Advanced Intermediate 30 – Spanish Culture and the Big Differences

cultural scaleSpanish Culture

Is it so different?

Given that Cynthia and I are from different backgrounds, (I’m British and she is Spanish.) we have been able to appreciate some of the key differences between the two countries.

Culturally, we are similar in many things and yet in others we couldn’t be more different.

In the Podcast we cover a number of areas in which we are different, yet in this Blog I would like to focus on one particular area of British and Spanish culture and that is, POLITENESS.

Rude or just Direct?

If the British are famous for one thing it’s their Hooligans and their Politeness. (Two things actually.) Putting the hooligans to one side, let’s focus on our politeness.

We do love our PLEASES just as much as we do our THANK YOUS.

The Spanish, however, are not so big on saying please and thank you. In fact, we British really do annoy them with our almost anally retentive need to bolt a ‘please’ onto every ‘yes’ and a hearty ‘thank you’ after each ‘no’.

“Do you want milk with that?”…”Yes, please.”…”And sugar?”…”Yes, please.”…”And a biscuit?”…”No, thanks.” and so on and so forth.

The Spanish, on the other hand, typically (if you’re lucky) give you a ‘please’ at the beginning and a ‘thank you’ at the end of each transaction. In between, a simple ‘yes’ and ‘no’ is quite enough for them.

And that works beautifully well in both countries.

Put a Spaniard in English culture or an English person in Spanish culture, however, and everything goes “patas arriba”.

British Politeness.

In the U.K., replying with a curt ‘yes’ when being asked whether you want something is tantamount to breaking wind in a lift. Any Brit worth their salt would be deeply offended and consider it extremely ‘rude’ behaviour.

Spanish Directness.

In Spain, repeating ‘yes, please’ ad infinitum makes a Spaniard suspicious of your motives and they might even think that  ‘ le estás tomando el pelo.” (You’re making fun of them.)

And so it’s these subtleties of the English and Spanish culture, or any culture for that matter, that can be very important to know.


Another interesting difference along these same lines is the Spanish ‘TUT’.

This is done when a Spanish person wants to say ‘no’. Sometimes, rather than saying ‘no’, they simply make a tutting noise two or three times and wiggle their finger from side to side.

Here in the U.K., this same action doesn’t mean ‘no’, it means “BAD PERSON/ACTION”. It’s a sign of disapproval.

The possible outcome of this double meaning.

So imagine the scenario: I ask Cynthia (true story) if she would like a tea. She answers me by looking at me with ‘desprecio’ and tutting whilst waving her finger at me.

As a Brit, I am flabbergasted that she can be so rude as to disapprove of my offering her a tea. What’s so wrong with a tea? What did I do to deserve that?

Of course, Cynthia is completely oblivious to my extreme reaction and thinks that she has simply refused a tea. She spends the rest of the day wondering what on earth has gotten into me.

And so, like this, onwards we went through the last ten years stepping on each others cultural taboos until now we just laugh at them and wonder how many more we will stumble across.

We are moving to Spain in a couple of years (the summer of 2016) so no doubt it will be my turn to tread on a few toes.

Deseadme suerte,

Gordon 🙂

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El Aula – The 4 ways to say WAS in Spanish (3 of 3)

was4 scaleSaying WAS in Spanish.

One of the greatest challenges for any student of the Spanish language is getting to grips with the Preterite and Imperfect combined with SER and ESTAR.

This issue comes to a head when we are faced with deciding which of the four options we need to use when we say WAS in Spanish.

Of course, there are many other options, too, but for this Spanish video podcast we will be focussing on the WAS.

The Options.

So, when we want to say WAS in Spanish we have these options:

FUE (Preterite) or ERA (Imperfect)

ESTUVO (Preterite) or ESTABA (Imperfect)

To understand which one to choose, we firstly have to have a handle on SER and ESTAR and then on the PRETERITE and the IMPERFECT.

Therefore, if you haven’t already seen the first two video podcasts that I’ve made, please go back and watch them. However, if you are already “un crack”, please go straight into this podcast.

A process of elimination.

Unlike native speakers, we have the laborious job of wading through a set of rules before we can make a reasonable guess on the four options.

Let’s see, however, if we can cut these rules down to the very basics.

Let’s take the following sentence as an example:

The man was here.

Let’s run through a list of questions that will quickly help you identify the verb and the tense.


1, Is this a state that will change?        Yes =ESTAR          No =SER

2, Is this referring to a location?       Yes = ESTAR    No = SER (Except organised events which is the opposite.)

3, Is this what you expect?            Yes = SER          No = ESTAR


1, Can you measure this (Time, frequency?)      Yes = PRETERITE  No = IMPERFECT

2, Are you talking about a repetitive uncountable event?          Yes = IMPERFECT  NO = PRETERITE


So, what do you think?

The man was here.

The answer to question one on the verb is YES.  This is a state that will change. The man will not always be here. Thus we will use is likely to be ESTAR.

It is also referring to a location.

Thus the verb is likely to be ESTAR.

Is this what you expect? This is a fairly irrelevant question, so we can ignore it.

Based on getting ESTAR twice from our questions, we can safely assume that it’s ESTAR.

The answer to question one on the tense is…unless more information is given then NO we CANNOT measure it.

So, it’s likely that we will use the IMPERFECT.

However, we are not talking about an uncountable event. He was here this morning. Once.

The issue is that the sentence is vague.

If this was your sentence then you can easily know if it should be Preterite or Imperfect by checking measurement.

Do you know how long he was here?

If you know that, then you would probably use the PRETERITE.

If you had no real idea and you simply knew that he had been around, then you would probably use the IMPERFECT.

So, you could say:

El hombre ESTUVO aquí esta mañana.

or El hombre ESTABA aquí esta mañana.

BOTH SENTENCES are correct.

All that is happening is that they are saying something slightly different.

Using ESTABA is very vague. You really don’t have the details.

Using ESTUVO is much more exacting and you know more clearly about his visit.

Note: If you use ESTABA, it’s possible that you aren’t even sure if he’s still around. But, if you use ESTUVO you know for a fact that he has gone! It’s over, finished.

So, listen in to the video podcast and let’s start to put some flesh on to the bones of this subject.



Gordon 🙂

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The Present Subjunctive Spanish 3 – Imposing Your Opinion on Others

subj3scaleWhat is the trigger.

As we have mentioned. There are various triggers that create a need for the Present Subjunctive Spanish. One of them is when we are imposing our opinion on others.

Examples in English.

One of the issues we have in English, at least, is that we don’t have the present subjunctive in the way that Spanish speakers have.

To know when we should use the Subjunctive we must, then, understand what triggers it off. Here are some examples:

It’s terrible that…

It’s great that…

It’s interesting that…

It’s fascinating that…

It’s bizarre that…

It’s frustrating that…

Can you see the pattern?

Whenever we say this kind of sentence, we are triggering off the need for the subjunctive.

I thought the Subjunctive was about doubt!

Yes and no. When we aim to fit the Subjunctive Spanish into a box of rules, we always end up confused. (I know because I have done it!)

This is why we talk about triggers and not reasons.

I used to get very confused about a sentence such as:

Es fantástico que hayas aprobado el examen. = It’s great that you have past the exam.

What I couldn’t get my head around was the fact that THE EXAM HAD BEEN PASSED and yet here we were placing doubt on it.

Of course, what I was doing was looking in the wrong place.

There was no doubt that the exam had been passed. The doubt, if we want to place it somewhere, was in the suggestion that it WAS FANTASTIC.

Says who? Says me!

And this is the issue. Just because you think it’s fantastic doesn’t mean that it is. So, the subjunctive is used to show that this is YOUR OPINION on this subject. You are imposing YOUR BELIEFS of others.

For someone else, like a competitor, another candidate for the job, your rival, it could be terrible news.

As you can see, this is a very subtle distinction and it’s for that reason that we suggest that you leave the logical analysis for another time.

Your first job.

The first thing you should do is learn WHEN you should use the subjunctive and NOT WHY.

After all, Spanish speakers do not learn why they are using the Subjunctive Spanish as they grow up. They simply learn to HEAR THE TRIGGERS.

And this is what you are now learning from this series of videos.

There are ten in the series, but that shouldn’t make you feel overwhelmed.

We have made them this way so that you can CHUNK DOWN this subject into bite-size pieces.

We don’t give you every example of each category, only the principal ones. It’s beholding of you to study outside of this series to understand the remaining expressions. However, even if you were to use only the examples we offer you, you would be well down the road to mastering the Subjunctive Spanish.

P.S. If you have wondered why we have been saying the Subjunctive Spanish and not the Spanish Subjunctive, it’s purely for the search engines. It seems that many people search for the words in that order. Go figure! 🙂

Saludos, Gordon y Cynthia.

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Advanced Intermediate 29 – (Tú) Tu vs Usted Using Formal Spanish

tu or usted adv inter 28Which one do I use?

The question of “(Tú) Tu vs Usted” is always on the mind of students, especially when they are learning Spanish from Latin America.

Most of us will know that the difference between Tú and Usted is simply the level of formality or politeness you want to maintain between you and the person you are talking to.

In Spain, for example, once you are on talking/friendly terms you will “tutear” with that person. In fact, were you to continue to use Usted with someone, they would find it a bit strange. It would be like you were saying to them that you didn’t want to be friends with them.

Many things to many people.

Just because that happens in Spain, however, does not mean that the same applies throughout the Spanish speaking world. Not at all!

Certainly in many countries in Latin America, talking to someone in Usted is expected. Children to parents, work associates. In fact, some cultures expect you to use Usted with everyone, even with close family members and friends.

So, how will I know?

The answer to this is easy. Simply listen to what people are saying to you. If they are using Usted, you will hear it mentioned. The tip is that if they are using Usted, then you use Usted. If they switch to Tú, you automatically have permission to do the same.

Until you are very skilled at Spanish, it’s safer to use this system.

How to manage the situation.

There are ways that you can manage the way someone talks to you. For example, if someone is talking to you in Usted and you know that in their culture it’s acceptable to talk to one another using Tú, then you can say:

No me trates de usted.

Tratar means to treat. So this is saying something like: “Don’t treat me like an Usted.”

Another way of saying it is to say:

¿Puedo tutearte?

Tutear is the verb used to describe the act of talking to someone using Tú. Thus, this sentence simply means: Can I talk to you using Tú?

Use Usted as your default.

As a rule of thumb, it’s always best to address everyone you meet with Usted. Then, if you feel that there is a level of confidence growing, you can use the above phrases. However, the best thing is to take the lead from the person you are talking to. Let them guide you. You can be sure that if they want to use Tú, they will let you know.

They may do that by spontaneous changing to Tú during the conversation or they will tell you directly.  However, if they seem comfortable using Usted with you, then stick with it.

We hope that has helped to clear up a little confusion regarding the Tu vs Usted question.

Hasta la próxima.

Gordon y Cynthia 🙂

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Advanced Intermediate 28 – Stem Changing Spanish Preterite

reading adv inter 28Tips on the Spanish Preterite.

In the previous blog we said all we wanted to say on the subject of why we should learn the Spanish preterite.
In this blog, then, which is the second in the series of the stem changing, irregular Spanish preterite, we will focus on some interesting tips of how the preterite is used.
We’ve covered this before, but as repetition is the mother of all learning, it cannot do any harm. ¿Verdad?

No Overlapping.

Did you realise that one limitation of the preterite is that it is totally sequential? That means that you can only use it to either speak about a specific event or to list a sequence of events.
You are not able to use the preterite to talk about two or more things that happened at the same time.
That’s the job of the Imperfect past. That’s why we say that you should listen out for the “was…ing, were…ing as a sign for when you need to use the Imperfect (ABA/ÍA)

Look at this sentence. Where did I fall?

“Esta mañana bajé las escaleras, me caí y luego salí de casa,”

If you thought that I fell whilst I was coming down the stairs you would be wrong.

FIRST I came down the stairs. THEN I fell. THEN I left the house.

Because I used the Spanish preterite, which cannot overlap events, my coming down the stairs was one completed event.

So that means…

This explains the rather strange way that the theory books talk about the preterite as a “completed action”. This is a term which has caused a mountain of confusion given that most students think it means that it’s an event that has been completed. In reality, EVERY past event has been completed. No wonder we get confused.

What they should say is that it is an event that has a clear beginning and end, or to be even more clear, an event that is totally measurable.

Unspoken measurement.

One interesting thing about the Spanish preterite is that, by choosing to use it you are showing that you CAN measure a particular event, even if you don’t actually mention a measurement in your sentence.

For example, the difference between saying, “Estaba aquí esta mañana.” and “Estuvo aquí esta mañana.” is that by using the preterite you are inferring that you could quite possibly put a time on his stay and that the event is over. He is no longer here.

By using the imperfect, however, you are intimating that you really don’t know how long he was present. You know he was here but that’s about it. There’s also a possibility that he is still here. With the imperfect everything is vague and unmeasurable.

Eso es todo.

There you have some handy observations about how to choose the Spanish preterite. We hope you found them valuable. All these tips and so much more are to be found in our Helpsheets, too, which have been designed with you in mind.

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