Try Some Simple Spanish While in Mexico
It is hard for me to believe that it has been over three decades since I started regular trips to Mexico. Over the years I eventually became fluent in Spanish but I still remember the apprehension of those first trips where the only Spanish I knew was “gracias”. Hence I thought some readers might find it fun or helpful to learn a few Spanish phrases for their trip. I’ll even share with you the one Spanish word which IMHO will set you apart from the majority of non-Spanish speaking tourists. But first a little background about English in Mexico.
It may be reassuring to know that in Mexico English speakers can get by in tourist areas without knowing Spanish. Away from the tourist areas it might be a little more challenging but you’ll probably find that some Mexicans will understand enough English to get the gist of what you are trying to say. How is this? The Mexican school system requires the study of a foreign language and most students choose English as it is the language of tourism and international business in that country. Well heeled Mexican parents often place their children in after school English study programs; you’ll see these Escuelas de Ingles throughout the country. Or if they have relatives in El Norte (the USA or Canada) and can afford it, they’ll send the kids north during school vacations to be fully immersed in the English language.
Here are some basic Spanish phrases that you can learn and try out on your Mexican holiday. Apologies for the phonetics as I’m not a linguist.
Hello - Hola (say “oh-lah”)
How is it going? - ¿Qué tal? (say “kay tahl?”)
Goodbye - Adios (say “ah-dee-ohss”)
Bye! - Chau! (say “chow!”); used informally
Good morning - Buenos días (say “bway-nos dee-ahss”)
Good afternoon or good evening - Buenas tardes (say “bway-nass tar-dayss”)
Good night - Buenas noches (say “bway-nass no-chayss”)
Pleased to meet you - Mucho gusto (say "moo-cho goo-stow")
Tip: In Mexico it is important that you greet a shop keeper when entering a shop; a simple “¿Hola, que tal?” will do the trick. When taking your leave be sure to acknowledge the shop keeper again with an “Adios!” or “Chau!” Same holds true at market stalls.
Another tip: If you purchase something, hand your pesos or your credit card to the cashier be it in Walmart or at the local tianguis (street market); it is considered rude to toss your money or card on the counter “American style”.
Yet another tip: If you with a group of Mexicans, be it a party, meal or business function, and you want to leave, it is very important that you go around the room and individually shake hands with each person as you individually say goodbye. I've been to events where it took me a good 30 minutes to leave because I had to say goodbye to so many people. The custom of a general wave and announced goodbye to a group of people is something Mexicans don't care for and, in fact, negatively associate with us Norteamericanos.
Where? - ¿Dónde? (say “doan-day?)
Where is? - ¿Dónde está? (say “doan-day ehs-stah?)
Where is the bathroom (WC)? - ¿Dónde está el baño? (say “bah-nyo”; the letter ñ in Spanish is equivalent to the English sound of “ny” in the word “canyon”)
At least three ways to say it in Spanish depending on the situation.
Excuse me (when trying to get attention) - Disculpame (say "dees-cool-pah-may")
Excuse me / I'm sorry - Lo siento (say "Loh see-en-toe")
Excuse me (i.e. when butting in line or squeezing into an elevator, etc.) - Con permiso (say "con per-mee-so")
Or keep it simple (!) and use the all purpose: Perdon - (say "Pear-doan")
Two words your mother reminded you to use:
Please Por favor (say “pour fah-vour”)
Thank you Gracias (say “grah-see-ahss” and definitely not “grassy-ass”)
Words that got your mouth washed out with soap
Your vacation in Mexico is not the time to sprinkle your conversation with those nifty Spanish swear words you learned in high school. I'm not going to repeat any of them here - if you know them then you know what I'm talking about. Spanish has a rich slang vocabulary and curses are especially colorful, much more so I think than in English. They may sound innocent translated into English but rest assured they can be very powerful in the original Spanish and, if used, could result at the very least embarassment if not personal injury. Seriously.
The one word that will set you apart from the tourist masses:
Quisiera (say “key-sierra”)
It means “I would like” or “He/She would like” (depending on context). For purposes of this post we’ll just assume it means “I would like”.
Put quisiera in front of a noun and add a “por favor” and you’ve politely asked for something. For example:
Quisiera una cerveza por favor. I would like a beer please
Quisiera dos tacos por favor. I would like two tacos please
Quisiera una margarita por favor. I would like a margarita please
Quisiera la cuenta por favor. I would like the check please
Since we’re talking about eating and drinking here are a few key words you might find useful:
Drinking straw - Popote (say “poh-poh-tay”)
Ice - Hielo (say “yellow”)
With ice - Con hielo (say “con yellow”)
Without ice - Sin hielo (say “seen yellow”)
Tip: When dining out in Mexico you will likely need to ask the waiter for your check (unless you happen to be eating at a place that caters mostly to tourists). Why? You can learn why by reading my thread in this forum which describes etiquette when dining in Mexico (Search for: "Dining in Mexico - Etiquette Tips to Know Before You Go").
In my personal experience Mexicans are fairly forgiving and appreciative of foreigners who make a valiant attempt to speak Spanish. Now is the time for you to dust off those memories of high school Spanish and give it a try! Believe me and I know from experience: Nobody is going to make fun of your butchered grammar and horrible accent. Instead you'll get lots of smiles and positive comments on how well you speak Spanish!