Stories & Questions  / Anécdotas y preguntas

Spanish that Works Review ~ 2005

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About this page

In this section, we share humorous or interesting stories submitted by readers about learning Spanish or using Spanish in work or social situations, as well as answers to questions about the Spanish language. 


The importance a consonant can make 

How to type in Spanish

Spelling: -sión or -ción  


Latino or Hispanic?  Which is better?

If you have a a good story or a question about learning Spanish that would be appropriate for this website, we would love to see it.  We can't pay you for your idea, but promise to send you a token of our appreciation via email. 

For more information about how to submit something, please visit the submissions page. ¡Gracias!

Stories about using or learning Spanish

The importance a consonant can make

"I was working at a shelter for homeless families in San Francisco. One of the volunteers was staffing the supply cabinet. 

A Spanish-speaking resident approached and said, "Discúlpeme, por favor, necesito jabón." 

The volunteer looked puzzled. "Ham?" she said in English, "You need ham?" 

Sensing her confusion, the resident smiled and mimed taking a shower, rubbing his chest and underarms. The volunteer now was visibly horrified, thinking that the resident was going to rub ham all over himself. 

At this point, I interceded and shared with both volunteer and resident the important difference between jamón / hah-MOHN (ham) and jabón / hah-BOHN (soap). We all had a good laugh!"

K. A.,  Bergen County Department of Health Services 
Paramus, New Jersey 

Questions about learning Spanish

Typing in Spanish

QUESTION:  How can you type the Spanish characters on a computer? (Question asked by participant at Spanish that Works workshop at Nicholson Memorial Library in Garland, Texas.)

ANSWER (by Elizabeth Almann):   

I mostly use Microsoft Word for PC, for which there are shortcut keystrokes you can use to type the characters.  You make the shortcut by holding down the control key and a punctuation key, and typing the key to have the special character. 

For example, to get the e with an accent mark (é), you hold down the control and the apostrophe key (') and then you type the letter e.  

You can print out a list of all the shortcuts by looking up "insert an international character by using a shortcut key" under the "help" function in Word.  

These shortcuts do not work in my email program or when I write html, however.  One way to get around this is to write in Word and then copy and paste into an email or html editing program.  Usually the accents translate.  

There are also special number sequences that can be used to type the characters in emails.  For example, Alt + 164 will produce ñ. These number sequences are more complicated to use, however, so often people sometimes just omit accents when they write emails.  If you do this, you can use double n for the ñ (for example, mañana would be written mannana.) 

Information about typing special characters is available on the internet, so if you want to get a list of all the number strokes, a keyword search in whatever search engine you prefer should lead you to what you want.

In Windows you can supposedly also change your keyboard settings in the control panel to the "United States International" mode, which on my computer is found under the "input locales" tab and the "properties" button. Then you use the ALT key plus the letter of a punctuation key to type Spanish characters. (You may have to enable the keyboard to accept these ALT key sequences on your computer.  So far I haven't been able to get this method to work for me.)

For Macintosh, the Option key fulfills the same general function as the ALT (or the Control) key for the PC shortcuts.  

With the Mac, the accent mark is under the "e" key (so Option + e + (any vowel) =  á, é, í, ó, ú.  The ñ is under the n (so you hit Option + n + n again.) The reverse exclamation point and question mark under the regular ones, so you would type Option + ? + ? again to get the reverse ¿.  It's been awhile since I used a Mac, but I believe the ü is made by hitting Option + u + u.

Good luck! (¡Buena suerte!)

Spelling question

QUESTION:  Do you know when do you use -sión or -ción in Spanish? What is the rule here? I was looking at different words and thought that if the letter preceding is a vowel you use -ción, but I was wrong. Thank you! (Question submitted by online reader.)

ANSWER (by Elizabeth Almann):   

As far as I know, there is no "spelling" rule.  The words are spelled differently, because they are derived from words that had completely different sounds in Latin.

Latin Americans have to learn which words are spelled –ción and which words are spelled -sión because in Latin American Spanish, “ci” and “si” are pronounced the same.

However, Spaniards, don't have trouble distinguishing –ción and –sión words, because in Spain, "ci" is pronounced with the voiceless "th" (as in "thick") sound, and not with an “s” sound as in Latin America.

The "t(i)" in Latin changed to a "ts" in Vulgar Latin, and then became "th" or "dz" or “z” or "s,” depending on the Romance language into which it evolved.  In Spanish, these Latin “t(i)” words are usually spelled with a "c" or "z.”

There are various examples where a Latin –tio ending results in a Spanish -ción ending:

natio – nación
terminatio – terminación
accusactio – acusación
admiratio – admiración

(Note: This Latin “t(i)” origin is the reason why the "th" (as in "thick") sound exists in Castillian Spanish. This should lay to rest a popular legend circulated among students that the Spanish “lisp” was inspired by some medieval king with a speech impediment.)

I couldn’t find a regular pattern to the –sión words, but I did find several examples where there had been an “s” in the original Latin:

visurn – visión
possessio – posesión
processus – procesión

You can see these patterns in English, also.  The –ción ending usually corresponds to –tion in English, and the –sión ending is usually –sion or –son.  If your English spelling is good, then you can usually keep the words separate that way.  

If your English spelling is not so good, then you have pretty much the same problem: when is it –tion, and when is it –sion?

Sometimes the English cognates of the –sión (-sion) words will have a “zh” (as in “pleasure”), or a “z” sound, while the –ción (-tion) words have a “sh” sound.  So, going from Spanish to English, you have:

visión – vision (“zh” sound)
decisión – decision (“zh” sound)
prisión – prison (“z” sound)


nación – nation (“sh” sound)
terminación – termination (“sh” sound)
acusación – accusation (“sh” sound)

However, sometimes you get a “sh” sound with the –sión (-sion) words in English, so the rule is far from perfect.  For example:

mansión – mansion (“sh” sound)
procesión – procession (“sh” sound)

Even though they spend long hours teaching American school kids proper spelling in English, the research suggests that the best spellers are those who read a lot.  Once you’ve seen a word in print many times, you will tend to spell it correctly, whether or not you were consciously aware of having learned it.

I hope this helps clarify the confusion, or at least gives you an understanding of why it doesn’t seem to make sense.  

Good luck with your spelling!!!

p.s.  For those of you who are beginners with Spanish, the -ción and -sión words are certainly a good way for you to increase your vocabulary, since many of the words have English cognates.  Just be sure to stress the LAST syllable when you pronounce these words, and don't use a "sh" sound for the "s" (Latin American pronunciation).  So, terminación is not ter-mi-NA-tion, as in English, but tairr-mee-nah-s'YOHN.  Give that last syllable PLENTY of emphasis!  

p.p.s.  For those of you who find this sort of word history interesting, I highly recommend “From Latin to Romance in Sound Charts” by Peter Boyd-Bowman, Georgetown University, 1980.  ISBN #0-87840-077-X.  You may also want to check out the link to an online Spanish-Latin dictionary on the free page.

Question about gestures

QUESTION:  What about using gestures when you speak Spanish?  Are there any gestures we use in English that might be misunderstood by a Spanish speaker? (Question asked by a participant at the Spanish that Works for Libraries workshop held at the Nebraska Library Association pre-conference in Grand Island, Nebraska in October, 2004)  

ANSWER (by Elizabeth Almann):   

Gestures can be tricky. Some gestures do not have equivalents in other languages, and can even cause insult.  For example, the "okay" gesture (where the thumb and index finger make an "o") is considered offensive in Brazil, and the American "come here" gesture (where the hand is palm up and you move your index finger toward yourself) is close to an obscene gesture used in some Southeast Asian countries.  (To gesture "come," it is safer to keep the palm down and rake the fingers toward yourself.)

However, some gestures are usually safe to use, such as pretending to write with an imaginary pen, bringing your hand to your mouth to mime eating, cupping your ear when you didn't hear something, or putting your hand out in a “stop” gesture to ask someone to wait.  Pointing and showing examples of what you mean should not cause any misunderstanding and can be a good communication strategy when used appropriately.  

Even so, it's probably best not to count on using a gesture to get your point across.  It is better to use the spoken word as well, even if you can't make a complete sentence.  Communication is the key, and sometimes just one word ("number," "one moment," "food") is all you need to be understood.

I cannot think of an innocent gesture used in American English that would be considered offensive in a Spanish speaking country (except for perhaps the "okay" sign), but gestures are often specific to a country or a region, and I don't claim to be an expert on all of them. If a reader knows of a gesture used by English speakers that can cause misunderstanding or insult to Latinos, please let me know and I'll share the information. See the submissions page for more information.

Latino or Hispanic?  Which is better?

QUESTION:  A librarian from the state of Washington asks about which term, Latino or Hispanic, would be better to use within the library to describe programs and services to Spanish-speaking patrons.

ANSWER (by Elizabeth Almann):   

The difficulty in classifying Spanish speakers is that they come from many different countries and ethnic backgrounds.  You could say that the one thing they have in common is the Spanish language, but even that is not entirely accurate, since some second and third generation Latinos living in the U.S. do not speak Spanish, and yet still maintain ties with their cultural heritage.  

Most Spanish speakers would probably prefer to identify themselves by the countries they come from – Columbians, Mexicans, Peruvians, Mexican-Americans, and so forth.  However, it’s not always practical to do this with the public. 

It seems that in recent years, there has been a trend toward accepting “Latino” as the more politically correct term.  However, the term “Hispanic” is used by the U.S. government, so you will see this term used in census reports and other official reports. “Hispanic” is also widely used in areas that have a predominantly Mexican-American population, such as the Southwest states of Texas and Arizona.  

The word “Hispanic” is problematic because it comes from Hispania, which was the Latin name for what is now Spain and Portugal, and as such carries a connotation of white, European culture.  For this reason, “Latino” seems to be a more acceptable label to people from Latin America, especially those with indigenous or African heritage.  Some groups, such as a Mexican-Americans, may prefer to be called Hispanics, but do not seem to take offense if you call them Latinos.  Thus “Latino” may be the best term to use if you have Spanish speakers from many different parts of the Americas.

Of course, “Latino” is not perfect, either.  Brazilians can call themselves “Latinos,” and yet they don’t speak Spanish.  In fact, there are more speakers of Portuguese in South America than there are speakers of Spanish!  Spaniards speak Spanish, but we don’t usually think of them as Latinos.  Also, while “Hispanic” is not gender specific, “Latino” is male, so you should use “Latina” when talking about a female.

The first thing you need to do is find out exactly what kind of population you are serving.  Do you have a mixed group, or mostly people from one geographical area?  Are they primarily from Mexico, Central America, South America, or the Caribbean?  Are they monolingual Spanish first generation immigrants or third generation U.S. citizens whose dominant language is English?  What do they call themselves?

One strategy is to connect with Spanish speaking leaders from your community and ask them what they think people would like to be called – both the English terms, and the Spanish equivalents, if you are translating public information.  Another tactic that may be helpful is to describe the population, rather than label them.  For example, if you are talking about patrons who speak Spanish, regardless of their ethnicity or country of origin, than you might just say “patrons who speak Spanish.”

Here are a few terms in English and Spanish that you may find useful.  For other nationalities, you may want to consult a dictionary or college level textbook. Note that adjectives of nationality or ethnicity are not capitalized in Spanish.

hispano, hispana - Hispanic
latino, latina - Latino / Latina (f.)
mexicano, mexicana - Mexican
puertorriqueño, puertorriqueña - Puerto Rican
cubano, cubana - Cuban
personas de habla hispana* – Spanish speaking people
personas que hablan español – people that (who) speak Spanish

(*Note: hispana does not seem to have any offensive connotations here, since you are describing the language, and not the people)

estadounidense (m. / f.) or norteamericano, norteamericana – American* (from the U.S.) –

*NOTE:  Some Latin Americans take issue when people from the U.S. refer to themselves as americanos when giving their nationality, since Latinos are also from the Americas, and therefore americanos.  In English it’s hard, because there really is no other adjective besides “American,” though sometimes you can get by with using “U.S.” in a descriptive phrase.  In Spanish you can say “UnitedStatesperson” (estadounidense) or “North American” (norteamericano /a) to be more politically correct.  Of course, Canadians and Mexicans are also North Americans, but they don’t seem to be bothered by this discrepancy.

Do you have a question about Spanish???

Is there something about Spanish that you always wanted to know but were afraid to ask?  

Send us your question!  If it's appropriate to our readership, we will attempt to explain it.  We may even make your question the lesson of the month.  Just email us at  

We look forward to hearing from you! 

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