly complex, no doubt one of the most complex in the world. Spanish verbs have around a hundred regular forms (called conjugations) in total. Verb forms depends on tense (present, past, conditional...), person (first person “I”, second person “you”, third person “he/she”), number (plural or not) and mood (indicative/ subjunctive). Moreover, regular forms may vary depending on whether the infinitive ends in -ar, -er or -ir. Basically, a table of conjugations for one verb can fill a page. Finally, some verbs are irregular, meaning they have their own special conjugations. And Spanish speakers often leave out the subject pronoun (“yo”, “tú”, “él” etc.) because the verb already encodes it!

The first thing to know is that there are two verbs for to be (is): estar and ser. Both have dozens of forms, but the most important are estoy/soy (I am), estas/eres (you are), esta/es (someone or something is), and estan/son (they are). A table on p.1 lists some of these:
tenseI doSb. doesI didSb. did
be - sersoyesfui*fue*
be - estarestoyestáestuveestuvo
  • ser describes the time or date (es lunes = it's monday; son las tres = it's three (3:00); ella es tarde = she is late).
  • ser also describes qualities that are innate or expected: soy blanco = I'm white, ella es feliz = she is happy (normally), él es malo (he is a bad guy)
  • estar describes location or present status: está aquí = it's here, estoy feliz = I'm happy (at present), él está malo = he is ill (a few adjectives can change meaning when you change from estar to ser.)
Other than that, don't worry too much about verbs at first: just use the infinitive form (which ends in -r) so that people know you aren't any good at Spanish yet. Tell them, “hable muy despacio, por favor” (speak very slowly please) and “no hablo español” (I don't speak Spanish). You could also ask for "una palabra a la vez" (one word at a time). Use time phrases when appropriate: “ahora” now, “hoy” today, “ayer” yesterday, “próximo mes” next month, "mañana" tomorrow, "esta mañana" this morning, "en la mañana" in the morning (yes, mañana means both "tomorrow" and "morning"), "en el pasado" in the past, "en el futuro" in the future.

When you're ready, memorize the “important conjugations” on page 1, so you can say correct phrases such as “tengo una idea” (I have an idea) or “ella debe salir” (she should leave).

Also, you should learn that “-o” endings usually mean “I (present tense)”, and “-es” endings usually mean “you (present tense)”. After you have practiced Spanish for a long time, you should start using the verb table on p.3. Note: a lot of related nouns also end in “o”; e.g. “almuerzo” can mean either “lunch” or “I eat lunch”; “trabajo” is “work” or “I work”.

A pronoun after the verb may merge with it to form one word, e.g. dime (tell me), llamarse (to call oneself). Some Spanish verbs are “reflexive”, typically involving the word “se”; these are different from the “Reverse verbs” listed on p.2. I'll explain those briefly in the list of "tips" below.

A word's range of meaning varies a lot between languages, e.g. sentence normally becomes "frase" in Spanish, but a punishment for a crime is a "sentencia". "to work" is trabajar, but if you want to say "This thing doesn't work", it should be "esta cosa no funciona". I carefully picked translations, but watch out for variations of meaning, especially when entries are marked with a star (*) or tilde (~).

Here are some more tips:
  • When a woman describes herself, she uses feminine adjectives, but when a man describes himself, he uses masculine adjectives. For example, "Soy rico" means "I am rich", but it also indicates that I am a man. A woman should say "Soy rica". The adjectives on the reference sheet are in masculine form; change any -o ending to -a for feminine.
  • Watch out for words with multiple unrelated meanings. Common examples are el/él (the/he), la (the/her), si/sí (if/whether/yes), está/ésta (is/this), se/sé (meaning itself, himself, herself, themselves, or "I know"), que/qué (meaning "that", "than", or "what", among other things). Often, the presence of an accent mark (or in spoken Spanish, different emphasis or rhythm) conveys the difference.
  • Be sure to review the "No translation needed" section on p.1, bottom-right corner. This is divided into two halves: masculine nouns on the left, feminine ones on the right. To save space, these Spanish nouns, which are spelled similarly to English nouns that mean the same thing, are not listed elsewhere on the reference. At the bottom are nouns for people, which do not happen to change form depending on gender: "el doctor" the (male) doctor, "la doctor" the (female) doctor. Remember, although spelled like English words, you must pronounce them according to Spanish rules! For example, "doctor" is pronounced "doke-TOR", not "DAHK-ter".
  • Likewise there is a section on p.2 for adjectives that need no translation. I recently discovered a large number of these adjectives, and included them in microprint: correcto, incorrecto, importante, final, falso, diferente, decente, delicioso, digital, elegante, evidente, extra, extremo, fatal, familiar, fantástico, favorito, federal, flexible, genérico, genético, glorioso, ilegal, ilegible, imaginario, histórico, honesto, horrible, humano, ignorante, impenetrable, incalculable, imprudente, incoherente, injusto, incomparable, incompatible, incompetente, incompleto, inconveniente, inteligente, invisible, irritable, lamentable, paternal, perfecto, permanente, persuasivo, popular, público, radial, receptivo, redundante, regional, repugnante, resonante, ridículo, robusto, romántico, selecto, transparente
  • 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).
  • 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. The reference has a list of these "verb chains" in small print on p.2. Luckily, 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 the quick reference does not cover at all).
  • 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.
  • The Spanish equivalent of "ing" endings is "iendo" or "ando": está comiendo = is eating, está hablando = is speaking. However, after a preposition, an infinitive is used instead: "antes de comer" (before eating).
  • 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 can speak about the future correctly without conjugating the verb. "va" or "voy" can be used by themselves to mean "going" (Voy ahora = I am going now). Oh, by the way, a common phrase is "vamos"--literally "we are going", but it usually means "let's go".
  • Occasionally, the word "lo" (which should mean "him" or "it") means "the" instead. This occurs in idioms (fixed expressions) such as "lo mismo" (the same), "lo contrario de" (the opposite of). "lo" also appears, without any apparent meaning, in fixed expressions such as "por lo tanto" (therefore) and "a lo mejor" (probably).
  • Finally, a word about the reflexive verbs. Most often, reflexive verbs are actions that you do to yourself: levarse (wash oneself), llamarse (call oneself; be named), ducharse (shower oneself; take a shower), quitarse la ropa (undress, literally "remove oneself the clothing"). So I might say "me ducho" (I shower myself), or "se ducha" (he/she showers themself). There are many reflexive verbs, so "se" (self, not to be confused with sé "I know") is much more common in Spanish than English. In fact, the concept of reflexive verbs goes well beyond what makes logical sense; many reflexive verbs are not actions that we think of as doing to ourselves. For example, "despertarse" means to wake up oneself, although English speakers don't think of this as something we do to ourselves because we are unconscious when it happens. Similarly, we may say about a baby "el bebé se llamo Gloria" (the baby calls herself Gloria), although the baby may not even know its name yet. Finally, some reflexive verbs even describe actions we clearly do to something else. For example, "estacionarse", meaning to park a car, literally means "to station oneself". However, a reflexive verb is never between two people: the object of the reflexive verb can involve inanimate objects (like clothes being removed or a car being parked) but not a person. At least that's my working theory.
Finally, study the examples, watch the excelente BBC online course “Mi Vida Loca”, read this page repeatedly, and practice as much as you can. ¡Buena suerte! (good luck!)

Monday, January 03, 2011

Learning Spanish

My Spanish learning is coming along fairly nicely. I still can't understand most spoken Spanish (Hable muy lento, por favor... ¡soy un principiante!), but given a little time to examine, I can understand a significant amount of written Spanish.

I'm using and BBC Languages ("mi vida loca"). The BBC's lessons are free and more entertaining, but don't teach as much; and you can learn a lot on for free if you rely on peer review. Livemocha is sort of a low-quality version of Rosetta Stone, without a computer to check your pronounciation, with lazy translations (e.g. "entregando" translated as "giving" [dando] instead of "deliver", "submit" or "surrender"; "tomando" translated as "eat" [comer] instead of "taking in" which would be more accurate), and poor teaching practices: failing to introduce the gender of many new nouns, failing to introduce the infinitive form of new verbs, and using present continuous probably far more than real Spanish speakers do. Plus there is absolutely no explanation of spelling rules, grammar rules, or differences between different Spanish-speaking countries. And their word choices seem off; for example they always use "automóvil" for a car instead of the more common "coche" or "carro". Still, when combined with other sources of information such as this grammar tutorial and verb reference, you can learn a lot from Livemocha.

I wish they'd focus on breadth rather than depth though. Livemocha seems to have introduced three or four verbs each that all mean "take" and "put", two words each for "pour", "hair", "hot" and "rough"... and after dozens of lessons they still haven't introduced important words such as: make (as in, he makes me happy!), know, learn, seem, understand, find, hear, say, try, maybe, probably, together, too much, slow, therefore/so, if.... They also haven't introduced conversational phrases such as "I don't understand", "I know/I don't know", "anything else?", "say again?", "pleased to meet you", "How much does it cost?", "The bill please", "for example", "my name is ____", "come here", "let's go", "how do you say?", "wow", "yay", "really?", "are you sure?", etc.

After studying Esperanto awhile, I realized that you can express a good percentage of your thoughts with only a few hundred words--but when it comes to natural languages, which are a minefield of ambiguity and strange rules, only someone that knows the language well can choose "safe" words that are not likely to cause confusion. For example, in Spanish there are at least two words for "hot", "caluroso" and "caliente", used in different contexts. If you only have time to learn one of those words, which one should you learn? I heard that if a person is described as "caliente", it means horny. Hot food is supposed to be described as "caliente", but if it also means horny, it's probably better to teach beginners "caluroso" and risk that they will call food "caluroso", rather than risk that they will ask a woman if she is "caliente". ¡¿Qué?!

Google translate constantly ticks me off for various reasons. Its dictionary, for example. Quite often there is one very good translation for a word, for example, "difícil" means "difficult". But when you put "difícil" in Google translate, it offers "difficult" first plus 18 other possibilities: hard, tough, tricky, complicated, awkward, arduous, problem, painful, heavy, delicate, difficile, grave, picky, off-putting, complicative, tender, wild, touch-and-go. Damn it, I want a translation, not a thesaurus. Most of these translations are very misleading, of course. Rocks are "hard", Leather is "tough", magicians are "tricky", women are "complicated", nerds are "awkward", circumcisions are "painful", and pidgeons are "wild", but probably "difícil" is the wrong translation in all of these cases. When they give me 19 possibilities, how am I supposed to know which ones are important enough to worry about? Because "difícil" is spelled like "difficult", it's probably safe to assume that "difficult" is the only translation that matters. But what if the word had been something unrecognizable like "falpike"--how would I know which translations are relevant? Spanish-English dictionaries, I fear, might be even worse than Esperanto-English ones. And not only is the dictionary terrible, Google's translation engine sucks and cannot be trusted either, but I have better things to do right now than to investigate why.

Oh dictionary writers, why don't you give some examples that would clearly show what a word means in different contexts? Or why not explain with complete sentences? Especially on the internet, you have enough space.

Anyway, I plan to make a new version of my Spanish Quick Reference that incorporates some corrections, some new words, and a third page with common conjugations of 25 verbs. I might have to expand it to four pages actually; perhaps I'll dedicate a page to examples or something.