My first few weeks into learning Spanish, I was convinced I was never, ever going to be able to speak the language. Everything was so impossibly hard, and I didn’t understand a single thing.
But suddenly, a few months later, things turned around. It seemed like the change was overnight. I went from being overwhelmed to being able to understand spoken Spanish. Even better, people understood me when I spoke to them.
OK, so I wasn’t going to be having any conversations about the fine points of ancient Greek philosophy. But most of the time, I could express reasonably well what I thought, felt, and wanted.
This was a huge relief. It was also a big turning point. Before, the Spanish language had been an uphill battle. Now, it was still challenging, but it wasn’t impossible anymore. It started to become almost…fun.
Almost every language learner I’ve talked about this with has experienced something similar. The first stage sucks, and then suddenly things get way better. You don’t speak fluently yet, but you’re not taking five minutes to stammer out a sentence anymore either.
You’ve probably hit the intermediate stage.
While the beginner stage is all about attitude, this is where you’ll probably want to start speaking correctly and about a wider range of topics. There are two main things you can improve here – vocabulary and grammar points. I’ve broken down my tips into sections based on those. And of course, these are only tips from my personal experience learning Spanish. I’m sure there are lots more great tips out there!
(P.S. If you haven’t read the first part of these tips for beginners, you can check them out HERE).
Once you’ve mastered the basic words for essential conversations, you’re going to want to keep adding to your vocabulary. You can pretty much always learn new words, even in your native language, so while these skills are helpful to pick up at the intermediate stage, you can really use them at any point in your language learning journey.
Carry a small notebook with you to write down new words
I always have a little notebook with me anyway (otherwise I forget everything!). It comes in extra handy in Spain for writing down vocabulary that I want to remember. Some of it is handy vocabulary or things that I can see myself using again. A lot of it is just things I find either very charming or utterly ridiculous.
At first, I stuck to words that were much more basic and useful, but as I’ve progressed it’s become a lot more fun. This is a nice trick because it’s useful no matter what level you’re at.
Depending on your level, your list might be basic terms, or maybe it’s just words you don’t use that often but want to remember. I find lists especially helpful when I’m going shopping and I want to buy something unusual or specific.
I’ll sometimes group my vocabulary by themes, like stuff that’s the same in Spanish and English, funny expressions, very useful words, and words that Spanish has borrowed from English.
Here are some things I’ve picked up lately:
‘Chirria‘ – to annoy or bother (I love how this one sounds!)
‘Lema‘ – catchphrase
‘Amañar‘ – to fix or rig
‘Hacer piña” – literally “to do pineapple”, it really means “to stick together”
However you do it, writing things down is scientifically proven to help you remember better them later. Plus, then you can create your own vocab lists from stuff you hear in everyday conversations – they’re where you can pick up a lot of handy words and phrases you may not come across in your textbook.
But don’t write down every little thing, especially if you’re just starting out. Limit your lists to words that you actually want to use. Often times, I’ll come across a new word and find out what it means, but if it’s too obscure or just too formal, I don’t bother writing it down. Most of us language learners probably aren’t attempting to be award-winning poets in a foreign language anyway!
Make yourself generate the vocabulary you’re studying
Flashcards are overrated. When you know you have the information right there, it’s so tempting just to flip the card over when you get frustrated. So I have a different method.
Instead, I like to write down 10 words and review them. Then, when I think I’ve got the words down, I go do something that means I don’t have access to the list (go for a walk, take a shower, etc.).
Next step? I try to generate the vocabulary from memory.
The key thing here is knowing I have exactly 10 words to remember. A lot of the time, I find that I actually know about 8, with two that just don’t quite stick. I star those and come back to them later.
Not being able to turn to the answer instantly (like you would with a flashcard) makes you realize if you can truly come up with the target word. You might just recognize a certain word when you see it – which is different. Even though you can understand words you recognize, you won’t be able to use them in conversation. That’s actually just fine.
Depending on what you’re studying for, simply recognizing new vocabulary may be enough. Make this work with your own language goals – just like those lists above too!
Get other people to help you learn without them realizing it
OK, so you’ve done the “circling in” trick to explain the word you want from the beginner tips I wrote a while ago. Now’s the time to get other people to help you out too. This is definitely easier to do with friends, but you can pull it off with strangers as well.
It’s simple – if you’ve clearly said the wrong thing or are not sure what the word is, quickly explain what it is, or even point to it. Then, ask the person you’re talking to what the target word is (assuming they seem friendly and aren’t super busy).
One time I was in the newsagents’ and wanted to buy tape. But I used the formal word for it, not the regular word. They didn’t understand what I wanted at first. This is what our conversation was like:
“Can I have some adhesive tape?”
“That thing on the roll, right there.”
“Ooh! OK, you want sellotape, got it.”
“Yes, thanks! What’s that word again?’
“Sellotape, that’s what we usually call it.”
Most people are pretty happy to provide you with a single word or phrase, as long as it’s easy to understand what you’re talking about. So just ask if you could use some quick clarification (emphasis on quick!).
With your friends, this is even easier. I’ve trained some of my friends to explain words to me or correct me occasionally – and it really does help. Sometimes they also let me know by laughing when I make a silly mistake, and that’s fine too! I try my hardest not to get embarrassed and then just ask -“Er, so what was it that I said wrong?”
IMPROVING AND CORRECTING YOUR SPANISH
These tips are all about correcting your Spanish. Of course, this is where a textbook will probably come in handy at some point. But there are a lot of tricks you can use in everyday conversation that will help you self-correct. Using everyday tricks like these ones are much more helpful for me, because I often have a hard time translating textbook-speak into real life examples. Here are three things I do that help me improve my Spanish – I still regularly use all of them.
Listen for a specific language point during a conversation
OK, so now that you’ve got a basic grasp of Spanish, how do you improve your grammar without a textbook? My suggestion is to focus on a single language point, and actively listen for that point when you’re having conversations with people.
Say we’re still working on that past tense from the beginner tips. You’ve got the simple past tense mostly down now, but you’re not really sure when you should say “estaba” versus “estuve”. The explanations in your grammar book probably aren’t especially helpful or straightforward.
So start really listening when people have conversations, and focus on examples of when they choose “estaba”, and when they choose “estuve”. Soon, things might start to “sound better” to you in one form for no real reason…except that you’ve been soaking in lots of examples from real conversations.
I’ve used this technique a lot in my never-ending battle with the subjunctive tense. Sometimes I just keep an ear out for when people use it. It really has helped me to get used to the dreaded tense. I still make mistakes at least occasionally, and I certainly can’t explain all the rules for using it. But because I’ve picked up little mental notes on it for months on end, it does start to “sound right” at some point.
By the way, I hate when people say that something is correct because it “sounds right,” so I apologize for using that frustrating explanation! But honestly – just start focused listening, and you’ll learn lots.
Find a friend who will correct you
Yup, this one is pretty self-explanatory. It really helps to have a friend who will correct you, even if it’s just from time to time. This is partly why people say to get a Spanish-speaking boyfriend to learn the language. Boyfriends or girlfriends generally have a little more patience for helping you through a tricky grammar patch than a friend would.
Still I promise, as a fluent Spanish speaker with no Spanish boyfriend in sight, your friends can help you too! (And you can have more than one of those without anybody’s feelings getting hurt). So ask your friends to help you out.
I’m only comfortable asking my close friends, and I really don’t want somebody correcting me all the time.
But I do want corrections sometimes. Here’s the thing. If I never get corrected (and why would I? I don’t go to a language class), then I will keep on making the same mistakes over and over again. Then, I sound stupid for even longer. This explanation helps people see things from a learner’s perspective.
It’s extra-helpful to have somebody who has learned another language so they know what it’s like. Two of my favorite Spanish friends to ask for tips are qualified to be language teachers.
The ones I find less useful? People who are just naturally incredible at learning languages. They generally either don’t want to practice the foreign language with you (why would they? They speak perfect English..and Russian..and Arabic…and French), or they just don’t get what it’s like to struggle with a grammar point. This isn’t to say that they won’t correct you or be helpful, it’s just that I found it more difficult with somebody who’s naturally gifted at something that I find hard.
If you really can’t find a friend willing to correct you, try a language exchange! I honestly met some of my best friends in Barcelona at a language exchange. Yup, it can happen!
Imitate the accent as best you can
Another self-explanatory point, though this isn’t really a grammar thing. It does help correct your speaking though, and that is very useful. You don’t have to get this one totally perfect for it to be helpful. Even though nobody will mistake my accent for a Spanish person’s even after 3 years here, it’s clear enough that people understand me.
For a while, I felt really dumb and pretentious copying people’s accents. But…it can actually go a long, long way as far as communicating effectively. I studied abroad with a girl who spoke wayyy better Spanish than me, but because her accent was so atrocious, native speakers took a long time realize she spoke such fluent Spanish. It sounded like she’d just picked up a guidebook and learned a handful of phrases. That meant I could trick people into thinking I spoke better – for a while.
I’ve had the same experience teaching people English – the ones who have better accents are consistently easier to understand, even if their grammar isn’t quite as good.
Plus, as one of my Mexican-American friends back home explained to me, everyone likes hearing their name pronounced how their mom says it!
Right, so that about does it for my intermediate level tips. Do you have any tips for improving your foreign language? What strategy works best for you?