When we start to study a new language it is inevitable that we first learn set phrases that will be useful for us in our everyday lives. In my beginners Spanish classes, and no doubt in all others as well, we learn phrases like: “Hablo un poco de español” “No entiendo” “¿Dónde está el aseo?” and so on. Obviously at this stage we are not able to demonstrate, through our use of language at least, any kind of individual personality. Because of this restriction, when I first arrived in Spain I found it impossible to get across in Spanish that I actually had a sense of humour, which was quite frustrating!
Then as we progress in our studies we start to be able to express our own ideas. Instead of coming out with set phrases we learn to construct sentences and say more interesting or personal things. However, we are still inclined to think that there is only one way to say something. We are concerned about saying things correctly, often forgetting that there might be half a dozen ways of saying the same thing correctly! The same happens in English of course. If someone asked you how to order a beer in a pub, you could probably come up with at least ten different ways of doing it, some more colloquial than others, but all basically correct. Also, our choice of phrase often reveals our personality.
These same differences should start to emerge as our Spanish gets better and we learn alternative phrases that mean the same thing. Occasionally in a class I will look at a student and recommend a particular phrase that I think will “suit” them. That may sound a bit strange to more orthodox language learners, but I have found it a really good way of helping people to express themselves when speaking Spanish.
Some time ago I taught the phrase “ni fu ni fa” to a class. This is an informal, rather jokey, expression that means “neither one thing nor the other” or “so-so”. For example: “¿Te gustó la película? (Did you like the film?) “Ni fu ni fa”. There was a student there who struggled with his Spanish and subsequently dropped out of class, but who had a great sense of humour. I bumped into this man about three years later and told me that the best thing I ever taught him was “ni fu ni fa”. He said he uses it all the time and it makes all the Spanish people he comes across laugh. I thought that was a great little story of how to use individual phrases that suit your personality to make a connection.