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Feed Your Spanish Language Learning With Food Vocabulary

written by: Larry M. Lynch • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 7/9/2014

Want to know a great way to boost your Spanish language learning? How about immersing yourself into something you love to do every day anyway? That's right - EAT. Just as Spanish changes from one country to the next, so often does the food and its vocabulary. Here's how to use it to learn Spanish.

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    In Spanish, Learn to Say What You Eat

    Man In Shower Quick, name three to five things you do every single day.

    Okay, got ‘em? Great!

    Depending on where you live and your local culture, you might have come up with daily activities such as

    1. Take a shower or bathe
    2. Sleep
    3. Talk to people such as family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc.
    4. Walk or travel from one locale to another using a vehicle of some type
    5. Pray or worship according to your religious beliefs
    6. Listen to or otherwise engage in a music-related activity
    7. Watch television
    8. Play video games or use a computer
    9. Laugh, smile or express your emotions
    10. Care for a sibling, child, parent or other family member

    Yes, the list could go on and on and on, but if you’re truly honest, I’ll bet one thing that will be at or near the top of your list of activities that you engage in daily is …

    Eating!

    No question about it, unless you’re in the most dire of circumstances (sorry, I hope not), almost all of us (hopefully) eat and drink something each day – and often, several times daily. Food is an essential lexical element of Spanish language learning as well.

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    What Is There to Eat?

    Granadilla 

    Think about it: when you travel to another city, region or country, what is one of the aspects that can change the most? What there is to eat, right? For example, I live in Colombia (yes, THAT Colombia) and one of the principal differences I needed to come to grips with after moving here was, you guessed it, the food.

    Up to 20 percent of Spanish language vocabulary is either food (and drink) or geography-related. Add in names, local history and regional culture and you are now talking about a more than 50 percent vocabulary and lexical impact in some cases.

    Therefore, by learning key vocabulary of foods and related items, you will be taking a major step toward conversational fluency with the locals of the Spanish-speaking region or country. This is especially true when learning Spanish, as the language has variations and dialects, which alter from one country to the next.

    You need not leave some Spanish-speaking countries in order to be hit with substantial changes in lexis and connected speech. Do you recognize, to the right, the delicious Granadilla with its gelatinous pulp and seeds?

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    Spanish Language Variations and Dialects

    Spain boasts changes in its “core" Castellano from Barcelona to Madrid or from the Northern to the Southern regions of the country. Here in Colombia, the same is true with at least half a dozen distinctive regional accents spoken around the country. Travel from Colombia to Ecuador to the South or Venezuela to the North and a distinctive pattern emerges either way. There are successively distinctive changes in the Spanish language as one traverses the borders of Latin American countries, with each country sporting its own particular “variation". From Mexico to Panama and Colombia to the far reaches of Argentina and Chile, not only does the Spanish language, but key food and related vocabulary, “morph" as you travel.

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    A Rose by Any Other Name … ?

    It was the English Bard Shakespeare himself who mused, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." True enough, but then he did not have to contend with the expanding variety of foods in Latin America. You see, there are different names for similar items in different countries --all speaking Spanish.

    Popcorn is either “crispeta", “cangil" or other terms depending on the country you are in. The common catfish (you know, “Ole Whiskers") has three different common names in Latin American Spanish; Bagre, Capaz or Ñato (pronounced nyato). In Spain, there is a variety of catfish that grows to nearly 100 pounds and is called “Siluro." Corn is typically referred to as “maize" in some regions, but is more often called “choclo" in others. Add in the varieties of corn and you have scads more Spanish language vocabulary. In my American home state of Pennsylvania, where Pomology flourishes, there are around 80 varieties of apples (Johnny Appleseed would be proud). Here in South America though, you are lucky to be able to count on more than four or five varieties. Then again, in Pennsylvania, we only had four or five regular varieties of potatoes, but from Ecuador through Peru, there are a whopping 50 varieties of potatoes. Some are varieties dating back to Aztec and Inca periods, but still grown and eaten today.

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    Quick, Simple, Easy Ways to Learn Vocabulary

    One of the quickest, simplest and easiest ways to ramp up your food vocabulary is to trot yourself into a local supermarket or two in a Spanish-speaking country. With pencil and paper – or a small, portable voice recorder in hand, stroll up and down the aisles – this may take a while or several trips – and note the names of what’s new and unfamiliar as well as those edibles carried over from wherever else you’ve been living.

    In Colombia, people may not know what “nopal" is (an edible species of cactus pictured below), although virtually every Mexican you meet would. Mexicans might not know the “Cachama," a fish related to the deadly Piranha(and I’ll bet you thought they were only little fish, didn’t you?), but from Venezuela to Peru, there’re commonly known and regularly eaten. Try a fresh fish market or farmer’s produce market to get even more of a Spanish language vocabulary boost. That will keep you memorizing index cards for quite a while.

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    Vocabulary Usage

    We haven’t yet even gotten to delve into the swarms of new vocabulary that will surely open to you by learning the names of fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy products, dishes and desserts that have no language equal or counterpart in English. So then again, if you really want to spice up your Spanish language vocabulary and usage, try a few lessons focused on food. Learn what to eat or drink in the Spanish-speaking regions of the world and you will be “a conversational hit" in restaurants, supermarkets, stores and with locals in no time at all.