However good our Spanish is, there may well be moments when we need to express ourselves in English to a Spanish speaker whose English is better than our Spanish. If we are struggling to communicate in Spanish it is often a huge relief when we find we can switch to our native tongue and be understood. When this occurs we must be careful not to assume that the person who is speaking to us in English is fluent enough to be able to understand accents, colloquialism, fast speech or indeed our sense of humour. My students often complain that the locals don´t take their linguistic limitations into account and rattle away to them in Spanish in response to a timid “Buenos días”, but just how careful are we to speak English in a way that they can easily understand?
In my previous article I wrote about the Germanic and Latin roots of English and it is a fact that the Spanish will understand us far better if we use Latin based words. This is strange for us as we tend to think of those words as more highbrow and are inclined to use Germanic based words to simplify our message. We would say for example: “I made a mistake” rather than “I committed an error” but the Spanish for both is “Cometí un error”. The other important point is that we should cut out unnecessary words and get to the point directly and clearly. Again, this goes against our Britishness which tells us that adding more words makes us more polite.
Let’s suppose you are taking a machine back to a shop because it doesn´t work properly. To an English assistant you might say something like: “Excuse me, I wonder if you could help me. I’ve tried this machine out several times and it doesn´t seem to be working properly. I wonder if you could have a look at it. I might be doing something wrong, or it may be there’s something not quite right with it.” If you came out with that to a Spanish shop assistant, even one with reasonable English, I can assure you they will be panicking frantically and just about picking up the main point that you have faulty machine, not because of anything you have said, but simply because you have brought it back.
A far better approach would be to say something like this: “Excuse me, I have a problem with this machine. It doesn´t function. Can you help me?” We have said exactly the same thing, but used simple phrases: “Excuse me”, “Can you help me?” and key words that are similar to Spanish: “problem” and “function”. If you combine this with slower and clearer speech (and a pleasant manner) I can guarantee you’ll get what you want far more quickly and easily and you´ll have made a friend in the ferretería as well, who could be useful in the future.