Spanish Spanish: A Beginner’s Guide

When I first landed at Madrid Barajas Airport, I walked to baggage claim, took out my headphones and was immediately struck by the Spanish accent. I knew before that people from Northern Spain lisp when pronouncing c’s and z’s (but not s’s!) to differentiate words like cazar from casar, but I didn’t expect the throatiness of the “huh” sound in words like hija or coger. I also did not expect to hear the word coger constantly—in some Latin American countries coger is a vulgar word, but in Spain it is used to mean to grab, take or choose. For example, in Latin America you tomar el metro o una clase but in Spain you coger el metro o el autobús o una asignatura de español.

I watched this video, and learned a lot of swear words from the series Casa de papel, so I considered myself pretty well-versed in Spanish slang, but it turned out I had a long way to go. Although he is not Antonio Banderas, my Spanish professor Enrique also teaches us a lot of slang and common phrases in Spanish which is always fun (and surprisingly useful).

In Spain, you don’t have to be someone’s uncle or aunt to be them to call you tío or tía and you don’t have to be a man for someone to exclaim ¡Pero hombre! when they’re talking to you. Tío/a seems to be extremely versatile when used to refer to people informally—you can’t refer to your professor as tío to his face, but if you’re telling someone you don’t like him, you can say es que no me gusta este tío. If you’re frustrated with how your friend is behaving you can yell ¡tío! in exasperation or if you think someone is quite a guy, you can turn to your friend and say, qué tío ¿no? My peer mentor introduced me to someone the other day and said ella es mi tía and it took me a long time to understand that that woman is in fact her aunt because tia is so ubiquitous here.

Hombre is also surprisingly versatile and can be used for expressing surprise. Although I initially was confused that my host mom and some of our peer mentors addressed me as ¡hombre! occasionally in the middle of a conversation because I am not a man, I soon realized that hombre is not gender specific in all occasions. For example, if a friend tells you she is going skydiving instead of taking her final exams, you might respond ¡pero hombre! ¿Qué haces?

An important theme in almost all of my conversations with other students in the program is talking about how amazing and cool everything is here in Spain. Guay and chulo are very useful in these contexts, but something I find really interesting (or cool) is that there is actually a verb, molar, that means to be cool. For example, Madrid mola, Tufts-Skidmore Spain mola, cómo molan tus zapatos, vosotros molaís.

Although this guide barely scratches the surface, as the possibilities and my confusion seem to be endless, I hope this is helpful in getting an idea of what to expect Madrid. ¿Vale?

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