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How to express concepts in Spanish

Learn Spanish faster by starting with the hard stuff — like expressing concepts! In this episode, we’ll lay the groundwork for expressing abstract ideas, concepts, and thoughts in fluent Spanish… and it all starts by mastering the #1 most important word in the Spanish language.

Full Podcast Episode


Let’s work on expressing abstract ideas in Spanish.

Intro: Join us on a rigorous, step-by-step journey to fluency. I’m Timothy and this is LearnCraft Spanish.

Now that we’ve spent the first two weeks laying our fluency foundation, we get to spend a lot more time on vocabulary and real-life expression in Spanish. For most of this week we’ll be working on learning the most important verb in Spanish. But we’re never going to be totally done with the deeper stuff, so we’re still going to spend our Monday episodes on some important higher-level concepts, such as language theory, study hacks, and deeper grammar.

Today we’ll be talking about expressing abstract ideas in Spanish. This may seem like a strange thing to do in just the 3rd week of learning the language, since many people consider this to be an advanced skill. But being able to express abstract ideas is actually core to being fluent, and we’ve found that you’ll become proficient much faster if you learn how to do this as early as possible.

Here’s why. It’s super easy to learn the names of random objects and actions, such as “chair”, “book”, or “eating”. This is the same thing as learning a new name for something in your own language! For example, if you have a large fiction book, you could easily find a bunch of new words for it: You could call it a “novel”, or a “volume”, or a “tome”; or you could call it a libro or a Buch or a shū. Learning these new labels is fun, but it’s not the same thing as deep language learning. It’s just learning alternative names for things! We can do that anytime. And in my experience, it’s especially fruitful after we’ve deeply learned how the language works.

But deeply learning the language requires a different set of priorities. Let’s say you want to express something like this sentence:

“I’d prefer that they do it by this afternoon.”

On the surface, this might seem like a very simple sentence; if you’re a native English speaker, it doesn’t require any fancy vocabulary. But learning to say a sentence like this in a second language requires some really deep knowledge of how the language works.

Not only that, but MOST of what we say in any language does not consist of simple, concrete labels for things. Instead, we talk about — and think about — intangible ideas almost constantly. Whether you’re aware of it or not, almost everything you express, whether to other people or to yourself, is not something you can simply find a one-word label for, like a noun or an action word. Instead, you construct it in a personal, deep way. And, of course, that’s true of Spanish speakers too. If you want to get to know someone close to you, and understand them on a deep level, you’ll want to be able to comprehend things like their opinions, their reactions, and their intentions. These are the things that make us individual human beings, and they’re the things that language is so good at expressing — IF you learn it deeply.

To start doing this in Spanish, let’s play a little bit with that sentence that I presented a minute ago.

  • “I’d prefer that they do it by this afternoon.”

This is sort of an intention; you’re expressing that this whole idea of them doing it by this afternoon is something that you want. “I’d prefer that they do it by this afternoon.”

We’re going to play with this sentence example for a few minutes, so just to make this interesting, let’s give it a background story. Let’s say that a couple of neighborhood kids have painted a very unflattering picture of you on a store window on main street. And your parents arrive in town this afternoon. So you really hope that they clean the graffiti off the window before your parents potentially see this unfortunate image. You express this by saying, “I’d prefer that they do it by this afternoon.”

OK, so now that we’ve given this some meaning, we can modify this in a couple different ways for even more fun. How about we turn it from an intention into an opinion:

  • “I predict that they’ll do it by this afternoon.”

Or we can even make it into a reaction. Let’s say you heard that they indeed are going to clean the window in the next hour or two. So you might say:

  • “I like that they’ll do it by this afternoon.”

So in total, our three sentences are:

  • “I’d prefer that they do it by this afternoon.”
  • “I predict that they’ll do it by this afternoon.”
  • “I like that they’ll do it by this afternoon.”

In upcoming episodes, we’re gonna learn the words you’d use for preferring something, or predicting something, or liking something. But currently, our goal is that by the time we get there, you’ll know exactly *how* to use those words in a sentence like this because of the work that we’re doing now.

So here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to play the potato head game with these sentences, and we’re going to turn an enormous amount of each sentence into “food”.

So check this out. We’ll start with “I’d prefer that they do it by this afternoon.” We can turn this into: “I’d prefer food.”

…Feels like a totally different sentence. But it does work. We replaced the entire phrase, “that they do it by this afternoon”, with the word “food”.

Let’s do it again with “I predict that they’ll do it by this afternoon.” We can turn this into “I predict food.”

Or how about “I like that they’ll do it by this afternoon.” This turns into “I like food.”

And this is the first big thing to learn if you want to express abstract concepts in Spanish: How to turn rich, complex ideas into nouns. Imagine mastering the language so well that you can take all your most unique thoughts, your opinions and reactions and intentions and everything else, and you can express them as easily as a simple word like “food”.

That’s what we’re going to start doing today, and the WHOLE *key* to doing this is the number one word in the Spanish language: the word que.

This little word lets us take any abstract idea and package it up as a noun phrase so that we can use the whole idea as a noun in a sentence.

So of course, as you probably guessed, our original sentence uses the word que in the middle. “I’d prefer that they do it by this afternoon” turns into “I’d prefer que they do it by this afternoon.”

And then that’s true of the variations as well: “I predict que they’ll do it by this afternoon” and “I like que they’ll do it by this afternoon.”

In sentences like this, the entire phrase there that starts with que can be treated as a noun. When you like “that they’ll do it by this afternoon”, what you’re liking is the fact that they’ll do it by this afternoon, the whole idea that they’ll do it by this afternoon. Or when you prefer that they do it by this afternoon, you’re preferring the concept of them doing it by this afternoon. And facts, ideas, and concepts are very often too complex for a single word, but they’re easy to express if you use the word que followed by a whole description of the idea.

And what I like to call this is a “que phrase”.

A que phrase is the word que followed by a phrase that could be an entire sentence by itself. And packaged together, it all makes a noun in a larger sentence.

Let’s try this with a different sentence structure. We’ll start with this simple sentence:

Food is strange.

And then we’ll replace “food” with a que phrase:

“That he chews with his mouth open is strange.”

We’re treating the fact that he chews with his mouth open as a noun. It’s like saying “the fact (that he chews with his mouth open) is strange.”

So you can use a que phrase in place of nouns in sentences a LOT in Spanish! This happens all the time, and by practicing this you’ll get faster and faster at expressing abstract ideas in Spanish, and understanding when other people express their thoughts as well.

All right, time to put this into practice. I’m going to give you some new sentence templates that you can use to express intentions and reactions.

We’ll begin with the phrase para que. This is a very common word pairing in Spanish, and it roughly means “so that” or “in order that”. We’ll use it in sentence templates like this: Someone does something para que something happens. For example:

I brought him so that he could meet her.

I brought him para que he could meet her.

Lo traje para que la pudiera conocer.

Now this might seem odd because I told you that para is a preposition, and prepositions have an extremely strict rule: They always have to be followed by a noun. But this doesn’t break that rule! The que phrase, “that he could meet her”, is being treated as a noun, and para comes right before that.

We can even verify this using the food test. “I brought him para (que he could meet her)” could turn into “I brought him para food.” In both cases, para is being used to express an intention, that idea of pointing directly at something. When we form a sentence with para que, the intention is that something happens.

So yes, prepositions DO have to be used right before nouns, but in many, many cases, the noun is a que phrase, especially when we’re expressing intentions in Spanish.

Let’s get some practice with para que to express intentions.

She did it so that I would notice her.

She lo did para que I la would notice.

Ella lo hizo para que yo la notara.

The girls are here so that you can take a break.

Las girls are here para que you can take a break.

Las chicas están aquí para que puedas tomar un descanso.

All right, let’s learn another sentence template, and this one uses both a que phrase and also the word qué with an accent mark. We previously learned that qué with an accent mark normally means “what”, and it’s used in questions. Well, there’s another use of this word: To express strong reactions So this qué with an accent mark can either mean “what?” as a question, or “WHAT!”, as in “what luck!”

As a memory trick, the mark over the letter E means that this word tends to be associated with other marks, specifically question marks and exclamation marks.

Now, the phrase “what luck” is a little weird to modern American English, but this is actually very common in Spanish. In fact, there are many other ways to use the Spanish word for “what” in exclamations, because in Spanish, instead of saying “how lucky!”, you would say “What lucky!” And instead of “how strange”, you would say:

What strange!

¡Qué extraño!

In English we use “how” for these exclamations, but in Spanish, you use “what” for all kinds of exclamations.

Now here’s our sentence template for using both qué with an accent mark and a que phrase.

How strange that he’s here!

¡Qué strange que he’s here!

¡Qué extraño que esté aquí!

So again this is a sentence template for expressing a reaction to something, and what you’re reacting to is a que phrase, such as “that he’s here” or “that he’s chewing with his mouth open” or “that you didn’t do your homework”. But before the que phrase, you start off with qué with an accent mark, then your reaction, like “strange” or “amazing” or “lucky”. Then you express the que phrase.

Let’s practice with a few examples.

How scary that you almost crashed!

¡Qué scary que you almost crashed!

¡Qué aterrador que casi te estrellas!

How cool that he’s with her!

¡Qué cool que he is con her!

¡Qué genial que esté con ella!

How sad that the girl didn’t win!

¡Qué sad que la girl no won!

¡Qué triste que la niña no ganara!

All right, in a minute we’re going to do our final quiz for today to practice que phrases, para que, and this template for exclamations. But first, we have ONE *more* thing to learn about the word que, the version without an accent mark.

It has yet another meaning.

Normally, que means “that” and it’s used to connect two sentences together into a larger sentence, or to start off a que phrase. But sometimes, it means “than”. This is used in comparisons.

For example:

  • He is taller than his brother.
  • He is taller que his brother.
  • He is shorter than the girl.
  • He is shorter que the girl.

That’s how you use it. Whenever you hear the word “than” in English, remember to translate it as que.

All right, let’s put all of this into practice. Make sure to speak out loud; what we’re working on here are some crucial, foundation skills for being able to express whatever you want to say in Spanish.

How terrible!

¡Qué terrible!

¡Qué terrible!

She and I said he was with him.

She y I said que he was con him.

Ella y yo dijimos que estaba con él.

That it’s a paper airplane amuses me.

Que it’s an airplane de paper me amuses.

Que sea un avión de papel me divierte.

Why did he go along this street?

¿Por qué did he go por this street?

¿Por qué fue por esta calle?

A man did it so that she would find you.

Un man lo did para que she te would find.

Un hombre lo hizo para que ella te encontrara.

This can’t be because of a girl.

This no can be por una girl.

Esto no puede ser por una niña.

How funny that that wasn’t for him!

¡Qué funny que eso no was para him!

¡Qué gracioso que eso no fuera para él!

What do you do around here?

¿Qué do you do por here?

¿Qué haces por aquí?

In this next example, “them” is feminine.

I met them at the park. How unlikely!

I las met en the park. ¡Qué unlikely!

Yo las conocí en el parque. ¡Qué improbable!

He’s from Peru; that’s why the guys know him.

He’s de Peru, por eso los guys lo know.

Es de Perú, por eso los chicos lo conocen.

I didn’t go so that she would find that.

I no went para que she would find eso.

Yo no fui para que ella encontrara eso.

The man will be at the bank at 1:30.

El man will be en the bank a 1:30.

El hombre estará en el banco a la 1:30.

How nice that the girl found her!

¡Qué nice que la girl la found!

¡Qué bien que la chica la encontrara!

In this next example, “them” is masculine.

That should impress them by tomorrow.

Eso los should impress para tomorrow.

Eso los debería impresionar para mañana.

In this next example, the author is masculine.

My mom’s book is by a Colombian author.

The book de my mom is por un Colombian author.

El libro de mi mamá es por un autor colombiano.

The ladies said that so that I would find him.

Las ladies said eso para que I lo would find.

Las damas dijeron eso para que yo lo encontrara.

Tomorrow we’re going to start working on Ser, our first verb.

This show is brought to you by LearnCraftSpanish.com. The Spanish voice in this episode was our coach Michael Agudelo. Our music was provided by the Seattle Marimba Quartet, and I’m Timothy, encouraging you to do the hard work of learning Spanish. Acquiring a second language is one of the most fulfilling things you can do, so start your fluency journey today at LCSPodcast.com.

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