To become fluent in Spanish, you have to learn connecting words! Today we’re talking about conjunctions, particularly the words que and y, and how they help hold the whole Spanish language together and create fluent flow. We’ll also learn why conjunctions are even more important in Spanish than in English, based on a special rule about Spanish verbs. After this episode, you’ll know how to use the most common word in the Spanish language, getting you one step closer to thinking in Spanish.
Introducing the number one most-frequently-used word in Spanish.
Intro: Join us on a rigorous, step-by-step journey to fluency. I’m Timothy and this is LearnCraft Spanish.
We’re almost halfway through this first week of foundational grammar, so congratulations on making it this far! I promise things aren’t always going to be this abstract; we’ll start speaking in full Spanish sentences soon, and it will be super fun. But to do that, we need to dig in and talk about some important things that seem really small, but are actually a REALLY huge deal for fluency.
Yesterday we talked at a high level about parts of speech, particularly nouns and verbs. But now let's dive deep into the fine-grained words that make the language work and that help define what makes Spanish different from English. And that starts with conjunctions.
Here’s why. Let’s imagine a real-life situation where you might need to use Spanish. Let’s say that someday you’re on a walking tour of a European city, and the only person on the tour who’s close to your age is a native Spanish speaker who doesn’t know any English. You decide to try to strike up a chat with this person, but with the pressure of making a good impression, one of two things is going to happen. Either you'll utter a few words, clumsily and haltingly one at a time, or your words will flow together in coherent sentences. If your goal is to be fluent, you want your words to flow coherently. In fact, the word fluent comes from the Latin word for flowing — and flowing starts with making sure that all those tiny words that fill in the cracks become second nature, starting with your conjunctions.
So what are conjunctions? Conjunctions are basically words that can hold entire sentences together or even hold multiple sentences together into larger sentences. Let's use an example. Let's say that on this walking tour, your tour guide has been yelling everything he's saying really loudly.
So here's something you might randomly say as you’re chatting with your companion:
“He yells and we listen.”
Okay, so first of all, let's take a second and practice the food test and the eat test on this. “He yells and we listen.” You should be able to identify two words that are functioning as nouns, roughly exchangeable with food, and two words that are functioning as verbs, roughly exchangeable with “eat”.
Alright, so the answer is that “he” and “we” are functioning as nouns, whereas “yells” and “listen” are verbs, exchangeable with eat or eats. You can totally mix and match the words. This sentence example could be turned into “he eats and food listens” or “food yells and we eat” — or any combination like that — if you just play the potato head game. Again, this may seem silly, but it's an important way to keep sharp on how the language works and how to invent your own sentences creatively on the fly.
But there's another word in the middle of this sentence. The word “and” is not a verb or a noun. You can’t say “he yells food we listen” or “he yells eat we listen”. The word “and” is a conjunction, which means that it can be used to hold two separate sentences together.
The fact is, this little five word sentence *could* be two separate sentences: “He yells. We listen.” Okay, so that technically works, but it doesn't flow. If you speak like that a lot, you're going to sound like Tarzan. If you want your speech to flow fluently, you'll do what native speakers do. You'll use a lot of conjunctions, and that's what we've done in the more natural sounding example. We've used the word “and” to tack those shorter, stiffer sentences together: He yells and we listen.
The Spanish word for “and” is y, spelled with the letter Y. It's such a short, sweet, easy word, just a single sound, y, and it's super easy to stick between words and phrases.
Now, you may very well have already known this word, but even if you did, it's important to point something out about conjunctions that confuses even some advanced Spanish students. There's a rule in Spanish grammar that doesn't exist in English grammar. The rule is that any proper Spanish sentence can only have one verb like “eat”, “eats”, or “ate”. And this rule only has one exception: When we introduce conjunctions. Conjunctions are used to join multiple sentences together. So basically anytime you see more than one verb in a sentence, there must be a conjunction somewhere in between.
Now, if you wanna get technical, the term that we're really looking for here is clauses, not sentences, but don't worry about that. Basically, the important thing is that there are two phrases, either of which COULD be its own sentence by itself, because each one has a verb. But the conjunction “and”, or y, has been thrown in the middle to join them together into one sentence.
Now, let's play with this sentence a little bit. If we were to continue playing the potato head game, but this time focusing on the word “and”, we could switch that word out for a bunch of different conjunctions. For example:
He yells OR we listen.
He yells BECAUSE we listen.
He yells IF we listen.
He yells WHILE we listen.
These words are all conjunctions: or, because, if, while. But we’re not going to learn these words quite yet. Instead, we're going to focus on the most common conjunction in Spanish, and in fact, the most frequently used word in the whole Spanish language, the word que, Which means “that”. This word is pronounced kind of like the English letter K, but it’s actually spelled q-u-e.
For a memory trick, picture an English letter K. This letter looks like it’s kind of reaching out in different directions, up, down, to the upper right, and to the lower right, as if it's trying to pull a whole bunch of things together to join in the middle. That's what the word que does in Spanish. It's the ultimate connecting word. (Now note that this isn’t pronounced “kay”, as we would pronounce the letter K in English; it’s pronounced as a short, crisp sound: que. We’ll talk more about the nuances of Spanish pronunciation in the weeks to come.)
All right, let’s start using the word que. We’ll start by seeing what happens if we use it in today’s sentence template:
He yells que we listen.
What does that sentence mean? It means that he's yelling about the fact that we're listening. He yells that we listen. This may be a strange example, but it does work.
Now we actually need to talk about this word, que, for a couple of minutes here because we have to address two big questions that confuse most English speakers learning Spanish.
First of all, elephant in the room: Didn't we already learn the word eso in the previous episode? And didn't we say that eso means “that”? How is it that there's another word that means “that”? Second, why is the word que the number one most common word in the Spanish language? Can it really be that important?
The answers to both of these questions lie at the heart of what makes Spanish and English so different from each other.
Let's start with the eso issue. Remember that eso is exchangeable with nouns and noun phrases. That means that in our sentence example, “he yells that we listen”, we could switch out the noun functions with the word eso, just like we could switch them out with the word “food”. It makes sense to say “eso yells that we listen” (or “that yells that we listen”). Or it even makes sense to say “he yells that eso listens”. (“He yells that that listens”.) In each case, eso can take the place of a noun, just like the word “food” can. But what doesn't work is to put the word eso in place of the conjunction “that”: “He yells eso we listen.” If you tried to use the word eso to mean “that” in a context like this, it wouldn't just be incorrect — actually, Spanish speakers wouldn't understand what you're trying to say at all. And this brings us back to the fact that grammar does matter! Understanding parts of speech does make a difference because unfortunately, without understanding the difference between pronouns and conjunctions, or the difference between eso and que, you'll have a lot of serious difficulties communicating in Spanish.
So as you’re trying to make small talk with your new friend on the walking tour, communicating in even the most basic of sentences requires some fundamental understanding of grammar, such as the difference between the word “that” functioning as a noun versus the word “that” functioning as a conjunction.
And it may seem like we’re spending a lot of time and effort on just two words, eso and que, but hang in there! The good news is that if you can master eso and que, you're ahead of 80% of English speakers trying to learn Spanish. Most learners tend to avoid tricky stuff like this, and tragically so do most teachers. We’re taking the upside down approach because we know that it means that everything will be downhill after the first few weeks of this podcast.
All right, let’s get a little bit of practice with this. I'm going to present a bunch of sentences that use the word “that” in them, and you should see if you can tell whether the Spanish version of those sentences would use eso or would use que. It’s really important for you to try to make a guess here; passive listening isn’t going to help you learn, but if you try to predict what you’re about to hear, Spanish will become second nature quickly.
So here is the first example:
“That isn’t my favorite thing.”
So is that first word “that” going to be eso or que? Try the food test on it to see if eso would work. “That isn’t my favorite thing.”
… So in this case, it would be eso because “that” is being used as a noun.
“I told him that we arrived.”
…This one is que. I told him que we arrived.
“I hope that you have a nice day.”
…This is also que. I hope que you have a nice day.
“We want that as soon as possible.”
…So in this case, you could say we want food as soon as possible. So this is eso. We want eso as soon as possible.
Now for a tricky one:
“They told me that that was impossible.”
So, one of these words is replaceable by food and the other one isn’t. So see if you can predict which “that” is which. “They told me that that was impossible.”
…So you could say “They told me that food was impossible” or “they told me that eso was impossible.” So this sentence would be, “They told me que eso was impossible.”
Now, if you didn't get all of these perfect, don't worry, you can get more practice on this at LCSPodcast.com/3. We have a little quiz there that you can use to keep practicing figuring out how to translate the English word “that” as either que or eso. And again, remember that this is fundamental stuff, so practice with this as much as you need until you’re doing it flawlessly.
Notice that in each of these sentence examples where we used que, there's a verb both before and after it. For example, “I told him that we arrived” (or “I told him que we arrived”). You have “told”, which is a verb, and “arrived”, which is also a verb. And this brings us to the second question about the word que, which is: Why is this the most common word in the Spanish language? What’s so important about such a tiny little connecting word? In English, the word “that” isn’t even in the top five, so why is it different for Spanish?
The answer is that it’s because Spanish and English sentences work differently. Check out these two sentence examples:
We hope that we get there soon.
I dreamed that I was back in high school.
Thinking strictly in English for a minute, go ahead and say these sentences out loud to yourself. “We hope that we get there soon.” “I dreamed that I was back in high school.” You may have noticed something odd; I bet you can guess what I’m getting at. Again, say these sentences out loud and try to picture yourself chatting with an English speaking friend and saying either of these phrases. “We hope that we get there soon.” “I dreamed that I was back in high school.” So the thing is, if you’re a native English speaker, you’ll probably actually skip the word “that” and just phrase these sentences like this:
“We hope we get there soon.”
“I dreamed I was back in high school.”
And HERE is where English and Spanish are completely different. You can't ever, ever do that in Spanish. If the word “that” can be used as a connector, you MUST use the word que in Spanish.
Here’s another example:
I hope he told you he was here.
This would *have* to be phrased as “I hope that he told you that he was here”, or:
I hope que he told you que he was here.
So this is the answer to why the word que is so common. It's used everywhere, all over the place to connect phrases together. In fact, this calls back to the special rule that I mentioned earlier: Any proper Spanish sentence can only have one verb, BUT conjunctions are used to join multiple sentences together. So let’s look again at two of our English sentence examples, each of which has two verbs.
We hope we get there soon. (We hope “that” we get there soon.)
I dreamed I was back in high school. (I dreamed “that” I was back in high school.)
Basically, each one of these is two sentences joined together by a conjunction: the word “that”, or que. In English, we’re allowed to omit the word “that” because it's implied. But as you now know from our rule, you can't ever omit a connecting word in situations like this in Spanish. It actually just doesn't even make sense in Spanish to do that. So basically you'll start to sound more like a native Spanish speaker if you just start using que everywhere you can.
Now I’m gonna take a moment to clarify something about this special rule. So we say that any proper Spanish sentence (or technically “clause”) can only have one verb. Note that there are going to be some nuances to this as we get further into the lessons. Specifically, it’s sometimes going to look as if there are two verbs in a phrase when in effect there is only one. Check out this sentence:
I want to have more.
In this case, it looks like there are two verbs, “want” and “have”. But what we’re dealing with here is a “verb phrase”, where multiple verbs are functioning as just one verb. In the sentence “I want to have more”, you could actually replace the entire phrase “want to have” with just one verb: “eat”. “I eat more.” So the whole phrase “want to have” counts as just one verb. We don’t have to put a conjunction in between; that actually wouldn’t work.
It’s the same thing with this sentence: “I will continue eating my food.” In this case there are three words that the dictionary calls verbs: “will”, “continue”, and “eating”. But this whole phrase, “will continue eating”, counts as just one verb for our purposes. You could replace all of that with “I eat my food.”
On the other hand, we do have add a conjunction in a sentence like this one:
She imagined I continued doing it.
See if you can tell where the conjunction has to be added. It seems like there are three verbs: “she imagined I continued doing it”, so we have “imagined”, “continued” and “doing”. But “continued doing” is just serving as one verb: you could replace it with “ate”: “She imagined I ate it”. So in effect, we have two verbs in the sentence: “imagined” and “continued doing”. There has to be a conjunction in between. “She imagined that I continued doing it”, or “She imagined que I continued doing it.”
Once again, this involves trying to rethink English sentences so that you put the word “that”, as a connecting word, wherever you can. Try it yourself! Even when you're speaking English, anytime that you could use the word “that” as a connector, start using que. You should also try to start replacing the word “and” with y. This one is actually very easy to do; in fact, y is a rare example of a word that's basically a simple one-to-one translation between languages.
If you start practicing how you would use que and y in the sentences that you use all the time, you're already well on your way to starting to think in Spanish.
To get more practice with this, use the free practice materials that go with this lesson. In particular, it’s important to work on remembering to put que in sentences where we omit “that” in English; this takes quite a bit of practice, so feel free to work on it as much as you need to at LCSPodcast.com/3.
Tomorrow, we’ll dive into a few more little words that hold Spanish together, including the two-letter word that’s the second-most-frequently-used word in the Spanish language.
This show is brought to you by LearnCraftSpanish.com. Music for this episode 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.