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Learn These 3 Spanish Words To Start Thinking in Spanish

Some Spanish words are more important than others! Today we’ll talk about how you can start *thinking* in Spanish by choosing the right words to work on. We will focus on some of the highest-leverage words in the language — three words that comprise 8% of the Spanish language by themselves. After we practice with these words, you’ll soon be able to start forming sentences like a native Spanish speaker.

Full Podcast Episode


Let’s work on 3 words that make up more than 8% of Spanish.

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

Today we’re learning 3 super important words that are key to thinking in Spanish. But what makes these particular words so important?

Remember that in Episode 2, I told you that there are 20 words that account for 30% of all words ever spoken in Spanish. What do we mean by that? Well, some words are much more important than others. For example, the word “blue” is used on average maybe once or twice a week by the average person. Imagine that you're on that walking tour, having that conversation with a new Spanish-speaking friend. There's a small chance that you'd need the word for “blue”, but it's not the most important contingency to plan for. However, the word que, which we just learned yesterday, is used dozens of times in every Spanish conversation. There's no way you could have that conversation without using and hearing the word que in all kinds of different ways. In fact, a statistical analysis of spoken Spanish based on subtitles concluded that the word que accounts for 3.29% of all words ever spoken. In other words, que occurs once out of every 31 words spoken in Spanish.

It's everywhere, but it's not alone. Another word that comes really close statistically is the word de, which roughly means “of” or “from”. This word also accounts for more than 3% of the Spanish language all by itself. However, de belongs to another part of speech that we haven't learned yet. It's not a noun because it's not interchangeable with the word “food”. And it's not a verb (it's not interchangeable with “eat”). And it's not a conjunction because you can't use it to join two sentences together. Instead, de is a preposition.

Now, don't worry, we don't have to do a lot more mental gymnastics to learn this word. In fact, prepositions actually have a very simple rule. They're always used right before a noun of some type. For example, you're likely to say “de food” or “de eso”. If you're getting overwhelmed by terminology and the word “preposition” sounds like a bit of a mouthful, it might help to imagine that you have some food, and then you also have something right before the food, in the position before it. That's the pre-position, the position right before the food. Maybe that'll help you remember that prepositions always occur right before nouns.

Let's dive in with some examples.

The girl was from another country.

This sentence would use the word de right before “another country”. “The girl was de another country.” Here’s the entire sentence in Spanish:

La chica era de otro país.

Now of course we haven’t learned most of those words yet, so don’t worry about the rest of the sentence; just see if you can recognize the word de in there. Let’s listen again:

La chica era de otro país.

Next example:

Give my brother more of that.

This would turn into “give my brother more de that”. And of course, the word “that” here is acting as a noun, so we know that we can say “give my brother more de eso. Listen to the end of this sentence to hear both of those words in this context.

Dale a mi hermano más de eso.

Next example:

It came down from the mountain.

It came down de the mountain.

Bajó de la montaña.

Now remember that we can use prepositions before anything that functions as a noun, including entire phrases or actions when actions are nouns. Here’s a pretty complex example:

I’m tired of waiting around like this.

I’m tired de waiting around like this.

Estoy cansada de esperar así.

So in this example the word de is coming before an entire phrase, specifically an action, but one that’s clearly being used as a noun in the sentence. Playing the potato head game, you could also say “I’m tired de food”, or “I’m tired de eso”. So the food test always works on anything you see after the word de.

In general, de means “of” or “from”. There IS a bit of nuance to translating the word de, and we’ll dive deeper into those nuances tomorrow. For now, just translate any instance of “from” or “of” into de.

Now let’s learn another preposition, the word a, which basically means the opposite of de. It roughly translates into English as the word “to”, as in going “to” a place. So let's try these examples:

The girl went to another country.

The girl went a another country.

La chica fue a otro país.

Next example:

I want to give that to my brother.

I want to give eso a my brother.

Quiero darle eso a mi hermano.

Now let’s combine de and a:

Mark goes from New York to Houston.

Mark goes de New York a Houston.

Mark va de Nueva York a Houston.

There's not much more to say about the words de and a right now. We’ll learn more and more about the uses of each one in future episodes. For now, remember that they always occur before some kind of noun or phrase that functions as a noun.

Our final word for today is the word no, which does NOT usually mean "no". It more often means "not".

The word no belongs to a part of speech called an adverb. We'll learn a lot more about adverbs after we’ve finished with our foundational grammar, because most adverbs are actually pretty easy to use; in fact, most adverbs can go almost anywhere in a sentence and can mean all kinds of fun things. But the word no is more strict. It's used in extremely specific ways in sentences, and it's used five times more often than any other adverb.

No is the ultimate way to negate a sentence, or to say that something isn't the case. In English we can negate a sentence in lots of ways, using words like “can’t” and “won’t” and “didn’t”. But to say any of those things, in Spanish, we would use no. Unfortunately, this makes it a bit tricky to reprogram our thoughts from English into Spanish, because usually when you have an English sentence that involves a negative, you have to restructure it to make it work in Spanish.

Let’s use this example: “She can’t be at the house.” The word “can’t” is a contraction that doesn’t exist in Spanish. “Can’t” is short for "can not"; the word "not" is kind of tied into it. But if we untie the “not”, so to speak, the sentence goes like this: “She can not be at the house.”

There's one more step. By default you might think that this sentence should turn into “She can no be at the house.” But adverbs don’t tend to work that way. Generally, in Spanish, a verb structure like “can be” has to stick together, and then the adverb no has to go before that structure, so we end up with “no can be”. This is a fundamental rule for Spanish sentence templates: The word no almost always goes before any verb in the sentence. So what we have now is: “She no can be at the house.”

Here’s another sentence: “I don’t have that.” Once again, if you untie the “not”, it’s “I do not have that”. And the word no needs to go before any verbs in the sentence, so let’s restructure it just like before: “I no do have that.”

Now this is a bit weird, because now we have an odd phrase, "do have". To Spanish speakers, the idea of “do have” is really wacky; in Spanish, there's simply no reason to put “do” before another verb. So we'll just remove the word "do". Instead of saying “I do not have that”, or "I not do have that", simply say “I no have that”, or "I no have eso."

Yo no tengo eso.

We have a memory trick for this that we use with our students. When translating from English to Spanish, you often have to untie the knot, and then, when you do, if the word in English starts with D, D is for "disappear". For example, whereas "I can't walk" turns into "I no can walk", the phrase "I don't walk" WOULD turn into "I no do walk", but the "do" disappears: "I no walk."

Let's practice with several sentences that use contractions. See if you can predict where the no will go and whether a word will disappear. First example:

This isn't my house.

This is not my house.

This no is my house.

Esta no es mi casa.

We’ll do a few more of these exercises here, and they may seem tedious, but this is super important work for laying the groundwork for thinking in Spanish. Remember that you’re not going to learn Spanish just by listening. It’s important to participate actively; you’ll make those neural connections a lot faster if you predict as much as you can.

She can't walk very fast.

She can not walk very fast.

She no can walk very fast.

Ella no puede caminar muy rápido.

They don't see why.

They do not see why.

They no do see why.

They no see why.

Ellas no ven por qué.

That won't matter.

That will not matter.

That no will matter.

Eso no will matter.

Eso no importará.

This doesn't tell us much.

This does not tell us much.

This no does tell us much.

This no tells us much.

Esto no nos dice mucho.

In that example, we changed it from “does tell” to “tells”, just to make it grammatically make sense. We’ll do something similar in the following example:

He didn’t know.

He did not know.

He no did know.

He no knew.

Él no sabía.

This is going to take quite a bit of practice, because the way that the word no works is one of the main things that trips up English speakers learning Spanish. As a teaser, another one is the word lo and how it works in sentences, and we’ll start on that one very soon, on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, as a little bit of encouragement, you’ve now learned the top four words in Spanish: que, de, no, and a which together make up over 11% of the Spanish language. When you combine these with your other two words, y and eso, we’re at over 13% of all words ever spoken in Spanish.

Tomorrow we’re going to get a bit more practice with everything we’ve learned so that we can try to make it second nature. We’ll also dive into some of the nuances of using the word de.

Meanwhile, for more practice untying the knot, and practicing the “d is for disappear” trick, go to LCSPodcast.com/4 for some free exercises.

This show is brought to you by LearnCraftSpanish.com. The Spanish voice in this episode was our coach Ximena Lama-Rondón. 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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