Phrasebooks are handy. They teach you some of the most common expressions for your foreign trip when you don’t have the time or bandwidth for a full-blown language course. But they are no substitute for the real deal. Native Spanish speakers rarely talk like a typical phrasebook. Their Spanish is far from the standard and has a lot more nuance, colloquial flair, and personality than a book that aims to be as neutral and prescriptive as possible. This native-like personality in my Spanish is what I have always aimed for as far as practically possible. And this is what I recommend that you do unless you wanted to sound like a grammar handbook instead of one of the natives. In my attempts to sound as native as possible, I have discovered some supercool ways to say some of the most commonly used things in Spanish. These are not something you get to learn in even the most expensive of all Spanish-learning courses.
Age is a very common topic of conversation, especially among new acquaintances. And with acquaintances of all kinds, so is the subject of birthdays. We’ve all learned a bunch of boring run-of-the-mill expressions for these contexts off a cheap phrasebook and have even felt quite empowered with the knowledge. We probably did that within the very first few days of learning Spanish. Nothing wrong with using them, except that the natives don’t talk like that. Trust me!
Age Like One of Them
When it comes to age, the following two expressions are the very staple of every Spanish-learning material there is. You probably even know them like the back of your hand:
¿Cuántos años tienes? (How old are you?)
Tengo veinte años (I am twenty years old).
But there’s so much we can say on the subject that the above two cookie-cutter expressions don’t even begin to cover all scenarios. How about turning a certain age? How about being in one’s, say, 30s? How about going on, say, 16? There’s so much to talk about and so little they teach!
Let’s say, instead of answering right away when asked for your age, you want to play with your friend a bit and come back with another question:
How old do you think I am?
Not a very uncommon situation, is it? The verb of interest here is ponerse, literally translating into to put oneself. So basically, you’re asking, “How old do you put me at?” Check it out in action:
¿Cuántos años me pones? (How old do you think I am?)
An answer to such a question would also involve the same ponerse which is obvious. Say, you think I am around 40. You would say something like “I place you at 40.” Can you do this in Spanish now? Here’s how anyway and pat yourself on the back if you were right:
Te pongo cuarenta (I think you’re forty).
Okay, enough of guesswork. Now let’s talk about actual numbers. One common scenario when speaking of age involves the expression ir para. Ir means to go and para points to a destination. Putting the two together, you can easily guess we’re talking about someone going on a certain age. This is how it works:
Mi mamá va para los cincuenta (My mother is going on her 50s).
Voy para treinta y cinco años (I’m going on thirty-five).
Notice that the first example takes a plural article, los, but the number itself remains singular, i.e. cincuenta and not cincuentas. This is important because in Spanish, mathematical numbers are unaffected by grammatical numbers. Oh and while we’re already speaking of vague numbers, how about being in – instead of going on – one’s tens, e.g. 40s? As you’d expect, that takes estar:
Estoy en mi cuarenta (I’m in my forties).
Mis abuelos están en su setenta (My grandparents are in their seventies).
Mi novia está en los treinta (My girlfriend is in her thirties).
Some of you with a keen eye for detail might wonder why I used possessives (mis and su) in the first two examples and an article (los) in the last. Good question. And the answer is, just because. You are free to switch between possessives and articles in these constructs at whim. Either way, you’ll be saying the same thing. Why? Well, that’s the way it is; not everything about Spanish is up for reasoning.
If age-group is more important than age in a context, there’s one yet another construct that comes in quite handy. This one involves the verb ser along with some fun augmentatives. Aug-what? Now what in the fiery pits of hell would that be? I’d rather let you do the figuring out on your own. Just take a look at the following example and I’m sure you’ll see what I mean:
Mi abuelo es un setentón muy fuerte (My grandpa is a strong seventy-year-old man).
The word setentón derives from setenta, Spanish for seventy. The suffix -ón is what makes it what we call an augmentative. Basically, setentón translates into septuagenerian. If it were a grandma, I would use setentona instead. This kind of derivation can be performed on any age that is a multiple of ten. That’s how we get words like veitón from veinte, treintón from treinta, cuarentón from cuarenta, cincuentón from cincuenta, etc. That being said, do also be careful using these words in Spain, especially with women. It might come off as a tad impolite to them. They hear these augmented words as loaded with a kind of mockery of their advancing age.
Augmentatives aren’t the only way to express your age-group in Spanish. If anything, they’re the least fun. Especially when you compare them with the alternative. This curious alternative is think of your life as a high-rise and each floor, a decade in your life. Thus, arriving at, say, the sixth floor would mean entering your sixties. This is sheer brilliance! It’s as if Spanish speakers are constantly striving to sound prosaic or at least less-than-mundane no matter what the topic. Check out this concept in action here:
La hermana de mi esposa está a punto de llegar al quinto piso (My wife’s sister is entering her fifties).
Estamos a punto de llegar al tercer piso (We are about to enter our thirties).
In these examples, a punto de is, of course, an idiomatic expression roughly translating to about to. Again, as evident, this construct is only good when the age is expressed as a multiple of ten. You can be on a floor, not halfway between two, can you? Some of you might find this a bit of a contrived way of telling one’s age. And I’m gonna have to agree with you there. Can’t say why but it does sound overly prosaic to my ears. I suggest you ask a native speaker for their take on this construct.
So just before we move on, let’s have a quick recap consolidating all we learned thus far. First we learned about a non-standard way of guessing someone’s age:
¿Cuántos años me pones?
Te pongo veinte.
We also learned how to talk about going to be a certain age or entering a certain age-group:
Voy para setenta y cinco años.
Voy para los setenta.
Then we learned a few ways to talk about being a certain age-group:
Estoy en mi setenta.
Estoy en los setenta.
Soy un setentón.
And lastly, we learned a very prosaic way to talk about entering a certain age-group:
Estoy a punto de llegar al séptimo piso.
I strongly suggest adding these examples to your flashcard decks to ensure retention. That’s what I did. That and writing a ton of sentences of my own using these constructs. That really helps so do try it.
Spanish at the Birthday
We all know the single most commonly taught birthday expression: ¡Feliz cumpleaños! But that’s too plebeian to make you sound like one of their own. First of all, happy birthday is far from the only expression pertaining to birthdays. There are many more, such as today is my birthday, I turn x years today, etc. Secondly, even for happy birthday, there are alternatives that sound way cooler and native.
Almost every birthday wish is followed by the ever-so-dreaded question about your updated age. Well, it may or may not be as dreadful depending on how you deal with growing older. But it does pay to know the Spanish for such a question and its response. The verb of interest here is cumplir. As it sounds, it’s Spanish for complete. Cumplir. Complete. They’re almost cognates, aren’t they? In Spanish, everything about birthdays revolves around this little verb. When you say you turned a certain age, you can also think of it as completing that many years of your life. That’s how you do it in Spanish:
Ayer, cumplé treinta y cuatro años (Yesterday, I turned thirty four).
But even before someone asks you about your age and puts you in a corner, you need to let them know that it’s your birthday. How else would they know to wish you? The most straightforward way to do that is using ser, the ever-so-useful verb meaning to be:
Mañana es mi cumpleaños (Tomorrow is my birthday).
But straightforward is also boring and bookish, more so in Spanish. That’s why the above example is not how the locals do it. Their style is a little shorter and uses estar, another Spanish verb for to be in a rather temporary context:
Mañana estoy de cumpleaños (Tomorrow is my birthday).
This is kind of like saying, “I’m about to complete years,” which is fine because when you complete another year, a birthday is implied. Cumpleaños can and is, for all practical purposes, shortened to just cumple. So, if you happen to gatecrash a stranger’s party and are curious to see the birthday girl, you would ask:
¿Quién está de cumple? (Whose birthday is it?)
I am gonna assume here that you are not as unwelcome to the shindig as you initially thought. The birthday girl would then respond with a beaming:
Es mi cumple (It’s my birthday).
Spanish also has a word for the birthday boy. It’s cumpleañero. Goes without saying, it’s cumpleañera for a girl. Also goes without saying that it literally means one who completes years. So you could also ask the above question as:
¿Dónde está la cumpleañera? (Where’s the birthday girl?)
Since the word cumpleaños is more often than not shortened to just cumple, the ever-so-bookish birthday wish practically becomes feliz cumple instead of the feliz cumpleaños you learned in the classroom. Just as is the case with English, such contractions are quite commonplace in colloquial Spanish. Some examples worth noting here are porfa (from por favor) and pa’que (from para que). Just remember that these contractions are not standard and should be avoided in formal contexts. And while writing. But with friends, they certainly add a native flair to your Spanish.
Other than happy birthday, there are many more things you can and might want to say to the birthday boy in English. The same goes for Spanish as well. Let’s look at how you can convey your regards with a stronger sense of sincerity for the occasion in Spanish:
Que Dios te bendiga en tu cumple (May God bless you on your birthday).
Que cada dia sea tan especial como hoy (May each day be as special as today).
Deseo que todos tus sueños se conviertan/hagan realidad (May all your dreams come true).
Los mejores deseos para tu cumpleaños (Best wishes for your birthday).
Que te diviertas un montón (May you have a blast).
¡Felices veinte años! (Happy twentieth!)
Just as in English, the range is virtually limitless. You could come up with any way to wish your friend depending on your intimacy with them and, of course, your sincerity.
So, that’s it about aging and birthdays. Have you come across other fun expressions and colloquialisms not generally discussed in the classroom? Do share them with us in a comment below and help the rest of us get more cocky with Spanish. It would also help if you told us where you heard those expressions so we could understand what region the usage might belong to, should it be a non-standard regionalism.