Posted by: janecronin | June 12, 2016

Understandable English

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.



  1. “I have committed an error ..” hmmm

  2. Some good points here. However, i.m.h.o. “hispanifying” our English in this way is only an instant or short-term solution. Long-term, it aggravates the comprehension deficit you rightly mention when Spanish speakers try to listen to a native English person. Usually, they frown in puzzlement, having somehow expected a slightly anglicised version of Spanish (false cognates included).

    For many English speakers who have lived in Spain for years, this Latinised version of English begins to stick. One only has to read some of the local press to see that the author has somehow absorbed this into his or her literary DNA (so to speak).

    In my experience, the most successful Spanish students of English are the ones who go out of their way to learn phrasal verbs, use ‘to get’ (and ‘might’, indeed – as you included). The only way to improve is through exposure to the new knowledge, language input, skills – whatever the subject.

    That said, noone wants to have to give an impromtu lesson in a shop, so the temporary fix is quite understandable!

    • Hi, Yes, I think I was going for the temporary fix situation rather than expecting knowledge of phrasal verbs! The background really is ignorant Brits who just assume that Spanish people can pick up their meaning, regardless of their choice of words. Also, as I teach a lot of Brits, I find it does help if they are aware of the vagaries of their own language. Having said that, I agree that self-censured, unnatural English is the bane of English teachers abroad!

  3. impromptu – whoops

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: