How to Sound Natural When Giving Directions in Spanish

December 5, 2016
<p>Let's say you're living in a Spanish-speaking country and somebody stops you in the middle of the street to ask you for directions:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—Perdone, ¿me puede decir dónde está la calle Maldonado?</span></p></div><p><span class="sp">La calle Maldonado.</span> <strong>You know that street</strong>.</p><p>You could just say <span class="sp">por allí</span> and call it a day, but what this person really needs is to keep going straight, go to the other side of the park, make a right, and take the second one on the left.</p><p>How do you say that in Spanish without sounding awkward?</p><!--more--><h2>Asking for directions</h2><p>Before we get into the giving part, <strong>let's focus on the asking</strong>. Notice a couple of things about the way the question was phrased:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—<span class="correct">Perdone<span class="index">1</span></span>, ¿<span class="correct">me puede decir<span class="index">2</span></span> dónde está la calle Maldonado?</span><br><span class="en">"Excuse (me), can you tell me where is the Maldonado Street?"</span></p></div><p><span class="correct index">1</span> <span class="sp">Perdone</span> is a good way to <strong>stop someone on the street</strong>. <span class="sp"><strong>Usted</strong></span> is the recommended option when you're talking to someone <strong>older than you</strong>; otherwise, feel free to use <span class="sp">perdona</span> or <span class="sp">disculpa</span>.</p><p><span class="index correct">2</span> If you want to be extra formal, you can use the conditional (<span class="sp">¿me podría decir…?</span>), but using the <strong>present</strong> is much more common (at least in Spain). If you want to read more about the <span class="sp">tú</span>-<span class="sp">usted</span> present-conditional duality, check out the post about <a href="">ordering food in Spanish</a>.</p><p>Another option when asking for directions is to avoid all the wordiness and <strong>just say the name of the street</strong>:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—Perdone, ¿la calle Maldo<span class="correct">nado?<span class="index">3</span></span></span><br><span class="en">"Excuse (me), the Maldonado Street?"</span></p></div><p><span class="index correct">3</span> To make this work, remember to raise your voice when you get to this syllable. Otherwise, it won't sound like a question.</p><h2>Giving directions</h2><p>Okay, now comes the fun part. What do you say when somebody else asks <em>you</em> for directions?</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—Sí, <span class="correct">mira<span class="index">1</span></span>. <span class="correct">Giras<span class="index">2</span></span> por aquí, sigues <span class="correct">todo recto<span class="index">3</span></span> y <span class="correct">vas a ver<span class="index">4</span></span> un parque. Lo cruzas. <span class="correct">Cuando llegues<span class="index">5</span></span> al final, giras a la derecha y Maldonado es <span class="correct">la segunda<span class="index">6</span></span> a la izquierda.</span><br><span class="en">"Yes, look. You turn here, you continue all straight, and you're going to see a park. You cross it. When you get to the end, you turn to the right and Maldonado is the second on the left."</span></p></div><p>Let's break all of that down:</p><p><span class="index correct">1</span> <span class="sp"><strong>Mira</strong></span> is basically a way to let the other person know that <strong>you're going to show them something</strong>. It could be a map, your watch, or your lease agreement. This is totally optional but highly encouraged. Unlike in English, <span class="sp">mira</span> doesn't have the annoyed connotation that <em>look</em> has in English. It's perceived more like "check this out" or "take a look at this." Natives wouldn't use as much as they do if it sounded rude.</p><p><span class="index correct">2</span> The <strong>imperative</strong> is a perfectly good choice when giving directions (that's what we used in <span class="index correct">1</span>), but a very common alternative is switching to the <strong>present tense</strong> and going into <strong>second-person narration</strong> (<span class="sp">tú giras</span>, <span class="sp">tú sigues</span>, <span class="sp">tú vas</span>, <span class="sp">tú cruzas</span>). It makes requests sound nicer (<span class="sp">¿me das…?</span> instead of <span class="sp">dame…</span>) and advice seem less pushy (<span class="sp">vas por aquí…</span> instead of <span class="sp">ve por aquí…</span>).</p><p><span class="index correct">3</span> <span class="sp"><strong>Todo recto</strong></span> means straight. <span class="sp"><strong>Recto</strong></span> also means straight, but it lacks Spanish emphasis. It may seem whimsical, but adding a few extra things like "<span class="sp">Sí, <strong>mira</strong>. Sigues <strong>todo</strong> recto…</span>" instead of "<span class="sp">Sí. Recto</span>" brings you a whole step closer to <strong>sounding native</strong>.</p><p><span class="index correct">4</span> A good way to add variety when you're giving directions is to talk about <strong>reference points</strong>. If you simply want to <strong>announce them</strong>, use <span class="sp"><strong>vas a ver</strong></span> (or <span class="sp">verás</span>):</p><ul><li><span class="sp"><strong>Vas a ver</strong> una farmacia justo al lado.</span> (<span class="en">You're going to see a pharmacy right next to it.</span>)</li><li><span class="sp"><strong>Verás</strong> un buzón enfrente de la tienda.</span> (<span class="en">You'll see a mailbox in front of the shop.</span>)</li><li><span class="sp"><strong>Vas a ver</strong> un semáforo detrás de la farola.</span> (<span class="en">You're going to see a traffic light behind a lamp post.</span>)</li></ul><p><span class="index correct">5</span> If you want your listener to do something at those <strong>reference points</strong>, use <span class="sp">cuando</span> <em>+ subjunctive</em> to <strong>imply a change of course</strong>:</p><ul><li><span class="sp"><strong>Cuando veas</strong> la catedral, giras a la derecha.</span> (<span class="en">When you see the cathedral, you turn to the right.</span>)</li><li><span class="sp"><strong>Cuando puedas</strong>, cruzas al otro lado.</span> (<span class="en">When you can, you cross to the other side.</span>)</li><li><span class="sp"><strong>Cuando llegues</strong> al final de la calle, buscas un cartel rojo.</span> (<span class="en">When you get to the end of the street, you look for a red sign.</span>)</li></ul><p><span class="index correct">6</span> In Spain, we usually indicate <strong>distances</strong> using units (<span class="sp">está a cien metros</span>, <span class="en">it's a hundred meters away</span>) or an ordinal number for the street (<span class="sp">es la segunda</span>, <span class="en">it's the second (street)</span>). In American Spanish it's more common to talk about <span class="sp">cuadras</span> (<span class="sp">está a dos cuadras</span>, <span class="en">it's two blocks away</span>).</p><h2>Estimating time</h2><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—¿Y <span class="correct">se tarda<span class="index">1</span></span> mucho? Porque <span class="correct">voy un poco mal de tiempo<span class="index">2</span></span>.</span><br><span class="en">"And does one take a lot (to get there)? (I ask) because I'm (going / doing) a bit bad (of / on) time."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—No, son diez minutos andando. Llegas <span class="correct">enseguida<span class="index">3</span></span>.</span><br><span class="en">"No, it's ten minutes (walking / on foot). You arrive in no time."</span></p></div><p><span class="index correct">1</span> We use the <strong>impersonal <span class="sp">se</span></strong> to ask things like <span class="sp">¿cómo <strong>se</strong> llega a…?</span> (<span class="en">how (<strong>does one</strong> / do I) get to…?</span>) or <span class="sp">¿cuánto <strong>se</strong> tarda en ir a…?</span> (<span class="en">"how long does (<strong>one</strong> / it) take to go to…?"</span>).</p><p>I know that the last thing you need right now is <strong>another <span class="sp">se</span> usage</strong>, but the good news is that this one is pretty easy. You just have to remember one thing: <strong>always put the <span class="sp">se</span> right before the verb</strong>. That means that you can't put anything between them (<span class="sp"><strong>se</strong> <span class="sp mistake">no</span> tarda mucho</span>) and you can't attach it at the end of the verb (<span class="sp"><span class="sp mistake">tardar<strong>se</strong></span> mucho</span>). If you want to explore the pronominal <span class="sp">se</span>, check out the <a href="">verbs of change</a>.</p><p><span class="index correct">2</span> <strong><span class="sp">ir</span> + adverb</strong> is super useful when giving directions because it lets you talk about timeframes as well as trajectories:</p><ul><li>For <strong>timeframes</strong>, add <strong><span class="sp">de tiempo</span></strong>: <span class="sp">vamos muy bien <strong>de tiempo</strong></span> (<span class="en">we're doing great on time</span>), <span class="sp">vas un poco mal <strong>de tiempo</strong></span> (<span class="en">you're doing a bit badly on time</span>)</li><li>For <strong>trajectories</strong>, add <strong><span class="sp">por</span> <em>+ approximate location</em></strong>: <span class="sp">voy bien <strong>por ahí</strong></span> (<span class="en">I'm on the right way (through there)</span>), <span class="sp">vamos mal <strong>por aquí</strong></span> (<span class="en">we are on the wrong way (through here)</span>)</li></ul><p><span class="index correct">3</span> <span class="sp"><strong>Enseguida</strong></span> wants to be your friend, but you're always busy hanging out with <span class="sp">ahora mismo</span>. I'm telling you: give <span class="sp">enseguida</span> a chance. It also means <span class="en">right now</span>, and you never know when it might come in handy.</p><h2>You won't always know</h2><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—¿<span class="correct">Sabes<span class="index">1</span></span> si hay un supermercado de camino?</span><br><span class="en">"Do you know if there is a supermarket (on the way)?"</span></p><p><span class="sp">—<span class="correct">Pues<span class="index">2</span></span> no te sabría decir. Yo <span class="correct">es que<span class="index">3</span></span> no soy de este barrio. Lo siento.</span><br><span class="en">"Well, I wouldn't know (what) to tell you. (The thing is) I'm not (of / from) this neighborhood. I'm sorry."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Bueno, gracias de todas formas.</span><br><span class="en">"(Good / Alright), thanks anyway."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Pero, mira. Creo que <span class="correct">a la vuelta de la esquina<span class="index">4</span></span> hay una tienda de alimentación.</span><br><span class="en">"But, look. I think that around the corner there is a convenience store."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Ah, perfecto. Muchísimas gracias.</span><br><span class="en">"Oh, perfect. Thank you very much."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—<span class="correct">Nada.<span class="index">5</span></span></span><br><span class="en">"You're welcome."</span></p></div><p><span class="index correct">1</span> <strong>¿<span class="sp">Sabes</span>…?</strong> is a useful expression when you're asking directions to a place that not everybody might be familiar with. For very well known places, it's better to stick with <strong><span class="sp">¿me puedes decir…?</span></strong>.</p><p><span class="index correct">2</span> <strong><span class="sp">Pues</span></strong> is just like <span class="sp">mira</span>: an optional word that adds a whole bunch of Spanish flavor. It has several usages, and some of them are region-specific but, in this case, the <span class="sp">pues</span> is softening the <span class="sp">no</span> that comes after it. It's a subtle way of acknowledging that you're <strong>not fully satisfied with your negative response</strong>. It's similar to adding <em>well</em> in English (<em>Well, not really.</em>)</p><p><span class="index correct">3</span> And whenever you need to give an excuse, keep <strong><span class="sp">es que</span></strong> handy:</p><ul><li><span class="sp"><strong>Es que</strong> no me dio tiempo.</span> (<span class="en">(The truth) is that (it didn't give me time / I didn't have time).</span>)</p></li><li><p><span class="sp"><strong>Es que</strong> me he quedado sin dinero.</span> (<span class="en">(The problem) is that I no longer have any money.</span>)</p></li><li><p><span class="sp">Lo que pasa <strong>es que</strong> no sabía que era tu novia.</span> (<span class="en">The thing is that I didn't know she was your girlfriend.</span>)</p></li></ul><p><span class="index correct">4</span> <strong><span class="sp">A la vuelta de la esquina</span></strong> is another expression that deserves to be part of your direction-giving arsenal. Notice the parallels with <span class="sp"><strong>a la</strong> izquierda/derecha</span> (<span class="en">to the left/right</span>) or <span class="sp"><strong>al</strong> principio/final</span> (<span class="en">at the beginning/end</span>).<p><span class="index correct">5</span> Is there anything more satisfying than giving directions like a boss?</p><h2>Spanish takeaways</h2><p>The bare essentials for giving directions are <span class="sp">sigue todo recto</span>, <span class="sp">gira a la izquierda</span> and <span class="sp">gira a la derecha</span>. Once you master these, you can start adding some native magic like:</p><ul><li>Signaling that you're going to <strong>show something</strong>: <span class="sp"><strong>Mira</strong>, esta es la Avenida de las Américas</span>.</p></li><li><p>Using <strong>second-person narration</strong>: <span class="sp"><strong>Sigues</strong> por esta calle y luego <strong>giras</strong>.</span></p></li><li><p>Distinguishing between <strong>regular reference points</strong> (<span class="sp"><strong>Vas a ver</strong> una farola</span>) and those that imply a <strong>change of course</strong> (<span class="sp"><strong>Cuando llegues</strong> a la plaza, la cruzas.</span>)</p></li><li><p>Indicating <strong>distance</strong> (ordinals and units): <span class="sp"><strong>Al cuarto</strong> semáforo, giras. <strong>Un kilómetro</strong>, más o menos.</span></p></li><li><p>Estimating <strong>duration</strong>: <span class="sp">No <strong>se tarda</strong> mucho. Si vas en coche, <strong>enseguida</strong> llegas.</span></p></li><li><p>Giving <strong>excuses</strong> when you don't know: <span class="sp">Lo siento. <strong>Es que</strong> no vivo aquí.</span></p></li></ul><p>Now go out into the world and give a hand to all those confused Spanish-speaking tourists.<p>Let me know how it goes in the comments.</p>