Spanish Words You Can’t Translate to English
When you start learning Spanish, starting with the basics is important. Learn enough vocabulary and grammar to have simple conversations, practice your communication skills, and fine-tune your pronunciation. The beginning of the language learning journey is an exciting time.
The fun really starts once you’ve covered the basics, though. You start to pick up on the language’s quirks and unique traits and understand its intricacies. One of the traits I love the most about Spanish is its vocabulary.
What would take a sentence to describe in English can sometimes be summed up in one word in Spanish. In fact, some words in Spanish don’t even have a direct English translation!
To give you an idea of just how elaborate (and sometimes oddly descriptive) Spanish vocabulary can be, here’s a list of 13 Spanish words you can’t translate to English.
If you translate sobremesa directly, it means “tablecloth.” While the word obviously exists in English, the concept of la sobremesa doesn’t. When Spanish speakers mention sobremesa, they’re usually talking about when they’ve finished a meal and are sitting around the table chatting.
Example: Los domingos mi familia siempre hace la sobremesa.
Rough Translation: Every Sunday, my family always sits around and chats after a meal.
2. Pena ajena/Vergüenza ajena
Have you ever been in a restaurant and seen someone drop a glass? When it shatters on the ground, everyone looks at that person. Some people may chuckle, but others feel embarrassed for them. If you feel ashamed on their behalf, you’re feeling pena ajena. This phrase describes when you feel sorry for someone else’s actions. Vergüenza ajena means the same thing.
Example: Me dio pena ajena cuando mi mamá olvidó el nombre de su vecino.
Rough Translation: I felt sorry on my mom’s behalf when she forgot her neighbor’s name.
It’s somewhat surprising that there’s no exact translation for anteayer in English because the definition is so simple. It’s the Spanish way to say “the day before yesterday” in one word. You may also see antier, which means the same thing but is less commonly used.
Example: Llegué de los Estados Unidos anteayer.
Rough Translation: I arrived from the United States the day before yesterday.
Another word to describe “time” that exists in Spanish but not English is quincena. It’s similar to a “fortnight” in English, but instead of 14 days, a quincena is 15 days. It’s common to see this word when renting a vacation property, discussing how often you get paid (semi-weekly), or just describing when something happened.
Example: Viajamos a España en la segunda quincena de agosto.
Rough Translation: We traveled to Spain in the second half of August.
In Spanish, there are two main ways to say “you” – tú and usted. Usted is sometimes used when you want to address someone formally or show respect, and tú is what you use with friends and family. Culturally, using tú is very common in Spain, but many countries in Latin America use usted, even in informal situations.
In Spanish, there’s a verb, tutear, which means “to address someone as tú.” It can have a negative connotation (“Don’t tutear your teachers!”) or a more neutral connotation (“We’re friends now, so we tutear each other”).
Example: Mi vecino y yo nos tuteamos.
Rough Translation: My neighbor and I address each other as tú.
A botellón literally translates to a “big bottle,” but it actually means an informal party in a public place in Spanish. In Spain, it’s pretty common for young people to buy bottles of alcohol in the grocery store and have a party in the street or a local park instead of drinking in a bar.
It’s a lot cheaper, and they can listen to their own music. It’s not always a welcome occurrence by the neighbors, though, so you’ll often hear people reporting botellones to the police.
Example: ¿Te vienes al botellón en el parque esta noche?
Rough Translation: Are you coming to the botellón in the park tonight?
7. Concuñado/a and Consuegro/a
When you’re describing how you’re related to someone, it can sometimes turn into a long word chain. Luckily, Spanish has a few different words to describe somewhat long-winded relationships. One example is concuñado/a, which means your brother- or sister-in-law’s spouse.
Another one is consuegro/a, which describes the relationship between your parents and your spouse’s parents.
Example: Roberto es mi concuñado. Él es el marido de la hermana de mi esposa.
Rough Translation: Roberto is my concuñado. He’s the husband of my wife’s sister.
Example: Mis padres y los padres de mi esposa son consuegros.
Rough translation: My parents and my wife’s parents are consuegros.
People from the United States often refer to themselves as “American.” However, in Spanish, there’s a more specific term to refer to someone from the United States: “Estadounidense.” While English has a similar term, “United Statesian,” it’s rarely used in everyday conversation.
Example: Soy estadounidense pero vivo en España actualmente.
Rough Translation: I’m American, but I currently live in Spain.
Learn to Speak Like a Native Speaker
It’s one thing to learn basic vocabulary and grammar in Spanish, but if you really want to become fluent, you need to learn to speak how native speakers do. Knowing words like the ones on this list and picking up common colloquial phrases can really take your Spanish to the next level.
One of the best ways to learn to speak like a native is to study with Pimsleur’s Latin American or Castilian Spanish course. You’ll start speaking in your first lesson and practice conversing with native speakers. Before you know it, you’ll be able to hacer sobremesa with ease!