Saturday, May 30, 2015

6 Ways to Improve Your Spanish Language Skills

I've been a student of the Spanish language for almost 12 years now. I've only been fluent in all four major areas (reading, writing, speaking and listening) for the past 5 years but I still have room for improvement. I don't know every word and I still make small sometimes unnoticeable mistakes (or giant ones if I'm way too tired). Well, with all these years of studying, speaking and embarrassing myself along the way, I have made a running list of ways to help improve my own skills and the skills of others but I'm finally putting all down on paper...er, rather on digital paper.

Whether you are just beginning to study the Spanish language or just had another language-induced headache last night, I hope that these personal tips of mine will both encourage and challenge you to continue learning the language.

I've been there, done that, couldn't say that (haha) and bought the T-shirt so follow me as I explain these steps and show you some unconventional ways to learn Spanish.

Listos? (Ready?) Let's go! (Vamos!)

Ready? Set? Go! (Photo taken in Orzan (A Coruña) 


1. Think in Spanish

You're probably scratching your head and staring at your computer screen and exclaiming, "You want me to what?!"

Hold on, let me explain....

Don't worry, I too asked this question a long time ago and felt the same exact way that you do. In fact, the whole concept of thinking in a foreign language was introduced to me by my father -who has not studied Spanish in decades- one day as he drove me home in our car after school during my junior year of high school. I don't remember exactly what prompted this question but nevertheless he asked me it and I had no idea how to respond. I think I came up with something that went something like this: "Well, I think when I'm really advanced in the language, then I would be able to think in it."

What he didn't  know was just how mind-blown I was sitting in the passenger seat at that moment in time. In my head I was thinking, "Thinking in another language is way too advanced. I'll never get to that point no matter how good I am. It seems impossible to me." I was also seventeen years old at the time of that conversation and didn't know just how many things I was really capable of. I would soon learn in the next couple years when I went away to college.

I eventually did learn that thinking in another language was normal and gradually the next step in the foreign language learning process. It was still scary and daunting to me but I was slowly warming up to the idea. Except the moment that I first tried it was unexpected and scary.

I first started thinking in Spanish during my freshman conversation class out of necessity. I had to lead a 15 minute discussion with a group one class and everything from the movie we watched to the discussion questions we created (and not to mention the conversation itself) was in Spanish. English was kept to a small corner of our brains as we navigated the class in our foreign language. Up until our discussion, I was translating everything in my head: the professor's lecture, the movies we watched -with English subtitles-, the conversations with my friends and classmates inside and outside of class. I was also translating what I wanted to say to any person who spoke Spanish from English. I was just plain exhausted and had had enough. I was tired of being a human translation machine!

So, when my group's turn for the discussion arrived, I did the unthinkable. I did what 17 year-old me thought was impossible: I thought in Spanish!

I felt like I had surrendered complete control over my mind to someone and that I was losing a part of myself along the way. I can't quite explain it fully. I do know that, bit by bit, as I challenged myself to spend more and more time thinking in Spanish, that my language skills improved, especially when I was speaking it. I made fewer mistakes, I expressed myself a little better and I made stronger connections to the words I had acquired in my vocabulary. I still became tired when I spent a little *too* much time immersing myself in the language but those periods of exhaustion started to become few and far between.

Make sure they're happy thoughts, though! (As seen in front of the 2nd grade classroom)

 Now, about 8 years have passed since the time I took a huge leap out of my comfort zone and think in Spanish daily. It's become more natural to me and it's a daily habit wherever I am in the world. And according to the driver of a BlaBla Car ride I went on back in April, thinking in a language is "lo basico."

So, there you have it: based on my experience and a local long-time speaker of Spanish, thinking in a language is the foundation. It's the first thing you should implement into your life if you desire to become fluent in Spanish or any other language you're studying or want to study.

Keep it simple and think in another language! You don't have to spend more than 1 or 2 minutes a day doing it if you don't want to. The goal is to train yourself to think in the language every time you're speaking it so that the words flow and become more and more a part of your life.

You'll make fewer mistakes and feel less exhausted! Take it from me, a seasoned veteran when it comes to language headaches. :P


2. Talk to yourself or out loud in Spanish

I don't know about you but I like to talk to myself. English, Spanish, Portuguese, Galego - it doesn't make much difference to me. If you've ever lived with me or gone on vacation (or a trip) with me, you'll find that I make comments and think out loud about everything. I sometimes don't realize I'm doing it it's such a habit for me. I also love it when I'm home alone and can read, watch TV or a movie or listen to music and say whatever I'm thinking right in the moment. Sometimes I just want to hear what I'm thinking sounds like but other times - and most of the time- I want to voice my opinion to the writer, TV host or actor that I don't agree with in some way.

Or to encourage my favorite Spanish tennis player, Rafa Nadal, during the French Open. He can't hear me, of course, but that's beside the point, haha.

Anyway, let's get back on topic. The reason why I added this one to the list is that muttering or saying something out loud in another language - in my experience - makes a person blend in a little more and makes them appear to be less of a tourist and more of a local. Or at least someone who plans to stay in the area for more than a week or two.

I don't know how many times I've started up random short conversations with people outside of stores (looking at the window displays), in the supermarkets, on the street, in parks, in front of a major historical site or or on a plane, train or metro all because I made a comment in the local language and not my native language. Not that speaking your native language on the street in any given city is a bad thing as languages as a whole liven up the street life with their unique sounds and rhythms. It's just that when you're living or visiting abroad, it's highly likely that you're trying to learn the local language and trying to immerse yourself in it as much as possible. Half the time, the native speakers aren't going to come to you so you will have to go out of your way to meet them and beg them to speak their language to you even in the smallest of doses. Each exposure, whether it's 5 minutes or 1 hour, will help you immensely in your language journey.

Pretty soon you'll be leaning a whole bunch of new words! (Maybe some Galego too.)
So, even if you're shy or reluctant to speak the language right now, get to talkin'! I was incredibly shy when I first started learning Spanish but it was only through putting myself in uncomfortable social situations, forcing myself to speak instead of stay quiet and embarrassing myself by making tons of mistakes that I became the fluent and confident speaker that I am today.

3. Join a local organization, conversation club or church

I could write a whole separate post on how much I've benefited from joining local organizations and joining a local church in the cities I've lived in here in Spain. You may not be religious and may not be looking for a church and that's fine. But let me tell you, you meet some of the nicest and kindest people at churches in Spain. It's been the same type of experience for me in both the North and South of Spain but that's not to say that church congregations don't have any problems with one another, they sure do. Some of the most welcoming and kind people that you can meet can be found in the small Evangelical churches that are scattered around all parts of Spain.

Some of my best and oldest friends here in Spain. They are quite an encouragement to me!
Conversation clubs and sports clubs are a fantastic way to not only improve your language skills but they can also be an easy way to meet local people your age! Whether you join both types or just one, you will find that you can meet people who have similar interests and can meet outside of the club meetings to hang out, go for tapas, try new things together, travel or let them take you on a walking tour of the city and see it through their eyes.

In my experience - and from observing others' experiences- the more time it takes you to integrate into a new culture, the less you will feel settled and comfortable in your new surroundings. It's good to meet other expats living abroad just like you (and you need them for support when things just don't make sense) but make every effort to meet local people and get to know the culture. Getting to know someone who has lived where you're living all their lives will enrich your experience and teach you so many things about the culture and language. (And think of all the slang and *cough* swear words *cough* you'll learn!)

And besides, the information and stories a local person can tell you won't be found in your average travel guide book. Go out there and meet some locals! Even if you only have a week or two left in your city. You won't regret it.

4. Listen to music and/or sermons, speeches, audiobooks, podcasts, TED Talks in Spanish or watch TV and movies

Perhaps this recommendation on the list is self-explanatory so I'll just elaborate on some of my favorite audio materials in Spanish. It's important to surround yourself with as much of the language as possible. If you're not in a Spanish speaking country, you can do this through a number of different medias. If you are in Spain or another Spanish speaking country, keep the foreign language learning going by immersing yourself in the language and culture through music, films, podcasts and TV shows to name a few. Create a little Spanish bubble for yourself and take it with you wherever you go!

Let's start with music. My sophomore year of college (2008) was I really fell head-over-heels in love with Latino music. Salsa, bachata, Latin pop and ballads, meringue, mariachi...you name it, I was probably listening to it. And on Pandora to boot, haha. (Long before the days of Spotify.) I also love worship music in Spanish by artists such as Hillsong, Kesia, Evan Craft and a whole host of others, especially mainstream artists that have translated their songs into Spanish. Ever since I started listening to more and more music in Spanish, it became easier for me to think in the language. You might want to do those two suggestions at the same time (like I did) to increase and accelerate your learning.

I've also found that listening to radio stations in Spanish that broadcast news talk hours, sermons and special programs has been extremely helpful to me. Not everyone featured on these broadcasts has the same accent in Spanish and the radio is a fairly easy way to exposure yourself to different accents even if you're living in an entirely different region. An app I found to be very easy to use and helpful is called Spain TV, it can be found in the App or Google Play stores. They also have popular videos and TV channels (hence the name) and that's the only way I was able to watch Masterchef last summer back when I was really into the show.

As far as podcasts and audiobooks go, I've yet to try these out as I don't have an Audible account anymore and I'm not learning a language from the very beginning. I have heard from friends that both of these mediums are good tools to use to improve your language skills so I would recommend them! TED Talks are another way to engage your mind in a topic and still have the aid of subtitles available to you. One talk that I recently listened to and liked was this one: Pierda el Miedo - Tim Ferriss (excuse some of the language towards the end. :-/)

Now that I'm more translation minded, I like to listen to a mix of English talks with Spanish subtitles and Spanish talks with English subtitles. I learn many new words and phrases in either language combination!

Movies and TV shows are also a great way to learn about a number of different Spanish speaking cultures right from your living room or bedroom. It's also fun to go see one in the theater compared to watching it at home if you have the chance. And you can have subtitles or go crazy and forget the subtitles! (This is my preferred method now. :P) Some of my favorite films in the Spanish language are: Diarios de Motocicleta, Hable con Ella, Tres Metros Sobre el Cielo, El Hijo de la Novia and more!

5. Read books, magazines or newspapers in Spanish, especially in public places


Or go browse a bookstore's language section and take pictures of yourself with random books. People WILL talk to you! (Or laugh at you, or both.)
This also may be self-explanatory but the "in public" part may not be...so, let me explain.

In the past few years that I've been traveling Europe and parts of the US, I've noticed that an easy way to start a conversation with a stranger is to ask them a question based on what they're reading, watching (if you're on a long flight but use caution as they'll probably not want to be bothered) or what music they're listening to. If you want to at first hide the fact that you're a foreigner, I would recommend reading and taking a book or magazine in another language with you on your next long train ride or flight.

Why?

Well, it's highly likely that -especially on a train or bus- that the person next to you, might ask you about your book or magazine will be a native speaker of the language you're trying to learn. And if it's a popular book or a hot topic is on the front cover of the magazine, chances are they'll have an opinion about something and you can start a conversation. It's perfectly fine to bring reading materials in English but reading openly in another language will not only help you expand your vocabulary but physically show passersby that you're really trying to learn that language. A native speaker will also probably be able to gauge just how well you can speak the language simply by having a short conversation with you. However, if they see you struggle through a book or magazine -the larger the better!-, you will impress them and they will compliment you on your efforts. You may also help change their opinion of people from your country too which is always a wonderful thing.

I've had a couple experiences where I was reading a book in English on a train and due to the sole fact that I was reading in English (and by my appearance alone I look like I come from England or the USA), the person who started talking to me only spoke or tried to speak to me in English. Those haven't always been the best experiences and I'm often times left wondering how I could have handled those situations better and been more expressive to the other person. I can't always say exactly I feel in Spanish but it's a lot easier for me to communicate in a foreign language with a native speaker rather than struggle through English with them. I also feel like once we start speaking in one language it's hard to switch languages (or rather convince them) and speak in theirs.

Reading in the language you're learning helps to reinforce the spelling, pronunciation and vocabulary of the language. And if you're a visual learner like me, seeing the word written out and along with hearing it spoken, helps to solidify the word in my mind and it's highly unlikely that I'll forget it.

My favorite magazine and newspaper publications are: El Pais, La Voz de Galicia and El Diario de Sevilla. Some of my favorite books in Spanish are: (I'll have to get back to you on these...)

6. Put yourself in situations where English isn't always spoken or available
Make sure you get your daily dose of motivation too! (Win the day)
I told you in a previous paragraph about how I was shy, right? Well, I was very, very shy and insecure in high school and my first couple semesters in college. (Weren't we all awkward back then?! haha) So shy that I would do my best not to get called on or even speak at all during a class or small group discussion that I went to. I even acted this way in Spanish classes though I longed to speak and beat out a native speaker when answering one of the professor's questions.

It also didn't matter the fact that for college I had moved 900 miles away from home to attend a university I had never visited before but had heard only good things about. I was just shy and couldn't find a way to break out of my bubble and get out of my head. (Have I also mentioned that I'm introverted?)

Well, my childhood friend from Ohio gave me some advice that I have never forgotten and have taken to heart wherever I have lived. Her college campus was very small so it was easy for her to see the same people over and over again and start up conversations with them. My campus was a little bit bigger and it had the same feel as hers did. However, her advice was this: Just be around. Even if you're the only one sitting outside eating lunch, you'll get noticed. People will come to you because they'll see that you're around or you always go here or there on this day or so. And her overall point was this: you never know who you'll meet!

She gave me this advice over 7 years ago now but I have more than taken it to heart. It's helped me in so many different ways, though. I didn't like going to places or events alone in the beginning but slowly I adjusted. I also didn't always go to events alone but when I did -and when I didn't want to miss out on an experience- I felt more comfortable doing it the more I went alone.

How does this relate to language?

When I studied abroad in Sevilla, I knew no one in the very beginning. In fact, I was the only one from my university studying there that semester. Was I crazy for doing this? Yes, but I was better off for having done it. And I would do that experience over again in the same exact way.

I did so many things that freshman Sarah would never have thought she could have done. I went to intercambio (language exchange) nights and tables at my university alone, I showed up alone to a club to participate in free salsa lessons (but ended up seeing classmates of mine), I traveled alone in Spain a few times and did so many more things of that nature.


Learning how to make pinchos saludables (healthy snacks) one Friday night!



Most of the time when I went to these exchanges or traveled on my own, the people I encountered didn't know English or at least didn't know it well. I really had to overcome my nervousness and shyness to speak Spanish (for fear of messing up or making a mistake) and just speak it. I wanted to make friends, meet people and have a good time so I just pushed down the butterflies fluttering up in my stomach and opened my mouth and began to speak. I didn't always say the smartest or most hilarious things but I was speaking and if I made a mistake, oh, well. Just laugh it off!

Since that semester abroad, I've taken Bla Bla car rides with drivers who hardly knew English -sometimes I did this voluntarily-, took a one night cooking class where all the recipes were in Spanish and I didn't have access to a dictionary, took a traditional Galician dance lesson where all the instructions were in Spanish and all I could do was move and follow the instructor and opted for the Spanish language audios and tour guides to popular sights around Spain.

My point in sharing all these stories and experiences with you is this: Being put in a situation where you can't rely on your native language really stretches you. And you want to be stretched and be pushed to your limits. You may not realize it right now and that's okay.

It also causes you to use all the skills and words that you've built up in your vocabulary so far and see how well you can communicate and express yourself. Suddenly not knowing a word doesn't involve going straight to your dictionary for help but instead to your mental word bank and how well you can describe what you mean without using the missing word.

You may not be as brave as me to do a ride share where the driver doesn't speak more than a couple words of your native language and that's okay. Do even the smallest thing in all Spanish and see how much you learn! I can almost guarantee you that you'll not only learn a lot about the language but also just how much you're really capable of in the first place.

And those are all the tips I've got for now! Happy language learning! :-)

Have you tried one of more of the tips that I've listed in this post? What would you add to my list, if anything? What is the most daring thing you've done to get immersed in a language or meet local people? Tell me your stories in the comments below!

1 comment:

  1. One of my biggest regrets is not taking Spanish classes seriously in school. You have no idea how hard I pushed my kids to not make my mistake. (Unfortunately, they didn't listen.) I'm thinking it's not too late for me to learn and all these tips sound fantastic. But I would suggest being aware of the many regional Spanish accents and dialects. Spanish isn't necessarily one plain language.

    Sean @ Excel Translations

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