I don't really know any spanish, and my husband knows part of what he learned in high school, about 13 years ago. We know that when you travel, its nice to at least TRY to speak what you know of the language, but on a trip to Costa Rica last year, we found it to to more harm than good. As soon as we tried, the person we were talking to assumed we knew more and immediately switched to spanish and left us in the dust. We are going to Madrid this fall and I am wanting to learn a few things in spanish, but I am scared of this experience happening again, it was so awkward every time it happened. "oh, you THOUGHT we spoke spanish. no, we were only pretending to. please repeat everything you just said, but now in english, because we are dirty liars." haha Has anyone else experienced this? What is the attitude in Spain toward this sort of thing? I am terrified of ending up in the "ugly american" post I was just reading, so much so that I might pretend to be mute the whole trip.
I know how you feel. My biggest hangup in trying to speak Spanish in Spain is that here we are taught Mexican Spanish, which uses different words and sentence structure for some things. But everyone I met seemed genuinely charmed that I at least tried. I wouldn't worry about it too much. In Madrid you will encounter a lot of English speakers.
Lillie, I've never been to Costa Rica, however I suspect you'll find that the attitudes towards languages is different in Europe than in Central America. In my experience, the "locals" usually have a good idea on the language abilities of visitors, and in most cases seem to appreciate it when people at least "make an effort" (even in France!). Using Italy as an example, it doesn't seem to matter how carefully I try to pronounce words when asking questions. In most cases I'll receive my reply in English (provided they're able to function well enough in English). You'll probably find that you have very few "language difficulties" as most of the people you'll be dealing with in tourist areas will be able to function to some extent in English. However, they may not be fully fluent so keep Rick's suggestions in mind - speak slowly and clearly, enunciate every word and try to avoid slang and contractions. Happy travels!
I've never been to Costa Rica, but I've almost never had the problem of people thinking I knew their language. Believe me, once you utter your first word, they will know Spanish is not your native tongue. Furthermore, most will enjoy practicing their English with you in response. I think it is generally much appreciated to at least say a few basic words in the native tongue. And when you encounter those that speak no English, you'll get a much more helpful response.
I think the safest way is to introduce yourself in the native language. For example say "Excuse me, Can you please help me? I don't speak very good (Spanish/Catalan etc)" and then laugh a little. This worked great for me in Switzerland and Italy. The one time I didn't, we were running to catch the train and I just blurted out "Zurich, is this going to Zurich?" and the conductor then abruptley corrected my manners, stating it's so rude to just ask questions without first introducing yourself and asking for assistance. I was mortified but then we were able to laugh about it after I apologized and he accepted. I am going to Spain in April and have both a Spanish and Catalan phrase book.
I found the people in Madrid very friendly and accommodating of my lack of knowledge of Spanish. It's always good to know a few phrases that will get you by. Usually, they can tell you are not fluent. By trying to know a few phrases and important words, you are showing that you are trying. Many Europeans are fluent in English. Even in France, which seems to have the reputation of arrogance, I found people friendly for the most part. It's those arrogant Americans who expect everyone to speak English and flaunt their lifestyle who are tagged as Ugly Americans. As long as you act like you are there to enjoy "their" culture and not hold up American values as something superior, you should have no problems. It's a wonderful city, go enjoy.
We have met so many great people in other countries who did not speak English and we didn't speak their language but had great communication drawing a map, hand gestures (be careful with that tho), etc. That made many of these trips great. Relax. At my age the only word I wanted to know in their language was bathroom! As someone said, be gracious and you will not be looked at as an ugly American.
In my 3 trips to Spain I've never run into any with a bad attitude about not speaking Spanish. That being said, have you thougt about taking some classes before you go? Check to see if there are any adult learning centers that teach it, last year I found a company on Craigslist and took classes for a couple of months before I went, though I wasn't fluent, for the first time in my life I was the one who could speak more of a foreign language than someone I was conversing with. 'If you find the classes see if they concentrate on Castilian not Latin American, if not take it anyway, anything is helpful, but not totally neccesary.
Relax! Speak!! Do Not Worry!!! Remember this each time and you will be just fine. The people of Madrid meet people such as you (and me) every day. Most are welcoming and will enjoy your talking. I have been traveling to Spain twice a year for several years, speaking only my highschool Spanish- and that was many, many years ago. Amazing how it kicked in when I arrived - I could understand some, even though could not speak it. I participate in www.vaughantown.com, a program designed to bring English speakers and Spanish people together so that they can improve their Spanish - they will enjoy hearing your accent, believe me. So have a wonderful time in Madrid - and in the outlying areas as well -- Toleod, Sevilla, Salamanca, and some many others!
You can do a free online Spanish course at BBC/languages and/or check language programs out from the library. I would suggest starting with "Hello sir/madam, do you speak English?" "Buenos dias Senor/Senora, Habla Engles?" Add restaurant menu items, words for booking rooms, buying tickets, and common ailments and you will be well on your way to getting your point across even when others don't speak English. You are most likely to find lots of people speak English all over Europe. If you find a place where no one speaks English, treasure it - you will have made it off the beaten path, not easy to do (especially if you stick to Rick's itineraries).
We did not have any problems with our very basic spanish language skills in Madrid or anywhere else we travelled in Spain. Beyond 'buenas dias' or 'gracias' we are pretty much done. We had nothing but help from everyone we met. I agree with Brad and advise carrying a phrasebook for figuring out a menu and other basics. Another item that helped us with taxi drivers was to have a specific address written out on note paper. Much easier for them to read the address than try to understand my attempts at spanish.
Yeah, that's the conundrum of trying to speak a foreign language, isn't it? You say what you've memorized or remember then can't understand the answer, lol. Just do the basics--please, thanks, excuse me--in Spanish, and ask, in Spanish, if they speak english. People don't think polite people are a-holes.
english is less commonly spoken in spain so if you start with spanish, people will want to speak it - very natural. but if you speak English you better find people who can, otherwise sign language is ok. don't worry about the UA issue - it's not about speaking english, but an overall mental thing. if you're concerned about it, it's a clear indication you're not one of them, so don't worry so much.
We were in Madrid last spring, and prior to the trip I tried to resurrect the high school Spanish I learned in the, er, middle of the previous millennium. I used a program from the BBC website (Mi Vida Loca) and a computer program through our public library (Mango Languages). Every time I said something in Spanish, people were very kind. I felt as if they regarded me as someone who was trying rather than as the "ugly American." We stayed at the Hotel Europa in Madrid, and I recommend it. The young men at the reception desk were especially patient as I asked in Spanish for a wake up call and arranged for a taxi to the airport. I'd say something and give an inquiring look and they would tell me the correct way so I could learn. They knew I was working hard at it. I could see they were trying to be as serious as I was and trying not to smile. I could have been their abuela (grandma), and I think they loved their grandmas. Those were some of my favorite moments, and I still smile thinking of them. Of course, it would have been much faster just to ask in English.
I speak fluent, unaccented, idiomatic Spanish. My wife speaks none. Most of our travel is Spain is in the out of the way areas where nobody speaks English. She's the hotel/room checker and finder while I go looking for a beer at the end of the day. She also does all the shopping at the rural markets. Nobody's spit on us yet.
Have a few words, most will know what you mean and many will speak English. As a plus, brush up on your Turkish and Arabic.
Everyone has given excellent advice - I too only speak high school Spanish learned muchos anos ago, and did just fine. Amazingly, it really came back to me. A sincere attempt with even the basics was truly appreciated. More amusingly, I apparently "look" Spanish to the Spaniards (and let me tell you, I don't!), so an amazing number of times I was asked in Spanish for directions, for the hours of the church service, or provided the Spanish language brochure for the museum. Imagine their surprise when I fumbled over my "Lo siento, necisito una guia en ingles". Also, our tour bus driver was so thankful I understood 1/100th of what he was saying, I got to hone my second grade level skills with a lot of practice. I know he wondered why I only spoke in present tense and interjected a ton of English words :-)
I have been to Costa Rica and Spain and Guatemala and can say a few things quite well.... cafe con leche por favor.... vino tinto por favor.... and yes then everysone starts speaking Spanish to me and the few words I know are not the ones they are using! So, I just look at them like I am clueless and laugh, and they know I am trying to practice my Spanish. I never found anyone to be irritated with me, and frankly, if they are, as long as you are not being rude, who cares? You will probably never see them again. So, try out your Spanish and hope for the best.
Our first travels to Europe was to Madrid (and other parts of Spain & to Portugal). We found that when we did meet people who did not speak English or do did not understand our limited Spanish, sign language worked very well. And because of all this we have a lovely story that we have often told over the years since that first visit to Europe 15 years ago. We were in Madrid for 5 nights and on the first day we found a nice cafe/bar close to our Rick Steves' recommended pension that we went to for breakfast. Each morning, in our "finest" very basic Spanish and with sign language, we managed to order and receive what we wanted to eat - we were amazed with this. On the 5th morning, again using the same communication methods to order our breakfast, our usual waiter responded to us in perfect English confirming our order as he headed off to the kitchen with a gleeful laugh and doing a wee dance. This was not done in a malicious manner but all in fun. We told him we were leaving that day and he wanted us to know that he spoke English well but had been patient with us practicing our Spanish. We also then understood why all our meals had arrived as ordered as we had regularly mixed English words with Spanish ones as we placed our orders for breakfasts. As another poster said, relax and enjoy - then all will be good.
Dear Lillie, Relax and enjoy!!! I took classes and used language cd's prior to both of our trips to Spain and as soon as I uttered the first few words, whomever I was talking to responded in English! As long as you are polite and trying, everyone was very receptive to helping us out. We got way off the beaten track up into the Pyranees and ran into fewer folks who spoke English but everyone was exceptionally friendly and kind. When I was purchasing some fleece in a little store in Torla, the young man and I used his calculator to communicate prices! The only negative language issue was dealing with a cab driver (who would have fit in in any large city) in Barcelona at night when I couldn't pronounce Vellaquez correctly! Work on learning basic polite terms and phrases and always have your phrase book with you and you'll be fine (don't forget to smile). Enjoy - Spain is our favorite place - so far - and we have tons of great stories from our trips!!
John, on further reflection I am thinking the problem was that you just ordered "jerez" without specifying what kind. That would be like ordering "wine". Perhaps the waiter was just trying to get to to name what type you wanted. For an aperitif, "fino" is most appropriate. Or possibly "manzanilla". but just saying "jere" left him in the dark
My husband and I speak enough Spanish to get us into (and hopefully out of!) trouble, and one thing we noted about the Spanish in Spain is that it's often spoken at lightning speed. In fact, one night we were at a bar, chatting in Spanish with the bar back, and found we could totally understand him. Turns out he was from Ecuador. So if you ask a question in Spanish and the reply is in Spanish, just hold on for dear life and try to get every 3rd word or so!
This is unfortunately a true story. We were in Verona Italy, arriving after a very long car ride. I had been trying out my Italian all trip, as my wife insisted I practice using it instead of relying on her own attempts, which we usually did. So we arrive at our hotel, stagger in exhausted, and after asking the basic questions about a room with a bath, types of beds, etc, I decide to ask the proprietor if he accepts credit cards, saying"Accettate la carta igienica?". Those of you who understand basic Italian would know that 'credit cards', translates to "carta di credito". After my wife and the proprietor stopped laughing, and I realyzed my error, he shrugged and indicated maybe he would accept toilet paper in payment. But what made me feel even worse, he never charged us for the room. I now understand that maybe he WOULD have accepted good ole American two-ply to use instead of the eyewatering razor paper commonly in use back then. I should have sent him a case.
I will add one other story. We were in Spain a long while back and wanted to have some of the famous Spanish sherry after dinner one night, I forget what city. Spanish for sherry is jerez. We ordered in Spanish, but the waiter would not accept our order because he felt we did not pronounce "jerez" correctly. He kept insisting he could not understand us and both my wife and I struggled to say the word in proper Castillian Spanish, with the lisp-sound on the end, all the while he sort of mocked us as other customers looked at us awkwardly. The correct way to say it, btw, is 'yhereth'. Yeah, try it out. Needless to say, I am no longer much of a fan of Spanish Sherry. Good job, Mr. Waiter.
Spanish waiters can be a bit touchy about language and pronumciation. There was one who would not bring me "una taza de té"; he claimed they did not have any even when I pointed to a woman at the next table drinking, you guessed it, a cup of tea. On the other hand, I really like the waiter who took a bill out of my hand and handed it to one of the men at the table, saying in no uncertain terms "Las señoras no pagan!" (It was my turn to pay after going out for tapas with these people several nights in a row, but local custom rules!)
Lola - We asked him specifically for a good local sherry, suggesting he provide an opinion, which he never got around to doing. He even repeated at one point, "a good local what"? Maybe we were saying another word that is not as savory as 'jerez', but we don't know. It was the only word he seemed to have trouble with understanding. We must have tried twenty different versions before we just stopped talking, looked at each other and gave up. He stood there, like he was expecting us to keep trying and finally just walked away. (new edit - we also just said 'sherry' eventually, but to no avail) We got another waiter, who had no problem with our order and we paid him the tip for the entire meal. The first waiter actually chased after us yelling loudly when we did this, but we shrugged at him like we did not understand and slammed the restaurant door in his face as we left, though that actually was not intentional. We travel enough to know bad manners when we see it and it is so rare to experience in the competitive services industries of Europe that this instance stands out like nothing else. Except for a pissant proprietoress of a restaurant in Florence, this was possibly the worse example we came across.
I recommend getting a small phrase book with important words...AND to learn some basic communication in a short period of time I like the Pimsleur CDs. I have this in Dutch. https://www.pimsleurapproach.com/learn-spanish.asp Then when you meet people, you say, Good Afternoon, do you speak Spanish. If not, you have the phrasebook. I've had to point to words in my Berlitz phrasebook while shopping for feminine products at the Rome trainstation drugstore. ;)
"Good Afternoon, do you speak English?" oops
I carry a little English/other language dictionary. And attempt to say the word while pointing to the word. Sometimes we end up speaking "dictionary". I point to my word, then the other person finds their word, back and forth. It is slow but it works for the basics.
I do what Carole does: Start out with a greeting in the local language, and then politely and humbly ask if the individual speaks English. Nine times out of ten they do and are pleased to "practice" on me. I've had folks respond back to me in English even though I started in their language (my bonjour must be terrible and gave me away as needing help with the conversation). I think you'll be fine and it's okay to state that your language skills are not very good and that you did not understand what they stated. It won't make you a liar.
I have been using busuu.com to learn basic French. Free and very easy to use. In Madrid, we did get laughed at and avoided by waiters. Smaller towns were much more acccomodating. Just start off with their language, asking if they speak English. You should not have any problems. Know the basics! If you make an effort, so will they, usually. We loved Avila and the coastal areas best. Hope you have a great trip!
While practicing and learning Spanish my daughter asked the waiter for a story (cuento) instead of the bill(cuenta)... I am sure he had a laugh about that one later ...at least I think those are the correct words...
he did end up giving her the bill and I don't think he told her a story
Lillie, I feel your pain LOL! ('please repeat everything you just said') If I anticipate one of THOSE situations, I first say in whatever language, 'Excuse me, I speak very little (French/Italian/German) - I would like an espresso' or whatever. That slows down the rapid-fire response! Usually. If not, I try to get the other person stopped ASAP so they don't have to do the WHOLE thing all over - because they might decide they don't really want to do the WHOLE thing over LOL! FWIW, your Spanish must have been pretty good! OR, more likely, the other person was ecstatic that they didn't have to speak English because they didn't know any English! Relax; the fact that you understand the problem is 95% of the way towards working around it! There are much bigger a-holes out there to compete with; you'll be waaaay down on the list ;-)
There is also this excellent series of podcasts called "coffee break Spanish" (just google it). It takes you from the very basics of conversational (mostly continental) Spanish to more advanced stuff in increments of 15 minutes - more or less. You can download all of them onto the device of your choice, and listen to them when you have time. Right now they are up to podcast #75. And the best thing is - it's free.
Being raised in Southern California my Spanish is Mexican Spanish and since I own a home in Panama and live there part of the year I've picked up some pretty poor Espanol over the years! The bottom line is that Spain is used to tourists, typically Brits, but Americans are far from uncommon. My experiences in traveling is that it is always worth while trying to communicate in the local language and no matter how much you are butchering it, the person you are talking to will appreciate you at least giving it the old college try before begging you to either stop or to speak English instead! The best way to counter the "Ugly American" is to just get out there and start mixing it up with people and trying to communicate with them as best you can.
I'm pretty comfortable in Spanish which helped when traveling to Italy last summer. But then after being in Italy for a month, when I headed to Germany I kept accidentally saying grazie to the waitstaff instead of danke. Embarrassing, but the waiter in Garmisch gave us discounted meals so that was nice! (One of the perks of being a young woman)