People thinking of visiting the Dominican Republic often ask whether it’s necessary to know Spanish while vacationing on this tropical island.
The quick and easy answer is that if you are planning to stay in a resort and lounge on the beach for the whole duration of your holiday you’ll probably be totally fine talking in English.
But if you’re planning on getting out and about, being able to say something in Spanish will help you discover some of those amazing places you might never have found if you only spoke English. People tend to be much more open to those who try, even if your Spanish is virtually non-existent. But even those who speak perfect Spanish will find that Dominican argot can sometimes be confusing.
Typically Dominican words
To help you along the way we’ve compiled a number of typical words you’ll definitely hear when you’re surrounded by Dominicans, be it at the supermarket, in the guagua (see below) or just on the beach. Interestingly enough they also give quite a lot of insight into the Dominican way of being.
Normally, one of the first Dominicanisms that you’ll come across and learn if you speak Spanish and stay longer than three days are the next two words.
Vaina – means “thing” and Dominicans use this word normally at least once in every sentence, as it can mean anything. If you need to buy something and you’ve forgotten the word for what you want to get just use this instead and point at what you want. In this case just say: Dame esta vaina (give me that thing).
Chin – means “a little bit”. If someone asks you whether you speak Spanish, say “Un chin”. They’ll know straight away that you’ve been here longer than only a few days and will more likely charge you the right price, because chances are that at least half of the people who ask that question will want to try and sell you something. The other half will tend to be just curious and want to chat. Unless you’re a good looking girl and the one asking is a Dominican guy who looks interested. In that case look up Tiguere or Sanky Panky below.
Que lo que – means “what’s up”. As with “what’s up”, this is not to be used in more formal situations or with older people.
Guagua – means “the bus”, usually minivans that are unmarked, don’t have a specific timetable but do follow a specific route. Guaguas normally have a holding capacity of 12 people but Dominicans have no qualms about transporting up to 20 people, including luggage (usually tied to the roof or front bars) and possibly a chicken or two.
Moto / Motoconcho – you’ll hear this often when you walk along the road in towns. These are privately owned motorbikes whose drivers will give you a ride on the back of their bikes. The minute you come onto a public road a motoconcho will whistle, honk or shout at you asking whether you want a ride.
Bacano/a – means “cool”. Can be used in the same way as cool is used in English. The phrase would be "Que bacano!".
Guapo/a – means “angry”, not to be confused with the Spanish version from Spain where it means handsome (m) or beautiful (f). Often used in a sentence like "no te pones guapo", meaning "don't get angry".
Tiguere – literally means tiger. Refers to someone who hunts for girls. Dominican men have quite a reputation for flirting and trying to sleep with as many girls as they can, irrespective of being in a relationship or not. This is also the reason why Dominican women are known to be exceptionally jealous. If you’re a girl and you’re being chatted up, don’t worry. Dominican men see flirting as the unofficial national sport but won’t push it if you’re not interested. Go with the flow and enjoy the attention.
Sanky Panky – a surfer type of guy who every week has a different foreign girlfriend, preferably one who will invite him to dinner, give him presents and possibly lend him money, which she is unlikely to see ever again. An interesting and funny Dominican comedy has been made on the subject, which in the meantime has been followed up with two sequels.
Prieto – literally means “dark-skinned person”. Often used amongst friends.
Pana – means “friend”.
Luz – literally means “electrical light” and is a common denominator for electricity. In Dominican neighborhoods you’ll often hear “se fue la luz”, which simply means “the electricity has gone”. The electricity is cut off very often all around the country, but all hotels, apartments and all-inclusive resorts will have a back-up generator so most visitors don’t usually notice the black-outs much.
Apagón – another word for electricity black-out.
Accents and speed
Dominican Spanish is very differently spoken across the country. People from Santo Domingo can be easily recognized as they have a very distinct accent, often interchanging l for r. Around the country most people swallow the s at the end of words. People from the countryside and those with little education tend to mumble and speak fast, which sometimes results in just plain incomprehensible garble.
Smiling is your ticket
But don’t let these country specific quirks stop you from getting out there. Even if you don’t know any Spanish at all, a smile will go a long way and will help break the proverbial ice. And should you decide to visit this beautiful island with its palm fringed beaches and funny speaking people without knowing any Spanish, you can always take a couple of classes at the many language schools dotted around the country. In Cabarete the Spanish language school of choice would be the Spanish Language Institute.