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8 Essential Tips for Learning Spanish

by Lukas Gohl Aug 4, 2011
Finding (mostly) free resources, setting your iPhone settings to español and hooking up with native Spanish-speakers are just a few of Lukas Gohl’s recommendations for Spanish students.

IT KILLS ME me when I meet other gringos here in Chile who have their Bachelor’s degrees in Spanish, but still struggle with conversation.

Spanish is one of the fastest-spreading languages in the world and is often listed as among the easiest for English speakers to learn. With this in mind, why aren’t there more people fluent in Spanish?

Like all failed New Year’s resolutions, there’s saying and then there’s doing. The key is to have the right tools and mindset to help you stay focused and have fun learning. Here are some tips to get you started:

1. Practice with a native.

There’s no getting around it: practice. Luckily for you, opportunities abound, as many Spanish speakers are equally eager to learn English.

  • If you live in the US, take advantage of its strong Spanish-speaking population. Sites like Meetup always have a Spanish group in any sizable city.
  • If you live somewhere with few hispanophones, use Skype for language exchanges with natives in other countries. I’ve found The Mixxer to be a good site to meet conversation partners.
  • If you’re currently studying in a Spanish-speaking country, DON’T spend all of your time with gringos. You could do this back home. Make the most of your time abroad.

A note on exchange partners: though you may desire to have a partner who speaks great English, someone who is struggling similarly in your native tongue will help you feel more comfortable making mistakes in Spanish. Moreover, you’ll be forced to think more to communicate.

2. Make learning Spanish a part of your life.

Take every opportunity to practice. Switch your computer, cell phone and other electronics into Spanish. Certain tasks will be more difficult at first, but you’ll maximize your time learning new words and phrases.

I’ve found pairing Spanish with another interest not only enhances my enjoyment of both activities, but also allows me to do them simultaneously. For most people, simply “studying Spanish” sounds boring.

Are you a writer? Create a short story or personal journal. Lang-8 is a website where you can submit your written work and get corrections and feedback from natives.

Do you play an instrument? Learn a song in Spanish to practice pronunciation and translate the meaning of the lyrics. A tip for the gents: ladies love being serenaded in a foreign tongue, but if you’re planning on singing them a Klingon ritual mating song you might want to keep it to yourself.

Remember: the possibilities are limited only by your imagination. You could have the best teacher in the world, but practice is the key to success.

3. Take advantage of the commonalities between English and Spanish.

Don’t know a word in Spanish and can’t look it up? Guess! You might be surprised how often you’re correct, since roughly 60% of English words come from Latin. Of course you’ll often be wrong, but worst-case scenario you’ll be corrected and learn the right word for next time.

Be warned, there are false friends to consider. I once said to an older woman “permitame (allow me) introducirme,” thinking of the English verb introduce. In Spanish, introducirme literally means “to insert myself.” You can imagine her shocked expression.

Despite this, I think the learning opportunity is worth risking a beat-down from a pack of cholos or an occasional night in jail.

4. Don’t just watch and listen – ENGAGE.

Many language articles give vague suggestions such as “enjoy X thing in Spanish.” While these activities are nice, they need to be done with active engagement to be effective.

Movies/Television: Watch movies in Spanish (preferably Spanish or Latin American films – get some culture!) with Spanish subtitles. Take note of new words or phrases and look them up during or after. Cuevana is a good place to stream movies and shows– just search by language and look for Spanish.

Recommendations (Movies): “Y Tú Mamá También,” “Amores Perros,” “El Laberinto del Fauno” and “El Orfanato.” 

Recommendations (TV): I primarily watch news and sports. Many people enjoy telenovelas (soap operas), but I’m not a masochist.

Music: Listen to music in Spanish and search for the lyrics. Follow along with the words and look up any you don’t understand. Then attempt to translate the lyrics into English and post your work on Lang-8 for correction.

Recommendations: Camila Moreno, Victor Jara, Giulia y Los Tellarini, Orishas, and Ibrahim Ferrer. You should also check out 7 Bands and Artists To Help You Learn Spanish Through Music.

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