Does learning Spanish help to read menus?

I suppose the short answer is obviously yes, but a more complex answer is “not very much”. It is also tied to how one “learns Spanish”. Most any form of Spanish instruction is oriented to a broad brush of the language, mostly focused on conversational forms and vocabulary. That could be handy in dining conversation but not so much for reading menus.

I used a variety of learning methods: 1) mostly Duolingo, which seems roughly equivalent to most online courses, 2) more recently actual teacher course that quickly became virtual due to COVID, but is interactive and responsive to individual student needs, 3) reading, although mostly the typical books for beginners and students, so little emphasis on food or dining, and, 4) listening, a variety of sources, Netflix Spanish language movies, Spanish language TV and Spanish language podcasts – this is a helpful adjunct to the other methods, but I have yet to find a Spanish language cooking show.

So in all these methods only a small fraction of the learning time is focused on food. Sometimes the lessons on shopping contain as many food nouns and the lessons on dining.

So as the only real quantitative data I can provide from 89 lessons (about 60%) of Duolingo in 502 days I have 202 terms (nouns, verbs, adjectives) directly or at least related to dining. Of those, and just masculine singular version of nouns, I have 124 (only 87 of which I’ve seen on menus) which I’ll list here:


aceite, agua, alcohol, almuerzo, arroz, azúcar, banana, bar, bebida, boca, bosque, botella, brazo, cabeza, café, cafetería, camarero, campo, carne, carta, casa, cebolla, cena, cerdo, cereal, cerveza, champán, champiñón, chef, chocolate, chorizo, cliente, cocina, comida, conejo, copa, corazón, cuchara, cuchillo, cuello, cuenta, cuerpo, dedo, desayuno, dulce, ensalada, espalda, estómago, frijol, fruta, fuego, galleta, granja, grupo, hamburguesa, hielo, huevo, jamón, jugo, leche, limón, limonada, mango, mano, mantequilla, manzana, mar, menú, mermelada, mesa, miel, naranja, nariz, océano, ojo, oreja, oveja, pan, papa, paquete, parrilla, pasta, pastel, pato, patata, pera, pescado, pez, pie, pierna, pimiento, pizza, planta, plátano, plato, pollo, postre, precio, primavera, primero, queso, refresco, reserva, restaurante, sal, salsa, sándwich, silla, sopa, taza, tazón, té, tenedor, tinto, tomate, tostada, vaca, vaso, vegetal, vegetariano, verdura, vino, yogur

If you compare this list to my glossary you’ll see this is only a small fraction of what I’ve compiled just from the menus I’ve looked at.

So, IOW, you’re not going to learn very much of the vocabulary you’ll find on menus in a generic Spanish class. And it will be worse if you just do some quickie conversation class before going on a trip.

Now, OTOH, I have two phrasebooks (one acquired over 30 years ago) and since dining is a big part of what is covered in those guides the vocabulary from those (which I can only report anecdotally as I don’t have detailed analysis) is actually quite a bit larger than I’ve learned in 500+ days of various Spanish learning methods. So a phrasebook can be handy BUT, frankly, those also cover only a fraction of what one finds on menus.

A menu is not prose so all the grammar and verb conjugations and such are almost entirely useless for reading menus. The vocabulary used is quite extensive compared to standard classes. And, especially in Spain, many of the words on a menu aren’t even in any dictionary, so rather unlikely to have been encountered in any Spanish courses. And beyond nouns, other words in the menu entries are closely tied to unique vocabulary of cooking. And some of those words not in dictionaries are just the names of dishes or ingredients.

So, you want to learn how to read menus, here’s what I would suggest (and I’ve never seen any class or book oriented to this curriculum).

  1. read cookbooks, in Spanish, doing whatever you have to do (Google Translate, dictionary lookups, web searches for terms not in dictionaries) to “read” the material and then make your own set of flashcards of every word you think you’ll need to know.
  2. read online recetas (recipes) websites which are easier to analyze and translate and create a set of flashcards from that.
  3. search for any websites oriented to cooking, in Spanish of course, and extract what you can from those.
  4. And, guess what, do what I’ve been doing, i.e. finding menus online and analyzing them.

Now when it comes to food you definitely have to be careful to concentrate your study on the country you expect to visit and be reading menus. There is a huge diversity of food/cuisine terminology in the Western Hemisphere Spanish-speaking countries where terms have different meanings in different countries (or often are unique to just a few countries, even regions within the larger countries) and are quite different (even contradictory) to Spain.

So you’re in for a major bit of work to spend weeks in Spain, dining with only Spanish source material (menus or verbal). So the difficulty of finding what one needs means there is a big hole to fill, which can be the revised purpose of my effort here. A couple more years of studying Spanish and then doing a ton of my four steps above, and then converting all that learning into a form that can be more easily accessed for someone who is merely going to visit.

 

 

5 thoughts on “Does learning Spanish help to read menus?

    • Interesting. I’m just speculating since the closest I come to ordering in Spanish is in some Mexican restaurants here and their menu items are almost part of English anyway. So getting some feedback from someone who actually does order in Spanish from restaurants in Spain is very valuable. I might suspect as well, given your fondness for San Sebastian you probably can handle Euskara as well. 🙂

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  1. Regional specialities often have local names that often don’t translate correctly. ‘Callos de la abuela’ is ‘Grandma’s calluses’. This turns out to be tripe (tripa) in the logo of northern Spain. I never would have guessed that (although I probably wouldn’t have ordered it anyway – the name is just not that appetizing!)

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    • I’ve bumped into callos a lot and Google Translate still doesn’t know it. Lots of the names of dishes do little, if anything, to convey what the item is. Also seeing geographical references or brands isn’t illuminated by knowing Spanish and I see many such references. Or even cogollo, unless you have an extensive dictionary with all its meanings, hard to know it means the inner leaves of lettuce. So many terms that are unique to food or place or method of preparation or just folklore that these just have to be something one knows. One of my favorites is lomo which can be used in its literal meaning as being the loin cut of some carne, BUT, it really means a particular cured meat, which amazingly is now being produced here in Nebraska but a boutique butcher from heirloom hogs. And he even came close to cranking out Iberico de bellota (and at almost the same price) as one grower here actually lets his pigs run free range, and, yes among some oak trees.

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