De que es bonito

Here’s a neat formula that I’ve heard in speech but have never seen described in a textbook.

Begin with de que, add a clausal complement and then repeat that complement. This formula is used to concede a point while immediately reducing or dismissing its relevance.

  • De que está cerca, está cerca. I admit it’s nearby, but even so, we don’t have time to go there.
  • De que es pendejo, es pendejo. Look, I don’t deny he’s an asshole, but there are worse things.
  • De que es puto, es puto. Sure, he’s a fag, but who cares? It’s no skin off my back.
  • De que me divorcio, me divorcio. That I’m getting divorced is not in doubt. But we’re still in the process of working out the details. It hasn’t been finalized yet.
  • De que es bonito, es bonito. Yeah, it’s an attractive location, as you say. However, it has some disadvantages (which I’m about to mention).


Let’s talk about the word delincuente and vocabulary related to crime and criminals.

In English, the noun ‘delinquent’ often refers to young lawbreakers, ‘juvenile delinquents’. In Spanish, delincuente is more general, refering to someone of any age who is engaged in criminal activity, a criminal. (The word ‘criminal’ does exist in Spanish but it is less commonly used than its English counterpart.)

Crimes are delitos. (Again, crímenes exists but is less used than its English counterpart.) A felony, a crime with serious legal consequences, would be a delito grave. When speaking of crime in general and not of specific incidences, use delincuencia. High rates of crime, altos niveles de delincencia.

An asalto is a mugging or a hold-up, so it doesn’t work as a general translation for the English word ‘assault’. Esto es un asalto. This is a stick-up. Me asaltaron en la calle. I got mugged. An asaltante is an attacker. Atracar is another common verb for ‘attack’ criminally.

A ratero is a garden-variety thief or robber. I’ve also heard ratero applied disparagingly to white-collar offenders engaged in corruption. Speaking of corruption, the noun ‘bribe’ is mordida, literally ‘bite’, or more formally, soborno. The corresponding verbal forms are dar una mordida and sobornar.

Asking a favor in Spanish

Asking for a favor can be a delicate task. Do it wrong and you can damage an otherwise healthy relationship. Since it’s important to express yourself not only correctly but sensitively when asking a favor, let’s look at some functional language that is useful for doing this in Spanish.


Before introducing sensitive topics, we often do something called prefacing. We alert the listener about the topic coming up rather than jumping right in. This seems to soften the blow and make the listener more open to what we have to say. Asking a favor is a typical communicative function where prefacing works well. In English, we might preface the asking of favor by saying something like ‘Hey, I was wondering if …’ rather than jumping right into the request. Or: ‘Say, I wanted to ask you if …’

In Spanish you can preface a request with something like oye.

  • Oye, mi hermana viene de visita y te quería preguntar si me prestas tu colchón inflable. Hey, my sister’s coming to visit and I wanted to ask if you would loan me your inflatable mattress.

Simple present

Notice the use of past in the request (quería) above to create a polite distance. Another example: ¿Podrías ayudarme con algo? or even ¿Crees que podrías ayudarme con algo? This use of past tense (not past meaning) is optional but common when making requests.

It’s also possible to use simple present, especially for minor favors where you expect the other person to grant your request as a matter of courtesy.

  • ¿Me pasas la sal? Could you pass the salt?

This sounds a bit softer and more polite than a command form like ‘pásame la sal’, even if you add ‘por favor’. Again, this use of present interrogative is common when making a perfunctory request.


You’ll want to adjust the level of formality used in your request to the situation at hand. In school I was taught to make a polite request by saying Tenga la bondad de, meaning, ‘please have the kindness to’ do something. In reality this is excessively formal and it’s hard to think of a situation where this would be appropriate. Stick with language that is at the right level of formality for the situation.

Echarle la mano

For a neutral, even informal, way to ask for help, there’s echarle la mano.

  • ¿Me echas la mano con esto? Could you give me a hand with this?

No seas malito

A counterintuitive but useful expression for asking someone to help you out, even ‘cut you some slack’, is no sea(s) malito/a, literally: don’t be bad.

  • No seas malito. Espérame tantito, ¿no? Give me a sec to get ready.

If you’re thinking of the English translation, no seas malito may seem harsh-sounding to you, but in Spanish it’s appropriate for any small request where you will minorly inconvenience the other person and/or are asking for some tolerance or leeway.


Ándale is another informal ‘begging’ word you’ll hear at times. You can say it when you’ve asked for something and you can see that the other person is hesitating about whether to grant your request or not.

  • ¡Ándale! Pretty please!
  • ¡Ándale! No seas malito. Be a dear and help me out here.

Ándale has several other communicative uses, but the idea of ‘please, do this for me’ is one of the most common ones. It’s important to get the intonation (pronunciation) right. Extend the first syllable, falling a bit in pitch.



The verb ocupar has a few basic meanings. One is familiar but the others may not be.

Like many cognates, ocupar is not as formal in Spanish as its counterpart is in English. In English, we could say I’m occupied right now but in everyday situations we usually say I’m busy. In Spanish, Estoy ocupado is perfectly neutral and is certainly appropriate for informal situations.

We also use ocupado for the idea of ‘inhabiting a space’. When you’re in the bathroom and someone knocks to get in, just reply ¡Ocupado!, meaning ‘someone is using the bathroom’ right now (and that someone is you). Note that ocupado modifies that bathroom, not the person saying it. Both women and men would answer with ocupado.

In Mexico, ocupar often means ‘use’ in situations where the English sense of ‘occupy’ doesn’ quite fit.

  • ¿Ocupas salsa? Do you normally put salsa on your food? (An offer to give me salsa)
  • No es muy ocupado. It’s not used very frequently.


Desocupar means ‘become unbusy’.

  • ¿A qué hora te desocupas? What time do you get off? When will you be done doing what you’re doing?
  • Cuando se desocupe. When he’s done doing whatever he’s doing now and is available.

Desocupar also works for ‘vacate a space’, for example, checking out of a hotel.


Recall that preocupar means ‘worried’.

  • No te preocupes. Don’t worry.
  • Estoy preocupado por ti. I’m worried about you.

To identify what you’re worried about, use the preposition por. The expression preocuparse que takes the subjunctive.

As you can see from these examples, preocupar is not generally a good translation for ‘preoccupied’, which is closer to the idea of ‘distracted’, distraído.

Countability in Spanish

Since English makes greater use of uncountable nouns than Spanish does, it’s easy to forget to use the countable versions when speaking Spanish. Here are some of the most common nouns that are usually uncountable in English but countable in Spanish.

  • Consejo: Me dio unos consejos. He gave me some advice.
  • Mueble: Compré nuevos muebles. I bought new furniture.
  • Ingreso: Aumentar sus ingresos. Increase his income.
  • Dato: ¿Tienes sus datos? Do you have her contact info?
  • Informe: Para pedir informes. For more information.
  • Condición: Está en muy buenas condiciones. It’s in great shape.
  • Pan: Comí un pan. I had a pastry.
  • Jabón: Dos jabones. Two bars of soap.
  • Pasta: Una pasta de dientes. A tube of toothpaste.

Also, recall that vacaciones is used in the plural form: está de vacaciones, he’s on vacation.

How I learned Spanish

From time to time I get asked how I learned Spanish. Here’s my story. Tell me your story in the comments.

High School

I took three years of Spanish in high school. I liked it right away. I had a new friend who was a year ahead of me. We shared the same biology classroom so she started leaving notes for me in Spanish behind the lizard tank every day. After school we would drop in on our teacher and talk for a few minutes with her in Spanish as she graded papers. At Christmastime my family would travel to visit Spanish-speaking relatives there, so I would try to use my Spanish there in shops or when asking for directions. These are the things that motivated me to improve.

During the first two years of high school Spanish, we used a now-discredited method known as Audio-Lingual. Right from the beginning, a lot of emphasis was placed on memorizing dialogues and perfecting pronunciation. I still remember some of these dialogues decades later. Vocabulary was never used unless it had already been presented in previous units. It was a lot of fun.

During my third year of high school Spanish, I improved little. The new teacher put down a no-English rule, which just resulted in a very quiet classroom. My essays came back covered in red. I learned to write using only those structures and vocabulary that I was sure I had mastered. I declined to sign up for the fourth year because by then the focus had turned to reading literature, which bored me. I was more interested in being able to speak. Over my three years of high school Spanish, I clocked about 200 hours of instruction. That might not sound like a lot but it was a good foundation.

Spanish House

When I got to college, I didn’t take more Spanish but I did live for two years in the Spanish language dorm, where Spanish was spoken in the hallways and the dining hall, mostly by my fellow non-native speakers. During the summer I read a long novel in Spanish and wrote down every new word after looking it up in the dictionary. All of this gave the illusion of improving my Spanish, but at best I maintained what I had learned in high school. During the summer I looked into finding native speaking tutors but there were none in my area.

Language Exchanges

Decades later I got interested again in improving my Spanish and started arranging language exchanges with native speakers in my city in the US. I met with about 60 people and had repeated sessions with several of them. This was a confusing time for my Spanish because my conversation partners came from a variety of countries and I was never hearing a consistent model. But around this time I also came across the excellent Breaking Out of Beginner’s Spanish, which showed me how to think about developing speaking skills.

Immersion School

I decided to sign up for a month of full-time private and group lessons in a school in Mexico. My experience was mixed. I corrected a few systemic problems in my speech, such as <*el calle y *la mes. And I began to confront a bad habit of mine: always using the imperfect instead of preterite because it was easier for me to conjugate. But by the end of the month I hadn’t made much progress beyond becoming more aware of trouble spots with the language. Also, I felt socially isolated. As a result of refusing to speak English with my classmates during the breaks, I ended up making only one friend at the school, a young woman whose Spanish was better than mine.

Class was so mentally tiring that each day after lunch, I went straight to bed until dinnertime. To create an immersion experience, I had opted to live and eat with a Mexican family. That experience was mixed as well. I had naively expected the family to be interested in a cultural exchange and in helping me practice my Spanish a bit. I didn’t understand that the homestay is primarily a way for the families to bring in some extra money.

I left the school discouraged and frustrated. I decided to meet up with some American friends who were sailing on the Pacific coast of Mexico. One day we hired a local guide to take us for a day trip. As my friends went off to explore, I stayed on the beach with him the whole day and practiced my Spanish. Finally I was having a real experience, hearing real Spanish and getting to use my Spanish for actual communication with someone I wanted to talk to. I tipped him double.


Back in the US, I decided to meet only with Mexicans for language exchanges. I also started watching the little Mexican television programming that was available in my city at the time: a news program and a handful of telenovelas. I began to notice new expressions in Spanish for the first time. This was a beginning of period of rapid growth in my Spanish skills.

Immersion Living

Inspired by my progress, I began visiting Mexico for three or four months at a time. During my first week in Guanajuato I had the good fortune to make friends with a Mexican student. He invited me to live with him and several Mexican roommates. We took a road trip together through Oaxaca, Veracruz and Chiapas. I started attending a different kind of Spanish school, one with week-long courses in Mexican culture, history and politics for foreigners. Each week I repeated the same courses, learning something new each time. I made friends with fellow students from the US, Germany and Australia. I socialized outside of school with several of the teachers. I ate street tacos for the time and heard the omnipresent word wey.

Note Taking

During my periods back in the US, my speaking chops would get rusty. However, I watched hundred of hours of telenovelas, pausing the DVR to make notes about useful language. I read I could get my hands on about Spanish. I started thinking for the first time about writing a book about Mexican Spanish for foreigners. In 2003 I bought this domain,

The Move

In 2007 I moved to Mexico full-time and started making a life here both professionally and personally. I began living with Mexicans and dating Mexicans. I had to carry out new tasks in Spanish for the first time, such as opening a bank account, talking on the phone, or arguing with a friend. I completed a practical training course for Spanish teachers. I took two examinations, one national and one international, to certify my language competence, earning the highest possible speaking score on both. Although I continue to learn new and useful vocabulary, most of the Spanish I use here on a daily basis I learned before becoming a full-time resident. The main difference is that now I have more confidence with the language.

Are you motivated to learn Spanish?

Motivation is one of the most important, yet most overlooked, factors in determining success with learning Spanish.

The number of people who want to learn Spanish is far greater than the number who actually succeed. What explains the difference? Most people look for excuses: I didn’t have time. I’m not good at languages. I have no one to speak with.

While all of these excuses may be valid, beneath them is one underlying truth: If you’re sufficiently motivated, you’ll look for solutions to the obstacles in your way. No time? Make time. Not good at languages? Work harder and smarter. No one to speak Spanish with? Find someone.

Without a good reason to improve your Spanish, you almost cetainly won’t make much progress. They’ll always be a more comfortable alternative to putting in the hard work. Your motiviation — the reason you are learning Spanish — is what usually makes the difference between staying focused on your progress versus floundering and giving into distractions that don’t take your Spanish to the level you desire.

Internal Motivation

In the psychology of language learning, it is traditional to consider internal and external motivation separately. Someone who is internally motivated is driven by an intrinsic joy for learning Spanish. They have a positive feeling towards Spanish-speaking people and may want to identify in some way with Spanish-speakings culture or participate in their communities.

If you enjoy language learning, you’ll do more of it. Over time, that naturally leads to improvement. Internal motivation can take you a long way in your journey to proficiency.

External Motivation

Someone who is externally motivated to learn Spanish will have a specific non-language goal in mind that better Spanish will help them achieve. Perhaps they need to improve their Spanish in order to take advantage of certain career opportunties in their field, everything from social services to international business.

External motivation can be a powerful force in driving you to work on your Spanish and put yourself in situations where you can improve.

Why are you learning Spanish?

Successful language learners may be motivated by either internal or external factors. Both pathways can lead to success. It is not uncommon to start out learning Spanish for work or travel yet continue with it because you are enjoying learning the language. Or vice versa. Many people have a combination of motivations that drive them to work on their Spanish. That’s good.

The Coolness Motivation

What’s important is being clear on why you are learning Spanish and keeping your focus there. One common ‘motivation’ that I have never seen lead to success is the coolness factor, learning Spanish because you think it will make you look good or because you feel that it will make you look like a better person somehow. Making progress with Spanish is way too hard to survive being based on such a shaky foundation. You’ll give up before you even get out the door.