How can you speak Spanish in a more conversational, everyday way?
Textbooks can be surprisingly unhelpful in this regard. They might teach you useful grammar and vocabulary, but it's often presented in an unnatural, forced way that doesn't reflect how people actually speak in real world, conversational Spanish.
“What are the days of the week?” “What colour is your shirt?” “How many rooms are there in your house?” These questions might be helpful in the classroom, but they're not much use if you want to speak Spanish in the real world.
With that in mind, in this article I'm going to cover some realistic Spanish conversation starters and phrases you can use in a real conversation.
How to Break the Ice in Spanish
The English idiom “to break the ice” can be translated literally into Spanish: romper el hielo. But how do you do it? What's the perfect line to start a simple Spanish conversation? After decades of trial, error, and dedicated practice, I've settled on some favourites. For example, here's one that usually works well for me:
“Hola, soy Benny.” (Hi, I'm Benny.)
I know: revolutionary, isn't it?
If you feel like that one is too advanced for you (perhaps because your name isn't Benny), here's another one you could try:
“Holo, ¿cómo te llamas?” (Hi, what's your name?)
Where do I get these ideas from?
The truth is, it doesn't matter what you say to start a conversation. What matters is how you say it. Most people like to be sociable, and as long as you're not rude or inappropriate, people will probably respond well to you. And if they don't, it’s their issue, not yours. They're probably just having a bad day; don't take it personally. Move on to chat with someone else.
If you’re still stuck, here are some more Spanish conversation starters you could use:
- “¿Está desocupada esta silla?” – Is this seat taken?
- “¿Sabe qué hora es?” – Do you know what the time is?
- “¿Sabe a qué hora cierra este lugar?” – Do you know what time this place closes?
- “¿Sabe dónde está el/la [place]?” – Do you know where the [place] is?
- “Hola cariño, ¿cuál es tu signo?” – Hey baby, what's your sign? (I'm kidding, don't use this one really.)
Spanish Phrases for “Getting to Know You”
Some people think that so-called “small talk” bores people and should be avoided. On the contrary, small talk has its time and place. I’ll explain why in a second, but first, let’s have a look at some of the typical “small” questions:
- ¿De dónde eres? – Where are you from?
- ¿A qué te dedicas? – What do you do for a living?
- ¿Qué estudias? – What do you study/What's your major? (a common question if you're a student.)
- ¿Qué te trae por aquí? – What brings you here?
- ¿Cuánto tiempo llevas aquí? – How long have you been here?
- ¿Cómo conoces a José? – How do you know José? (You might ask this if e.g. José is the mutual friend who introduced you, or the host of the event you're at.)
- ¿A quién conoces aquí? – Who do you know here?
- ¿Con quién estás aquí? – Who are you here with?
- ¿Vienes seguido por aquí? – Do you come here often?
Note: for simplicity's sake I'm using the tú form of verbs for all the examples in this article. In a formal setting you might want to use usted instead, and in some countries they say vos. Be sure to use the right “you” for your specific situation.
So, what are the benefits of small talk? Firstly, it’s safe and easy. Most people take a while to “open up” and feel comfortable when talking to a stranger, and small talk helps to bridge the gap. Secondly, small talk provides valuable information about who the other person is and how they relate to the situation you’re in – an instinctive priority everyone feels when meeting a new person.
Don’t be afraid to engage in small talk!
Topics for More In-Depth Conversations in Spanish
Small talk only gets boring when you linger on it for too long. Conversation is about exchanging energy, not information, so don't stand there grilling the other person with questions like they're at a job interview. Think of small talk as the launchpad that will get you to a more stimulating topic.
What will that topic be? It's up to you! What are you interested in? Hopefully you and your conversation partner can find some common ground.
Here are some questions that might get the ball rolling, grouped by category:
Spanish Phrases to Discuss Home and Family
- ¿Tienes hermanos/hijos? – Do you have any siblings/children?
- ¿Qué edad tienen? – How old are they?
- ¿Qué hacen tus padres? – What do your parents do?
- ¿Donde creciste? – Where did you grow up?
- ¿Ves a menudo a tus abuelos? – Do you see your grandparents often?
- ¿Eres cercano/a sus padres? – Are you close with your parents?
- ¿Cómo es tu pueblo natal? – What's your hometown like?
- ¿Tienes alguna mascota? – Do you have any pets?
- ¿Qué raza es tu perro/gato? – What breed is your dog/cat? (Interestingly, Spanish uses the same word, raza, for both “race” in the human sense and “breed” as applied to animals).
Spanish Travel Phrases to Start Conversations
- ¿Te gusta viajar? – Do you like to travel?
- ¿Cuál es el lugar favorito en que has estado? – What's your favourite place you've been to? (In Spanish you talk about places you’ve been in rather than places you’ve been to.)
- ¿En qué países has estado? – Which countries have you been to?
- ¿Has estado en [Roma]? – Have you been to [Rome]?
- ¿Querrías ir a [Barcelona]? – Would you like to go to [Barcelona]?
- Si pudieras viajar a cualquier lugar, ¿dónde viajarías? – If you could travel anywhere, where would you go?
- ¿Hablas otros idiomas? – Do you speak any other languages?
- ¿A dónde fuiste la ultima vez de vacaciones? – Where was the last place you went on holiday?
- ¿Cuándo empezaste a aprender [español]? – When did you start learning [Spanish]?
Spanish Conversation Starters for Work and School
- ¿Qué te hizo convertirte en [médico]? – Why did you become a [doctor]?
- ¿Te gusta tu trabajo? – Do you like your job?
- ¿Qué es lo que más te gusta de tu trabajo? – What do you like the most about your job?
- ¿Qué es la cosa más difícil sobre tu trabajo? – What's the most difficult thing about your job?
- ¿Fuiste a la universidad? – Did you go to university?
- ¿La disfrutaste? – Did you enjoy it?
- ¿Qué consejo le darías a alguien que quiere convertirse en [programador]? – What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a [programmer]?
- ¿Si pudieras volver atrás en el tiempo, estudiarías [psicología] de nuevo? – If you could go back in time, would you study [psychology] again?
Spanish Conversation Starters: Food
- ¿Te gusta cocinar? – Do you like to cook?
- ¿Cuál es tu comida favorita? – What's your favourite food?
- ¿Te gusta la comida [italiana]? – Do you like [Italian] food?
- ¿Puedes recomendarme una buena restaurante cerca de aquí? – Can you recommend me a good restaurant near here?
- ¿Qué comen en su país? – What do they eat in your country?
Spanish Conversation Starters: Hobbies
- ¿Qué haces para divertirte? – What do you like to do for fun?
- ¿Te gusta [leer]? – Do you like to [read]?
- ¿Cuál tipo de música te gusta más? – What's your favourite type of music?
- ¿Cuál es tu [película/libro/banda] favorita? – What's your favourite [film/book/band]?
- ¿Tocas un instrumento? – Do you play an instrument?
- ¿Cuál es la peor película que has visto? – What's the worst film you've seen?
- ¿Practicas algún deporte? – Do you play a sport?
- ¿De qué equipo eres? – What team do you support?
Deeper Conversations in Spanish: Tell Me More!
Once you've learned a little bit about the other person, how can you expand the discussion on the current topic? As well as offering your own insights and opinions, you can drill deeper and find out more of the other person's. People do love to talk about themselves, after all.
- ¿Estás de acuerdo? – Do you agree?
- ¿Qué piensas tú sobre [X]? – What do you think about [X]?
- Háblame/Cuéntame más de [X] – Tell me more about [X].
- Si no te importa que te pregunte… – If you don't mind me asking…
- Alguien me dijo que… – Someone told me that…
- Escuché que… – I heard that…
- ¿Estás de acuerdo en que…? – Would you agree that… ?
Changing the Subject in Spanish
What if the well runs dry? Fear not. In any long conversation, the topic will naturally change over time. Once again, it's the energy that matters, not the information being shared. Unless the other person has something that they're absolutely desperate to say on the current subject, they won't mind (or perhaps even notice) if you make a smooth transition to something else.
- Eso me recuerda… – That reminds me…
- Hablando de eso… – Speaking of which…
- Por otra parte… – On another note…
- Estoy cambiando de tema, pero… – I'm changing the subject, but…
- Me preguntaba… – I was wondering…
- Te voy a decir una cosa… – Let me tell you something
How to Sound Natural When You Speak Spanish
You might be able to have a conversation, but are you conversational? If you’re a native English speaker, you no doubt pepper your English with, like, y’know, little expressions and turns of phrase (and stuff like that) that kinda make you sound more natural, know what I mean? Y’see, every language has stuff like this, but it’s not really taught in textbooks.
These little verbal sprinkles are a big part of the difference between speaking naturally and merely speaking correctly. Here are a few you can use in Spanish:
- ¡Por supuesto! or ¡Claro que si! – Of course!
- ¿En serio? – Really? / Seriously?
- ¡Oye! – Hey! (literally, “listen!”)
- ¡Hostia! – Damn! (This mildly rude exclamation is very common in Spain, but not so much in Latin America.)
- ¡Ostras! – A family-friendly version of “¡hostia!”. It literally means “oysters!”
- ¡Dios mio! – Oh my god!
- A ver… – Let’s see…
- ¡No me digas! – No way! (Literally: don’t tell me!)
- ¡Vale! – Okay! (Used in Spain, “dale” is more common in the Americas.)
- Qué yo sepa – As far as I know.
- Digo… – Literally “I say”, but you can use this to correct yourself after you misspeak. “Somos dos… digo, tres personas.”
- O sea – I mean…/Or rather….
- ¿Sabes? = You know?
- Una pregunta… – Literally “a question”. It’s very common in Spanish to preface a question with “una pregunta”, the same way you might say “Let me ask you something” in English.
If you want someone to repeat themselves in Spanish, a normal, polite thing to say is “¿Cómo?”, like saying “sorry?” in English.
Also note that if you're texting someone in Spanish, laughter is written as “jajajaja”, not “hahahaha”!
In casual English you might address someone as “dude”, “buddy”, “mate”, “man”, and many other alternatives depending on your dialect. Spanish has many such words. In Spain it's very common to call people tío/tía (uncle/aunt). In Colombia, men might address each other as guevón, and in México there are many words, like mano or morro. It varies massively from country to country, so be sure to find out what your local equivalent of these words is!
The word bueno literally means “good”, but it's commonly used in Spanish as a filler word, in the same you might start a sentence with “well…” in English. Likewise with pues (“well” in English).
Go Forth and Converse!
I hope you find the above Spanish examples helpful. They’re just the beginning – keep practising your Spanish skills, and you’ll find that your general conversational skills should develop alongside them. In my experience, Spanish speakers tend to be a friendly bunch, so what have you got to be afraid of?
Did I miss anything here? Do you have other examples of useful Spanish conversation starters and tips? Let me know in the comments.