Spanish Language Blog

Basic Spanish: “What is this?” Posted by on Mar 29, 2016 in Learning, Spanish Vocabulary

This post will help beginner students of Spanish. One of the first things we should learn in a new language is how to ask what something is. However, there are different situations and reasons we ask “What is X?” and they require different phrases. Let’s look at the different situations to learn which phrase to use in each case.

Objetos desconocidos (Unknown Objects)

If you don’t know what something is (you see a friend carrying a wrapped box) you use “¿Qué es?” A variation of this question is “¿Esto qué es?” or  “¿Qué es esto?” These questions help you ask to identify an object when you don’t know what it is or does. Pay attention to the accent in interrogative “qué”.


Palabras desconocidas (Unknown Words)

¿Qué es una alhaja?

¿Qué es una alhaja?

If you hear a word, but don’t know what it means or what it does, you can ask “¿Qué es …….?” For instance, if you hear the word “alhaja” (jewel, gem) and aren’t sure what it refers to, you should say “¿Qué es una alhaja?”. Another way of asking this is “¿Qué significa ‘alhaja’?”. This means “What does … mean?” and is used to ask for a definition.

A formal and fairly rare way of asking this is “¿Qué sería (un/a) …?” This souds polite and would almost never be said in a conversation.


Nombre de objectos específicos (Specific Objects)

If you do know what something is and how it works, but you don’t know what it’s called, you should use “¿Cómo se dice ….?” or “¿Cómo se llama …?”. You can use this phrase with a description, for example “¿Cómo se llama el edificio donde esperas el tren?” (“What do you call the building where you wait for the train?”) or simply “¿Cómo se llama esto?”

For plural nouns you should say “¿Cómo se llaman …?” For example, “¿Cómo se dice ‘tall boots’?” (“What do you call tall boots?”).

Nombre en español (Name in Spanish)

Sometimes you know the name in your language but not in Spanish. A good phrase to know then is “¿Cómo se dice ……. en español?” For example, you need the equivalent of “gem” in Spanish. You can then say “¿Cómo se dice ‘gem’ in Spanish?”.

Try practicing these questions with objects around you and you’ll soon get used to asking for words in Spanish… in Spanish!

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About the Author: Paula

Born in Buenos Aires, living in Barcelona, I mostly write about cultural topics in Spanish from Spain and Latin America.