I am about to visit Spain, mainly Malaga, Barcelona and Madrid. The problem is I do not speak Spanish at all.

I am thinking to prepare a few pre-translated sentences in Spanish beforehand and present them to waiters, such as:

  • May I ask how I can reach xxxxxxxx?
  • May I order a cup of black coffee?
  • May I ask how much this is? (pointing my finger at the same time)
  • May I ask how to get to xxx stadium (xxx = Real Madrid, Barcelona FC and etc)
  • May I ask if I can rent a car here?
  • Etc

Is my plan considered to be rude? And how well do Spanish people speak English?

  • 108
    how would you understand their answers?
    – Aganju
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 2:40
  • 15
    good point, did not think of that. @Aganju
    – Yu Zhang
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 3:46
  • 44
    By the way, all your sentences along the lines of "May I ask if X?" are overly complicated. I understand that you're trying to be polite but it's not necessary to ask permission to ask a question, and adding all of those extra words just makes it harder to understand. If you say to a Spanish person (in English) "Hello. Where is the railway station, please?" there's a good chance they'll understand; if you say, "Hello. May I ask how I can reach the railway station?" they'll just be confused by all the words and the complicated grammar. Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 9:04
  • 6
    When shopping at El Corte Inglés in Madrid, I found it slightly amusing that none of the staff I attempted to ask for help could speak english. Regarding your question, my experience from visiting Spain several times is that people in places that see a lot of tourists generally will at least be able to speak and understand english at a basic level. But enter any random shop or restaurant, and your english might not be of any help. You could try memorizing a few words or phrases relevant to the task at hand, and augment them with some gestures to make yourself understood.
    – Michael
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 10:21
  • 3
    The most polite thing to do is to try and learn the most basic phrases or words. If they see you putting forth the effort yet struggling then they will feel more obliged to help you out. Just avoid being boisterous when speaking and you shouldn't get rude remarks. Index cards are OK but make sure you are putting forth the effort of reading them yourself and not expecting someone else to read it; unless of course you have something very complicated to communicate. Also, head over to spanish.stackexchange.com and try to get some native speakers to help rather than Google Translate.
    – MonkeyZeus
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 14:06

9 Answers 9


Yes, it would be, if not "rude", then at least kind of awkward. Malaga, Barcelona and Madrid are all heavily touristed areas and most restaurant staff are very used to dealing with tourists who do not speak Spanish.

You also don't really need any spoken language to convey "table for one" (hold up a finger), "I'll have what he's having" (point at neighboring table), "menu please" (draw a box with your fingers), "bill/check please" (sign an imaginary check), etc. You may need some help translating the menu, but Google Translate and phrasebooks are great for this.

The one exception is if you need to convey something complicated and important like "I have an allergy and will die if the cook does not pay attention", in which case something like this would be fine.

  • 6
    Can we up-vote multiple times on Travel? :) Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 7:07
  • 17
    Be careful which finger you hold up, though!
    – Pål GD
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 9:45
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    Expanding on the Google Translate part, I really recommend getting the app, it has Offline Camera translation. You can literally point it at a Spanish menu and it will translate the menu in real time on your screen.
    – Shaun Wild
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 10:53
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    @SteveJessop: Catalan people do not expect foreigners to speak catalan, even if old occitan speakers from south of France understand it. If as a native english speaker you have made the effort to learn some Castilian spanish words, that will already be nice - not all native english speakers do it... And specially in touristic places you will find some spanish non catalan people. Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 11:50
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    @TRiG +1 to what jpatokal said: the gesture works everywhere; additionally, the phrase "check, please" might be American English, but it's still understood by restaurant/cafe workers around the world. It doesn't have anything to do with paying with a bank check; the "check" is the bill the restaurant gives you.
    – Urbana
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 23:33

Well english is not my first language, but when travelling abroad, I still use it as a lingua franca as it is generally understood in all touristic places. But I also think polite to learn some key words in the local language: good morning, good night, good bye, please, thank you, may I have the bill please, sorry I do not speak spanish (put the language of your choice here).

The rationale is not to imagine that the person I am speaking to does not understand english (his is often better than mine, and anyway I am unable to understand the local language...), but only showing I have made an effort to learn some local words.

  • Yes. You could even make a phrase list to help you with the things you wanted to remember. But try to say it rather than pointing to it on a piece of paper.
    – user35890
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 11:27

Although not in the majority, there are quite a few (mainly younger) people in the cities you mention (especially the touristy parts) that do speak at least some English.

I suggest you learn this one Spanish Phrase "Buenos días, habla inglés?". Essentially meaning "Hello, do you speak English?". If they answer "no", then you may use some of the printed phrases, combined with body language, as that often goes a Long way.

Jpatokal's answer is great as well

  • Note, "hablan" is you (plural) or they. "Habla" is you (singular)/he/she.
    – mkennedy
    Commented Aug 4, 2016 at 19:42
  • 1
    note, habla/hablan is formal you. In many cases, hablas/hablais is fine.
    – njzk2
    Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 3:09
  • 1
    Being formal is being polite. Usually a good idea. I would even include the polite pronoun: "Buenos días, habla Usted inglés?" Commented Aug 7, 2016 at 2:16
  • @hippietrail, in Spain nowadays usted is rarely used, and the contexts in which it is used are not ones a tourist is likely to encounter, with the (unlikely and undesirable but possible) exception of interactions with the justice system - in which case a translator would be provided. Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 10:05
  • Thanks @PeterTaylor: My Spanish is mostly from travelling in Mexico. Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 13:42

part 1

@jpatokal 's answer fits perfectly. althought pointing at symbols / tourist guides isn't that strange as pointing to words written up, so if you had something like this (but better, ofcoruse) printed, people that didn't get a single word of english could still "point" you a "vague" direction :

enter image description here

part 2

Averagely bad. tourist restaurants have waiters that understand and speak it, and menus on english, but on the non-tourist parts (which sometimes are tourist-heavy zones for their POI's or their cultural attractive, like (surprisingly for tourists) the sagrada familia on barcelona o la castellana in madrid), where little or no one speaks english fluently as most bars, restaurants and coffee shops there are run by locals that didn't learn it on school back in the 60's / 70's / 80's. so better have a small list and maybe a pronouncing guide.

I always reccomend this quick pronouncing blog post here

And don't worry trying to speak spanish in barcelona (instead of catalan), we're kind with tourists , and i will say that some are even kinder to those who try to communicate in the local languages, be it catalan or spanish. even if the communication is not really fluid.

  • what is the first one?
    – njzk2
    Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 3:09
  • Sounds pizza yo me
    – CptEric
    Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 4:39
  • 3
    now that you say, it makes sense. I was seeing an orange, but could not understand why a wedge was missing. thanks.
    – njzk2
    Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 13:30
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    And I thought "where can I play Trivial Pursuit?" Commented Aug 9, 2016 at 5:33
  • 1
    lol. well, you'd be surprised but many camping & town bars or restaurants have varieties of board games for the customers, usually townsfolk , and the most common are chess, spanish card decks, and trivial pursuit. so it'd be a valid symbol :P
    – CptEric
    Commented Aug 9, 2016 at 8:39

Do not point at sentences, speak them and learn.

I am using a standardized list of words in the native language which not only contains the basics (salutations, farewells, thanks, yes, no, sorry, help, watch out !), but names of characters (for spelling), numbers, locations, time, colors and directions. For each word I write down how it is best spoken in my native language.

I really find it invaluable, it does not matter how bad it is spoken the first time. If you start speaking in the native language, it a) signalises that you are really interested in the people, their land and their culture and do not simply want to watch them or treat them as part of the scenery and b) is very disarming because you are willing to take the risk of bad language and embarass yourself for trying to communicate with them (Only theoretically; I have never encountered someone in 20 years who did hold bad language against me). Especially smaller countries and cultures take it very positively that you use at least salutations and farewells.

You will learn very fast how it is correctly spoken and use it the next time. First you need to read them again, then you do not need the list most of the time. It is very likely that the key sentences will stick in your memory, I still know the Polish and Danish key sentences.

Once you at least tried to communicate, the people are much more open to help out, then they will also accept speaking other languages, use sign language or that you point out sentences.


As @Aganju asked "How would you understand their answer?"

In my travels to places where I don't speak the language and in taking foreign language classes in school, the difficulty of understanding a reply is much higher than formulating a simple question.

Even for things like "where is the bathroom?", unless the bathroom is in a straight line that can by pointed to then there's a good chance that the answer won't actually help me get to the bathroom. For questions like "How do I get to the airport?" you basically have no chance to comprehend the answer if you can't even be bothered to learn "Cómo llego al aeropuerto?"

Getting back to your question, if you pull a card with a phrase in Spanish printed on it and make someone read it but then can't understand the answer and really have no way for them to answer you then I'd say that is pretty darned rude. If you are one of those people, unlike me, that can understand the language when you hear it but for some reason can't speak it then it'd probably be OK. Although I'd be surprised if someone could understand the language well enough but couldn't ask even the simple questions on your list.


I was in Spain this summer for the first time since 1978. The level of English spoken in tourist centers has grown by a factor of at least 10 since then. I was a little pained that when I spoke Spanish (in which I am conversant) I got replies in English. Almost every restaurant had an English-language menu. I recommend learning Please and Thank You.

(Off-topic: I'd go to Granada over Málaga.)


That is not very effective

Get one of those picture books for travellers (like Point It) that contain photos of everyday objects that you can point to. (Or put their app on your phone)*.


  • the two words 'where' and 'when'
  • times and directions
  • some numbers
  • "Perdon senor(a), habla inglés?

and together with your hands you come a long way.

* Note that the app does not get good reviews. I have posted a question on SoftwareRecs.SE to ask for alternatives


It's not rude, it doe sat least show that you have made an effort to prepare.

Having said that it is pretty easy and also basic courtesy to memorise a few general purpose spoken phrases such as 'please', 'thankyou' 'hello'and 'good day'.

This will show native speakers that you are trying and in most cases (except perhaps Paris) will be appreciated.

So you might say 'hello, I'm sorry I do not speak [Spanish] well...' and point to your list, then conclude your conversation with 'thank you very much'.

The crucial thing is to deport yourself in a friendly and polite manner (ie smile) , this will come across regardless of language and most people will do their best to help you.

  • 1
    It will be appreciated in Paris, too. Very much, I'd say.
    – Gábor
    Commented Aug 7, 2016 at 10:55

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