Assisting communities in northeastern Mexico and the RGV to improve Health and Education
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Key Pages

This web page is constructed for two types of volunteers:

  1. Those who already have some Spanish, but would like to know more construction terminology to enhance their worksite experience.
  2. Those who have almost no Spanish, but would like to make a start at communicating with local people met on trips to Mexico.

For the first group, a fairly extensive list of construction terms has been prepared.  It is available in the CUPS English to Spanish Spreadsheet.  If you happen to need to look up a Spanish word, there is also a Spanish to English Spreadsheet.

For the second group, there are also lists of Useful Words, Numbers, and Basic Expressions in the CUPS Spanish Spreadsheet, and some general guidance is provided below.  This part of the web site can always be improved, so comments regarding errors, or suggested additions or revisions, are encouraged.  Please email comments to the CUPS webmaster.


If you do not already speak Spanish, you may be considering taking a conversational Spanish course, or doing some self study with tapes, CDs, etc.  This is highly encouraged, and is an excellent way to get the basics of Spanish vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation.  You can also learn a lot directly from the internet, where there are a lot of language skills resources available.

Even before you get formal instruction, you can enhance your trip experience by learning a few basic Spanish words and expressions, and using them when you travel. The words in the CUPS Spanish Spreadsheet have been chosen with a foreknowledge of the types of situations that CUPS volunteers encounter while in Mexico.

In addition to learning these words, including as many of the construction terms as you see fit, there is some general guidance we can give you about leveraging your limited vocabulary to the hilt.  We think the following six “rules of the road” will serve you well in this regard:

 1.  Don’t be afraid to try.  The Spanish speakers you will meet will be very interested in helping you to learn Spanish, and will make every effort to understand you, and be gracious.  They will not make fun of your mistakes in Spanish, and will respect your for trying.  Liberal use of kind and polite words such as please (por favor) and thank you (gracias) will further assure a kind reception.  Do not be embarrassed.

2.   Use the words you do know.  There will be lots of words you don’t know, but don’t let this stop you from trying to communicate.  Frequently, you can substitute a similar word you do know – you may not know that a pen is a pluma, but if you know the word lapiz (pencil), use it instead.  Or, if you are trying to put together a phrase or sentence, and you are lacking a couple of words, you may be able to just skip them – people can understand a lot from context.  Also, mixing in some gestures along with words is often effective – a little like playing charades.  Have fun at it!

3.   Act out verbs.  Verbs are very important in any language when trying to communicate a complete thought.  However, they are difficult to learn to use properly because of the need to conjugate them, and because there are many irregular forms.  However, if you know a few basic verbs, you can use them even if you don’t know the proper conjugation, but you may have to do a little acting (the charades thing again) to get your point across.  Verbs are action words, so even if you don’t know the verb at all, you may be able to use some nouns, and act out the verb.  Since the conjugation of the verb denotes the subject of the verb as well as the tense, it is useful to point to yourself or someone else who is intended to be the subject if you are not sure you used the correct form.  But to really get a handle on verbs, take a conversational Spanish course.

4.   Pronunciation is important.  You can often communicate well with a very limited vocabulary, but you must pronounce the words correctly.  This cannot be overstated, and is the reason that a pronunciation guide is included with the CUPS English to Spanish Spreadsheet.  Native speakers of any language have ears finely tuned to their language – so you have to be fairly close in pronunciation.  Fortunately, Spanish pronunciation is not too hard for Americans.  Practice the words you are learning, and have people who already know some Spanish to tell you if you are doing it correctly.  You will find it rewarding to take the time to learn the Spanish pronunciation rules, because unlike English, Spanish pronunciation almost never deviates from the rules.  Finally, learn to trill your R’s like the locals do.  It is fun, and you will sound a lot better.  A light trilling will suffice for words with single R’s, but a strong trill is required for words with double-R, in order to be understood.  For example, the word for “but” is pero (light or no trilling), but perro (heavy trilling) means “dog”.

5.   Gender of nouns is usually not too critical.  Like most romance languages, Spanish nouns have gender.  They are either masculine or feminine, regardless of whether they describe animate or inanimate things.  To be proper, you must use the definite article (la or el) or indefinite article (un or una) of the proper gender when talking about the object or an object.  But if you don’t know the gender, make an educated guess (most nouns ending in “a” are feminine, and most ending in “o” or a consonant are masculine), and don’t sweat it too much – you will usually be understood.  Refer to rule #1 above.

6.  Combining words is powerful.  Combinations of simple words can sometimes suffice as a substitute for a more specialized word.  For example, a sledgehammer is a mazo, but using “big” and “hammer”, ie. martillo grande might just get the job done.  Or, “I talk with God” (hablo con Dios) would get the idea of prayer across.  You get the idea – be creative!

As a final note – written Spanish involves a number of accented characters, but in most cases these are used to denote which syllable to accent in a word.  In the CUPS Spanish Spreadsheet, the accents are generally not included, but accented syllables are denoted in capital letters in the pronunciation guide.  Two exceptions are the letters and , and these have been included, since they do change pronunciation.  We offer our apologies for this simplification, and may be able to correct it in a future addition of the spreadsheet.