10 Spanish Transition Words
So, you’ve been taking Spanish class for a while now, and you’ve got the basics down. You feel confident enough to have your first real-life conversation with a native speaker. Everything starts off well – you introduce yourself with the correct phrases and ask the right questions. And then they ask you how long you have been studying Spanish and you can’t quite remember the word for ‘ago.’ You start stumbling over your words, not knowing how to continue, and all your newfound confidence slowly wanes.
Have you been there? Have you ever just needed a moment in a conversation to collect your thoughts, remember the correct translation of that tricky word, or recall how to conjugate irregular verbs in the past tense? I have. Oh, I have been in that situation too many times to count. Even now, as a fluent Spanish speaker, I still have moments where I get confused between Spanish and English, or a particular tense trips me up (yes, this happens to me in both languages now). Are we destined to always stumble over our words while we think of the correct way to express ourselves? The answer is no. There is a trick I’ve learned over the years that can give you those extra couple seconds you need to remember the past tense of decir in the ‘usted’ form.
Have you ever noticed how native speakers – of any language – pause naturally to think about what they want to say? It is usually accompanied by a transition word to let the other person know that they just need a moment to gather their thoughts. For example, how many times do you use ‘uhm’ or ‘like’ in a conversation as a transition word between sentences? If you’re anything like me, it would be a lot. Very few people can hold a conversation flawlessly without using these little words to help them along. The only issue is…they aren’t international.
There are some words that take a lot of work to switch into our second (or third or fourth) language because they are second nature. For me, the hardest phrase to translate was ‘I mean….’ I would be speaking fluent Spanish and out of nowhere, I would stick an ‘I mean’ into my sentence. I have heard other native English speakers trip up of words like ‘alright,’ ‘like,’ and even ‘uhm.’ If your goal is fluency in Spanish, then these words can be a small but impending obstacle. However, I have put together a list of phrases that I have learned to use as transitional words to give me some extra time to think and put together my thoughts in my second language.
Let’s start simple. ‘Uhm.’ I can’t even tell you how many times I use this word in a day. We use it when we’re thinking, as a pause, when we don’t understand, etc. It is such a common word that it may seem weird that it is not universal. Of course, if you say ‘uhm’ while speaking Spanish, you will be understood, no question. However, you may start to notice that native Spanish speakers say it a little different.
Instead of ‘uhm,’ it’s more of an em sound. Here are some examples to look at:
“Em…la verdad no sé.”
“Uhm…honestly, I don’t know.”
“Él habló sobre, em, el tema de desigualdad.”
“He talked about, uhm, the topic of inequality.”
So, we started simple. This one is just a change in pronunciation. Let’s look at another simple word
Since English has become the international language of business, many English words have infiltrated various languages, especially Spanish. This means that Spanish speakers understand and even use this word, ‘okay,’ but it is not as common as the Spanish equivalents – and let me tell you, there are many. If it is your goal to become fluent in Spanish, it is always good to know the correct way to say things in Spanish and not just use a common English word in its place.
Although there are many ways to say ‘okay,’ we are going to look at one that is incredibly popular in Latin America – va. It can actually be used in two main ways. The first would be short for the word for vale, which (also) means okay. The second way is actually short for the word true, verdad, and is used at the end of sentences. Let’s take a look:
“Necesito que llegues a las 8 en punto.” “Ah, va. Está bien. Allí estaré.”
“I need you to be there at 8 sharp.” “Ah, okay. That’s fine. I’ll be there.”
“Tengo que estar allí a las 8, ¿va?”
“I have to be there at 8, right?”
Now, for the purposes of this blog, we will be focusing on the first use. It is normally used as a response to someone to express your understanding and agreement, but you can also use it to give you some time to process what that person said before responding.
This transition word is va, pronounced more as a ‘ba’ than a ‘va.’ Although the correct pronunciation would be with a ‘v’ sound, the majority of people pronounce the ‘v’ and the ‘b’ as a combination of the two sounds, leaning more towards the ‘b’ sound. You probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between botar and votar based on pronunciation alone. You would have to use context clues to know which word is being spoken.
“Well, I’m not sure.” How would you translate this sentence to Spanish? What about, Bien, no estoy seguro. Unfortunately, that would be incorrect. Although ‘well’ does often translate to ‘bien,’ it has a completely different translation when used as an interjection. The correct word to use would then be pues. Let’s look at some more examples:
Pues, creo que estás equivocado.
Well, I think you’re mistaken.
Pues, necesito terminar aquí primero. Dame 5 minutos.
Well, I need to finish up here first. Give me 5 minutes.
If you are unsure of how to respond to someone, the word pues can give you that little extra time you need to form your response without making it seem like you are struggling.
Have you ever been in the middle of a great conversation and then been interrupted? In English, we usually return to the previous conversation by saying ‘anyways…’ If you are unsure of how to use this word in Spanish, you may be stuck frantically racking your brain for a way to return to that great conversation you were having – as I have many times. Don’t worry, though! This short, simple phrase will convey that you would like to return to the conversation topic that you were involved in before the interruption: pues sí.
This phrase literally means ‘well yes’ or ‘so yes,’ but it would be most accurately translated colloquially as pues sí. Let’s imagine you’re talking with a friend at a café, and another friend stops by to greet you.
“¡Qué gusto verte otra vez! Hablamos después. ¡Adiós! Perdón, Alex. Pues sí…”
“It was so great to see you again! We’ll talk later. Bye! Sorry about that, Alex. Anyways
Maybe you are talking to someone outside and see a car run a red light, almost causing an accident:
“¡Ay, Dios mío! Qué miedo. La gente debe ser más cuidadosa. Pues sí…”
“Oh my gosh! That was so scary. People need to be more careful. Anyways…”
No matter the situation, pues sí is your key phrase to get you back into the conversation you were having – and it’s the perfect excuse for a pause to collect your thoughts as you switch gears back into the previous topic.
For a long time, I thought the English word ‘alright’ had no appropriate translation. When I was teaching my classes in Spanish, I would always change topics by saying ‘alright’ in English. I knew it sounded strange, an English interjection in the middle of Spanish conversation, but I was stumped by how to correctly express myself in Spanish. After listening closely to Spanish conversations, however, I realized that there is such a word in Spanish – bueno.
Yes, yes, bueno does mean ‘good.’ As you have seen with these transition words, they often have multiple meanings. Part of the beauty of learning a language is discovering all the different ways you can use one small word.
“Hacer ejercicio es bueno para la salud.”
“Exercising is good for your health.”
“Tenemos buenos recuerdos de ese lugar.”
“We have good memories of that place.”
“Bueno. Empecemos en la página 28.”
“Alright. Let’s start on page 28.”
As you can see with the last example, when used at the beginning of a sentence as an interjection, bueno means ‘alright.’ You can use it to wrap up one topic and start another – or as a way to quickly organize your thoughts before starting a new subject of conversation.
It’s just that…
This next transition phrase is by no means official, but it is extremely common in informal conversation. Have you ever found yourself saying phrases like ‘it’s just that…’ or ‘it’s like…’ to introduce an explanation or reasoning to something? There is often a pause following these phrases as we figure out how to best express ourselves. Guess what? There’s a similar phrase in Spanish: es que.
This literally translates as ‘it’s that…’ which is very similar to the English counterparts. You will hear this very often as native Spanish speakers organize their thoughts or think of how to better explain something. It’s time for you to try it out as well if you need some extra time to form your sentence in Spanish.
“Es que…necesito averiguar que haya tiempo para esa actividad.”
“It’s just that…I need to check that there’s time for that activity.”
“Es que…la razón por la cual dije eso es porque no quise ofender a nadie.”
“It’s just that…the reason I said that is because I didn’t want to offend anyone.”
This phrase often has no connection to the following sentence but is just used as a filler while the speaker decides what they want to say. This makes it perfect for all you Spanish learners – you can use this trick to sound just like a native speaker while you search your memory for those tricky rules about the subjunctive tense.
We all have trademark phrases that we use way too often. One of those phrases for me is ‘I mean…’ This was made blindingly obvious to me as it came out in English all the time while speaking Spanish with my husband. While he eventually understood what I intended to say, it frustrated me that I was lacking a key phrase in Spanish.
The word ‘mean’ (used to clarify what you are saying) does not have a direct translation in Spanish, which makes it difficult for those of us who use it all the time in English! However, there are other ways to express the same thing. Let’s look at some examples:
“Reunámonos el viernes. Digo, el sábado.”
“Let’s meet up on Friday. I mean, Saturday.”
“Tu correo dice que el total es $110. ¿Es correcto?” “Oh, perdón. Quise decir $100.”
“Your email says the total is $110. Is that correct?” “Oh, sorry. I meant $100.”
As you can see from these examples, the translation for ‘I mean’ would be digo, or ‘I say.’ However, if you want to use it in the past as ‘I meant,’ it would be quise decir, or ‘I wanted to say.’
Both phrases are helpful to know, but in reference to transition words, digo is definitely one of the keywords to learn. When speaking our native language, we can mix up our words and accidentally say the wrong thing. This becomes all the more probable when speaking another language, which is why this small word will help clear up confusion quickly and effortlessly.
In other words…
Speaking of clarifying things, there is another great phrase that is used to reword something: ‘o sea.’ This can be used to reword what you have just said or to put what someone else said into your own words to ensure you have understood them. Although this looks like ‘Oh sea’ in English, the pronunciation is pretty different. The ‘o’ is the same, but the ‘sea’ is pronounced ‘say-ah.’
This phrase is a great way to give yourself another chance at explaining something or to be sure that you understand what is being said in the conversation without saying no entiendo. It literally translates to ‘or it is,’ but we would say ‘in other words’ in English. You can use the phrase ‘en otras palabras,’ but ‘o sea’ is much more common in informal conversations, and it is less of a mouthful.
“Nos falta mucho para terminar. O sea que tendremos que trabajar este fin de semana.”
“We still have a lot to do to finish. In other words, we’ll have to work this weekend.”
“Debes usar esos otros marcadores para escribir en el pizarrón.” “O sea que ¿este es un marcador permanente?”
“You must use those other markers to write on the board.” “In other words, this is a permanent marker?”
As you can see in the last example, another possible translation for o sea can be ‘mean.’ We could have translated that part as “You mean this is a permanent marker?” and it would have the same effect. Since ‘mean’ does not directly translate to Spanish, you can use a couple of these transition phrases to express yourself – just make sure you use digo only when you’re clarify something you personally said.
The thing is that…
This phrase can be literally translated to la cosa es que, but there is another phrase that is very unique. I spent a lot of time thinking about the best way to translate it to English, and the phrase ‘the thing is that’ is the closest I could think of, but it doesn’t quite do it justice. Fíjate que (or fíjese que in the ‘usted’ form) literally means ‘pay attention’ or ‘notice’ something. It is in the command form, which basically tells your audience ‘listen up!’ However, in context, it has a much softer voice. It has actually become notorious as the introduction to excuses!
“Fíjese que mi hermanita botó agua en mi tarea y por eso no la traje.”
“The thing is that my little sister spilled water on my homework, and that’s why I didn’t bring it.”
“¿Ya revisaste los documentos?” “Fíjate que no. No he tenido tiempo.”
“Did you check the documents yet?” “The thing is that no, I haven’t had time.”
As you can see, colloquially, fíjate is often used to introduce bad news or news in general. This is also one of those great examples of a word that has no good translation in English – you can understand the meaning but there is no word that truly captivates its essence in the English language.
This last transition word is just as versatile as the rest – ‘look.’ No, we are not talking about actually looking at something but the interjection. “Look, I think we should start over.” We are not asking someone to physically look at something, but instead, we are introducing an idea or a solution. Either way, the translation would be the same in Spanish – mirar can be both a verb and a transition word.
The most common form of mirar that I have heard as a transition word is mirá, which is the command form of ‘vos.’ Depending on what country you are in, this form may also be popular. If you are unsure, you can always use the ‘tú’ form, which would be mira (accent on the ‘i’ instead of the ‘a’). You can even use the ‘usted’ of mirar is the occasion calls for it: mire.
“Mirá, creo que debemos rehacer esta parte aquí.
“Look, I think we should redo this part here.”
“Mira, hagamos un plan.”
“Look, let’s make a plan.”
“Mire, necesito ayuda con estos documentos. ¿Me los puede autorizar?”
Look, I need help with these documents. Could you authorize them for me?
No matter the form you use, this word is a great way to introduce ideas and give you some extra time to organize your sentence in Spanish.
That was a lot of information! I hope these words helped your Spanish conversation skills – try using them one at a time so you don’t feel overwhelmed! Also, listen for these words in Spanish conversations, movies, and songs. Now that you are familiar with them, you’ll notice them and hear more of their uses! Don’t be surprised if you hear combinations of these words, such as mirá pues, pues, fíjate que, or bueno pues. This is just a short guide to all the nuances of Spanish transition words! Don’t forget to practice them with your Spanish teacher in class, and feel free to ask them any questions you may have. ¡Hasta la próxima!