Learning Spanish, Part II: Practical Advice

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Today’s post of advice about learning Spanish is what I set out to write last week.  But, while compiling my list I realized it had become more of a treatise on the emotional and mental surprises that come along with immersion rather than anything technically applicable to the new speaker.  Now that that’s out of the way, keep scrolling for a few things that have helped this gringa habla español...

Really commit.

I mentioned last week that I was naively surprised at how long it has taken me to achieve the level of Spanish I now speak and that a class or two a week isn’t enough to get you laughing with a Colombian cab driver in six months.  I don’t say this to dishearten you, but rather encourage you to dedicate yourself to this experience as much as possible if a certain level of fluency is what you’re after.  Make time for learning and immerse yourself as much as possible!  Moving to a Spanish speaking country kind of does that part for you, but you’ll be surprised at the sneaky ways you can avoid speaking Spanish—another huge reason not to spend all your time sequestered in the expat bubble.

I was lucky to have classes for a few hours each day and Cody to work in a Spanish-speaking office, but there are other ways if you’re not living in the middle of the language you want to learn.  We have taken 1:1 lessons via Skype for $10/hour, which is incredibly cheap for private tuition.  Language exchanges, where you and another person practice your respective languages, exist all over the world.  And don’t discount the value of TV and music!

Probably the hardest part is getting over your fear of looking foolish, but if you want to remember what you’re learning, you have to use it.  The first time I called someone and attempted to speak in Spanish, they laughed so hard that I cried (once I got off the phone, of course).  Making mistakes is part of learning and even if it’s uncomfortable, they sometimes help you learn faster.  And I meant what I said in Part I about confidence playing a big part in your willingness to practice, so do your best to place yourself in situations where you’ll actually want to use the new words you’re learning.

Find something you like and use it to your advantage. 

The more you can make listening to and speaking Spanish something enjoyable (as opposed to a chore), the more likely you’ll be to stick with it and get something out of it.  That said, find some kind of entertainment that suits you and use it to your advantage!  Whether it’s reading news, listening to music or watching movies, all of these will expose you to new words, ways of saying things and in the case of the latter two, it will expose you to different speeds of speaking and accents.

For instance, shortly after moving to Bogotá we discovered that Breaking Bad (which we absolutely loved) was re-made scene-for-scene in Colombia and released on Netflix.  Cody and I have watched Metastysis (the Colombian version) and have found it helpful and entertaining at the same time.  And because it’s the same show—just with different scenery—we know where the plot is going.  Even if we get lost in the language, the context of the scenes helps with comprehension.

Work on your accent.

Not enough emphasis is put on improving your accent.  While it’s true that you have to know the nuts and bolts of Spanish enough to speak it, people also have to be able to understand what you’re saying.  At first, trying to get my mouth to articulate Spanish syllables was like chewing on rocks after having my mouth shot up with novocaine…I was definitely the typical, caveman-sounding gringo!  But take heart, because the lips and tongue are muscles and as you repeat the same sounds, they will eventually feel more natural.  But what about that trilling r, you ask?  One of my professors told me that even native speaking children aren’t born with the innate ability to roll their r’s—they have to learn it as well.  In case you’re curious, his recommendation was to practice r-words in front of a mirror for 10 minutes a day…which I’ve never done so please, let me know if it works for you!

Would you like a couple more quick tips to practically immediately improve your accent?  First of all, really make sure you know the sound each letter makes–for instance, the ll can take on y, sh, or a j sound depending on where you are in South America.  Then, make sure you pronounce each one!  Unlike English, Spanish doesn’t have silent letters (ok, besides H) or combinations of letters that will produce different sounds.  Secondly, make sure you open your mouth more widely than normal when you speak.  My professors were always telling us to open our mouths wider and not only does it improve your accent, but you are also less likely to stumble over difficult words.

While we’re talking about accents, there’s one more thing to be aware of: it’s inevitable you’ll take on the intonation of those you listen to or converse with most.  I discovered this when we were in Argentina this past Christmas and I called the reception desk to ask for an iron.  As soon as I hung up and turned around, Cody burst out laughing and repeated my words, only in a high-pitched, girly-girl voice.  Apparently, I have adopted a cheerleader-esque voice along with my new language.

Don’t Assume you know a word’s meaning…

Ever since I yelled out bastard in Costco at the age of 6, I learned a very important lesson: don’t use a word unless you’re sure of its meaning!  This is especially important when it comes to learning Spanish because there are a lot of words which look the same as their English counterparts, but have very different meanings.  For instance, the word excitado, which you would suppose is the English equivalent of excited…wrong!  In a meeting his first weeks in Bogotá, this tricky word slipped out and Cody inadvertently told his new co-workers that he was very ‘horny’ to be in the office.  These false cognates can range from simply confusing a sentence—as is the case with en absoluto, which means just the opposite of what it seems—to completely embarrassing the speaker—being embarasada means you’re pregnant, not embarrassed.

Even trickier are the words that can change meaning depending on geography and therefore can even trip up native speakers.  Just ask the Costa Rican colleague who asked for a straw here in Colombia but inadvertently used a slang word for penis!  Another colleague who learned Spanish growing up in Mexico was offered tinto his first day in the office and was disappointed to get a cup of black coffee instead of red wine at his 9:00 am meeting.  There are tons of blogs that list slang specific to Colombia and I imagine they exist for other regions as well—looking over a list like that would most likely help you avoid others’ chuckles.

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And while we’re speaking of learning Spanish, I have one final recommendation that has been invaluable to me in my quest to better my speaking, which is Breaking Out of Beginner’s Spanish by Joseph J. Keenan.  This is no dry text on verb conjugations.  Rather, it’s an easy to read collection of tips about the subtleties of the language such as how to replace all of those filler words like well, so, and okay with their Spanish counterparts, suggestions for cranking up your adjectives beyond bien and muy bien, and even how to swear (from kinda rude to serious cursing).  Language is an intricate thing and if you already have the basics, this book will definitely boost you to the next level.

All that said, I know I can’t be the only old person to learn a new language…please share any insights you have in the comments below!

3 thoughts on “Learning Spanish, Part II: Practical Advice

  1. First of all, you are not “an old person”, but I get what you’re saying. Second, was bastard yelled at somebody or just as a general statement? Lol. I can totally see it. Serious, though, great tips and great writing as always!

    1. Well what happened was…my stepdad and I were playing and he was pretending to steer me into things as I was standing on the little lip at the end of the cart. Then the word popped out and I got a spanking, haha! I must’ve heard it in a movie or at school, because everyone on the internet needs to know my parents didn’t curse in front of me growing up ;-) Thanks for reading, as always!!

  2. Lol, hw informative, I agree with ‘do not use the words until you’r sure of its meaning’ especially in other countries :D great dictionary, heard about this before from a Spanish guy through skype in Preply for learning and this is hilarious, though :D

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