5 Ways My English Has Changed Since Moving to Madrid

Living in a Spanish-speaking country, as well as teaching English to Spanish speakers, has left it’s mark on the way that I speak. Here are the top 5 ways my English has been subtly refashioned since coming to Spain:

1) Borrowing from Spanish

Perhaps this is the most obvious one: American girl moves to Spain, girl learns Spanish, girl sprinkles Spanish expressions in her day-to-day English. There are, truly, some expressions that don’t exist in English or, at the very least, don’t sound as good as their Spanish counterpart. These include “tener ganas,” “verguenza ajena,” and ” quitarse un marrón.” I would look like a blabbering idiot in English if I went around saying “I have no gumption to leave my apartment” or, even worse, “I’m going to get rid of a big brown this weekend!!” But, since these ideas are now so rooted in the way I think, I simply mix the Spanish expression in with the English. That’s how I got the ganas to write this blog entry, vale?

2) Avoiding false friends like the plague

Ask any language learner for a story involving false friends, and you’re in for a good time. My own story involves telling my Costa Rican host mother that I liked her food because she didn’t put condoms (preservativos) in it. I’m still cringing about that one. Unwilling to make these linguistic gaffes again, I do my best to avoid any English words that might be misunderstood by Spanish speakers. For example, I absolutely avoid the word “college” to refer to my continuing education. Because this word is too similar to the Spanish word colegio, or primary school, I simply change it to “university.”

3) Adopting British-isms

Because most Europeans have studied British English (understandably), I have also incorporated expressions such as “timetable,” and “brillant” into my speech to be better understood. The American word I have turned my back on the most, however, has to be “soccer” which I now exclusively refer to as “football.” I knew this was truly cemented the day I actually said “footballer.” Footballer! Only a few years ago I would have giggled at this word, but when in Rome…

4) Selecting words that are easy for Spanish speakers to understand

In my first language class, I thought learning Spanish was a breeze. There were so many words that were easy to memorize due to their relatively short distance from the same-meaning word in English. “To decide” was decidir, “to prefer” was preferir, etc. It seemed that all you had to do was add a snazzy ending to the English word and the Spanish word would magically appear!

Unfortunately, this naive chapter only lasted until the next unit of the book; soon I had to memorize verbs and nouns that had no common origin with English. For my own English-learning students, then, I try simplify things when possible by guiding them to a familiar-sounding word. Instead of using “devote,” for example, I use “dedicate,” which is more similar to a word that they will recognize and understand. Only when speaking English with native speakers do I realize how much I´ve adopted this practice–their English vocab seems huge compared to mine!

5) Using English words…with the Spanish meaning

This is the sneakiest of all five changes, and perhaps the most fun. For example, I am now used to proclaiming that something is “Impossible!”…even if it is totally, absolutely, without-a-doubt possible. (Spanish people will often say something is “impossible” as an answer when you invite them to do something and they already have plans. So while it´s technically possible for them to be there, it represents a sincere doubt for the chance of it happening.) Ditto for always using “to take advantage of” (aprovechar) with a positive connotation, as well as directly translating “Dime” into “Tell me.” And that´s just the beginning…

Ahh, language. How has living abroad changed the way you speak?

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  1. I’ve been living in Barcelona for over ten years and I find that Spanish and Catalan invade my english conversations, sspecially when talking to another expat. Sometimes the Spanish word just fits into the converstaion a lot better. The biggest change though is the use of no as a question tag. It’s a nice day, no? I sometimes have a lot of trouble recalling english words and have to resort to mime, many times i’ve mimed sweeping the floor because I couldn’t recall the word broom.

    • Cassandra

      It’s interesting to hear that not one but two additional languages have also started to take root in your English! And I have to agree about the question tag, too…

  2. And there is the way that we make up English words that don’t really exist. Everyone I know talks about the “urbanisation” where they live. Urbanisation/urbanization has a totally different meaning in proper English! However, there is not another word that works in the Madrid context.

    • Cassandra

      Good point, Kate! I am always at a loss for how to translate property words like “chalet.”

    • Anna Bitanga

      Urbanización is translated as “subdivision” or “residential area” – it doesn’t mean the development of an area in this context.

  3. LOL…great post! I completely understand you. I’ve lived in Madrid for nearly 13 years (13 next month!!) and I’ve had the same things happen.

    I tend to make up words like “leijar” (to bleach, yo leijo, tu leijas, etc…), wafter (to waft some away) and many more. My Spanish speaking son thinks I’m crazy!

    I also went round using the word “procrastinación” a lot for quite a while (I’m a big procrastinator!!), until I realised that it didn’t exist in Spanish! The funny thing is that nobody ever said that they didn’t understand me when I used the word!

    What I have also found is that in the last few years I’m really starting to forget my English!! Or maybe that has something to do with the fact that this year I turn 38!!! LOL.

    • Just reread my post and realised that autocorrect has done some terrible autocorrections!! Sorry!!!

      LEJIAR…WAFTEAR! Yo lejio, tu lejias…etc!!! 😉

      • Cassandra

        I had to giggle of your hybrid “procrastinación”! I think I’ll add that one to my list of Spanglish words 🙂

  4. Yeah, that’s about right. I have to make a lot of effort sometimes to avoid translating directly from Spanish, and I find that I’ve become so good at “language grading” that I pretty much speak like a robot all the time. Oh well… ¡Así es la vida!

    • Cassandra

      If I could, I’d time-travel to the future to hear what I sound like in 3 more years ! Let the (robot) fun begin.

  5. I’ve found that now I substitute Spanish words for their lengthier English counterparts. Why say “apartment” when you can say “piso” or “utilities” when you can say “gastos”?? Along with the other changes you mentioned. .. 🙂

    • Cassandra

      Interesting–I wonder if we end up choosing these words for brevity or because they are more pertinent to our lives at the moment. Now if only a linguist would follow us around with a tape recorder…

  6. So yes on the borrowing – I can’t speak correctly anymore because of my Spanish words getting in the way (which is terrible when teaching upper levels and Cambridge courses!)

  7. I love this post! I do so many of these things haha In addition to using simpler words, Ive realized that I actually speak so much slower now also. Making sure everyone understands me during the day has carried over to night ….. oops

  8. This was super interesting to me. I’ve lived abroad, but not in places where I had studied the local language before, or really made an effort to learn it. I was an Italian major who ended up in South Korea/China, so. . .But teaching EFL changed how I spoke in odd ways. The advantage was that I really cut down on using fillers, but I also felt like I lost my vocabulary since I had to stick to words my students could understand. I had never been a big body language talker either, but I started using all sorts of weird gestures to communicate my points – and that took a while to break once I was back home!

    • Cassandra

      I can only imagine what kind of mental leaps you had to do as an English/Italian speaker in South Korea and China. Whoa!

      I can certainly understand how it feels to lose a chuck of your vocabulary! When I first came to Spain I was so eager to improve my Spanish that most of my time outside of teaching was spent studying and reading my second language. This helped my Spanish, of course, but I felt my English vocab actually shrank! It was a pleasure to start reading books in English again–ahh, the familiarity!

  9. Shana

    How’s this the first time I’m reading this post?? It’s so relatable.

    I of course followed the same patterns you described above, but one unanticipated shift in my speaking was the way vosotros seeped into my English vocabulary. Despite growing up in the south, I never picked up “y’all” because most of my friends and I were all originally from “non-y’all” places (Midwest, NY, etc). BUT vosotros is just so useful and commonplace, and I didn’t really have an English equivalent… so, unexpectedly, it took moving to Spain to get me to start saying “y’all.” And now I can’t stop!

    • Cassandra

      Thanks, Shana! I’m glad you found it relatable.

      I never picked up “y’all” either–probably because my mom wasn’t from the south and never used the expression. That’s cool that you do use y’all now–plural you is very useful!

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