The first time I stepped off the plane in Spain, I was hitting a mini-crisis on my way to my study abroad program in Sevilla. I was horribly lost on a layover at the Madrid airport, afraid of being so far away from home for months on end, and worried about making my flight on time. Little did I know, a long battle with the Spanish language was about to begin.
The good news: I can speak fluent Spanish today. The bad news: it was a tough process. That’s why I’ve written up some of my tips for learning Spanish quickly.
First, let me share where I was coming from when I set off for my very, very rocky Spanish learning adventure.
Back at the airport in Madrid a few years ago, I tried asking the help desk staff for assistance. The guy didn’t speak English. I was forced to stammer out a few sentences of what was had stuck from my high school Spanish classes (where, it should be noted, we spent many days watching Finding Nemo in English with Spanish subtitles in the hope we would read them. We did not).
The airport employee frowned and stared blankly back at me. I tried again. Nothing. Next, he spat out a stream of directions so quickly I wasn’t sure he was even speaking Spanish. It became clear I wasn’t going to comprehend a word he said, so I pretended I understood and walked off with my stomach churning and palms sweaty. Eventually, about an hour later, I managed to make it to my gate.
By the time I finally boarded my flight, I felt a little more relaxed for the first time in hours. But when my plane pushed back from the gate, the security announcements went on in rapid-fire Spanish and my heart sank again. Once more, I could not understand a single word said in Spanish.
That’s when panic set in. My college had only sent one person to Sevilla – me. How on earth was I going to survive on my own in a foreign country where I obviously didn’t speak the language?
When a Spanish teenager leaned over, looked at my snack tray, and asked – in English – if he could have the mini chocolate I had been saving as a treat for when I calmed down, I was so panicked at the thought of having to even potentially communicate in Spanish I just said ‘yes’ (and instantly regretted giving away the one highlight of my flight). I was on the verge of tears the whole way there.
Hours later, with my first encounter with my host family, the only thing I understood them saying was “You don’t speak much Spanish, do you?” I flushed with embarrassment in the elevator and felt my eyes tearing up for the umpteenth time that day.
During my time in Sevilla, there were a whole lot more tears to come, lots of them language-related.
But by Christmas time just a few months later, when I packed my bulging suitcases for my trip back home to California, I could speak reasonably fluent Spanish.
How did I go from not being able to say a single coherent sentence to being able to have a conversation with pretty much anyone in four months? That’s what I’m going to let you know. And no, I’m not one of those people who is naturally good at languages. Spanish was hard for me, and some days it still is!
A word of warning: you do NOT “just pick it up”, no matter what study abroad programs will tell you. It is hard work, it’s frustrating work, and the beginning stages are not fun at all (in my experience).
Having said that, you can definitely make learning Spanish easier on yourself. And maybe, just maybe, you can have a little fun. 🙂
So, in my Spanish “hacks” series, I’ll share the things that helped me figure out the language and be able to use it – fast.
This first post is all about getting the basics down for learning Spanish quickly. A hint: most of it is about changing your mindset and having the right attitude, rather than re-inventing the wheel when it comes to learning.
Don’t set your standards to “perfect Spanish”.
Let me be clear what I meant by “reasonably fluent” a little while before. I could talk to most people and have a nice conversation. Speaking about everyday stuff wasn’t something I had to really think about anymore at a certain point (this was probably about 2.5 – 3 months in). It was no longer a struggle to form a sentence.
Was my grammar correct? No, I made loads of mistakes. But did people understand me? Definitely. I could absolutely use the language as a communication tool at real conversation speed. What I mean by “fluent” is ease of expression and communication, rather than that people mistook me for a native speaker, or that my grammar was textbook perfect.
My first tip is to move the language goalposts you’ve set. Instead of aiming for grammatically perfect sentences, focus on communicating, even you end up having months of clumsy attempts.
Mistakes are unavoidable, so don’t use that as an excuse not to practice.
It’s really uncomfortable to know you’re making lots of mistakes and doing badly at something. Unfortunately, when you’re a beginner at a foreign language, that’s just going to happen. It’s totally unavoidable. You are going to make mistakes, and you are going to make lots of them.
There are two common ways language learners I’ve met tend to deal with this.
Method 1: trying to perfect the grammar before they leave the house. On my study abroad program in Barcelona, I met a few people who were dead set on getting their grammar 100% perfect at home before they even attempted speaking in public.
The result? They never actually practiced, even at a coffee shop where they knew perfectly well how to order what they wanted. And that meant they never actually improved their language skills.
Method 2: sinking into embarrassment. The other way is that they become really embarrassed and totally clam up. That’s what I did. I had so many times where I thought I’d never learn Spanish, my brain wasn’t meant for it, and that I should just give up.
While it’s true that some people have an easier time learning languages than others, a large chunk of language acquisition comes down to practice. You’ve got to put in the hours, plain and simple. (Hint: sometimes that’s easier after a beer or two).
If you are too set on avoiding mistakes, whether it’s out of perfectionism or embarrassment, you’ll miss out on tons of great practice opportunities. No matter how good your Spanish may be as far as textbook exercises go, if you don’t practice speaking to people, it will be very, very limited as a communication tool.
By the way, I still make mistakes, although they’ve moved on from mixing up “cuchara” (spoon) and “cuchillo” (knife; the trick is that the “ll” in “cuchillo” looks like two little knives).
Now, my mistakes are more like thinking the new word I learned meant “blessed”, but it actually means “endowed”. I learned that when I used it in reference to a male friend. Yes, the connotations are the same as in English; yes, I made the mistake in the middle of a big group of people who thought it was hilarious.
(But I honestly was just talking about his nice hair!).
Stop speaking English.
The reason all those study abroad programs try to sell you a “language immersion” is because it really is the best way to learn a foreign language. Even now, my Spanish still suffers a bit after a few weeks away in California!
So how can you get a real language immersion experience?
Go somewhere they don’t speak English…
Be very, very demanding with yourself.
I got lucky in a sense; in Sevilla, barely anyone I met spoke English. Everything was all Spanish, all the time. That’s how I learned so much so quickly (it is absolutely no credit to an innate capacity for languages; I found the whole process frustrating and slow. I am not a language person). It was easy to have immersion experience in an environment that forces you to speak a foreign language, but sometimes you have to create your own immersion situation.
When I did a follow-up study abroad program in Barcelona, I spoke enough Spanish to be able to seek out opportunities where few people spoke English (I’m talking high intermediate level here). I used every chance I had to limit my English spoken and to force myself to speak Spanish.
Similarly, I met a Londoner at a party who moved to Barcelona to learn Spanish. She insisted on speaking Spanish to everyone there, even with me, though it would obviously be easier for us to communicate in English. Stuff like this does pay off!
Use the “circling in” method
Another girl I know who briefly lived in Barcelona got frustrated all the time because her vocabulary wasn’t large enough to say all the things she wanted to say.
Newsflash: that still happens to me quite regularly.
One skill that’s very helpful is figuring out multiple ways to explain the word you’re looking for until you circle in on what you want to say.
Let’s say you don’t know the word for “bookcase”. Well, how else can you describe it? Maybe “that brown thing in the corner with the shelves.” “The tall box for books.” “The place where you put books.” “The thing for books in your office.” Or even just “The thing for books.”
Unless you are going for a really abstract concept, there are usually a lot of easy ways to employ the vocabulary you do know to make people understand what you’re talking about.
This also helps you stay in a self-imposed language immersion situation. Don’t give up and use the English word; try your best to explain the target word in Spanish, no matter how limited your vocabulary.
Skip the unnecessary stuff at first.
If you’re hoping to say everything perfectly, this strategy feels uncomfortable. However, as there’s no avoiding making mistakes, get comfortable with feeling stupid for a while.
Again, this is a focus on communication over grammatical correctness. At some point, of course, you probably will want to correct your grammar, but I’ll talk about that in a later section.
When you’re starting out, the big thing is getting a grip on enough vocabulary and verb tenses to string together a sentence so someone can understand you. That’s it. Just think about what you need to get your basic point across.
In my case, I decided it was most useful to communicate whether I was talking about the past, present, or future.
Spanish has a whole lot of verb tenses to convey all that information, with tons of subtleties. But I wasn’t interested in subtleties; I was more concerned about discussing things I did over the weekend and making it clear I was talking about last weekend, not the coming one.
So I picked the present tense, one form of the past tense, and one form of the future tense to work on. Actually, one form of the future tense is not even a new verb – you just say “I am going to…” and it takes care of all your conjugation problems.
That left me with really only one new verb tense to worry about at first – the simple past (ex. I went to the supermarket).
Which was a big relief. You can’t do it all at once, so pick your battles. Once you’ve gotten OK at one (remember, you’ll never get it 100% perfect), move on to the next.
(Above: a visual representation of my battle with the subjunctive).
And on that note, I can’t possibly cover all of my mini tips for learning Spanish quickly in just one post. 🙂 I mean, I could, but it will be about 40,000 words long. So I’ll cut things off here for now, but I’ve got a series of specific tips for vocabulary, improving and correcting your Spanish, and making learning Spanish fun.
If you’ve ever learned a foreign language, what are your tips or advice for beginners?