When you try to learn Spanish for the first time, it seems impossible. There are a million verbs to learn with even more conjugations and irregulars. And certainly, there’s no secret way to learn to speak Spanish right away. Learning any language takes years, even decades, to do it right.
However, that’s not to say you should give up all hope of ever learning your second language. It doesn’t take that long to get a grip on the basics, especially with a couple of useful tips and tricks. Because the truth is, learning is a skill. You can waste a lot of time if you go about learning a language incorrectly. Overfilling your head with obscure verbs, learning useless vocab, and ignoring accent and dialect are all common ways to wind up with a poor understanding of the language.
Fortunately, there are a ton of useful tricks and effective ways to learn Spanish. Today we’re going to go through five of the best ways to learn Spanish. Whether you’re traveling and looking to brush up, or are at home and looking to improve your skills for future travel, you’re in the right place. These tricks work no matter where you are. Entonces, vamos!
Fluency is more important than vocabulary
One of the biggest mistakes that people make when they try to learn a language is they focus entirely on vocab. Certainly, when you are just getting started, you’re going to need to learn a few words. But that doesn’t mean that you should only study vocabulary until you know hundreds of words. That’s a big mistake.
If you fill your head with words but not the ways they’re used or how they relate to each other, not only will you miss a lot of nuance and meaning, but you will also have a harder time memorizing. That’s because context is everything when you learn a language.
Instead of memorizing lists of words and making stacks of flashcards, work on some full phrases. That way, you’ll also start to learn prepositions, articles, and all the little intricacies of actually speaking Spanish.
So choose forms of learning and practice that involve listening to native speakers. When you use your vocabulary, try to put it into sentences, even if they are simple. As your vocabulary grows, your sentences will too. It’s not so important that your grammar is perfect at first. It’s far more important that you start letting words flow from your mouth without having to think about every translation.
Eventually, you will even think in Spanish and never have to translate from English to Spanish in your head.
Learn Spanish with multiple senses to improve recall
When you’re learning anything, Spanish included, you should activate as many senses as possible in order to maximize your learning. So when you’re practicing or studying Spanish, speak out loud. It makes you use more neural pathways, thereby increasing learning. When you learn silently in your head, the process is entirely intellectual. However, when spoken aloud, you activate the parts of your brain involved in speaking, as well as listening.
That’s why back in kindergarten you sang songs and did dances and made art and used your body as well as your mind to learn. It’s well proven science that your brain can recall more easily if information is connected between different parts of the brain.
So when you use flashcards, speak out loud. When you read your lessons, speak out loud. Heck, even drawing cool pictures on your flashcards is a great way to improve recall. Trust me, you’ll never forget the verb ‘buscar’ if you draw a bus crashing into a car.
Learn Spanish faster by practicing every day
It’s no secret that learning a new language, or any skill for that matter, takes a lot of repetition. You could learn the whole language today and it would all be gone in a week if you never practice.
So make sure that you do a little bit every day.
That can happen in a lot of different ways. If you enjoy studying in a more classical sense, then maybe that just means you get your books out every night. For some though, it can be good to alternate between types of practice and learning.
Maybe you’d rather learn new material every three days and spend the other two days doing various types of practice and recall. Even if you have NO time at all, just run through your vocab list out loud while you drive. Or when you’re going to bed, try to make up ten sentences and say them out loud.
If your excuse for not practicing every day is that you don’t have enough time, I’ll tell you you’re lying. A lack of motivation maybe, but time, there’s always time. If you start thinking of creative ways to slip practice into your daily routines, you’d be surprised how much time you actually have.
Besides, there is plenty of compelling evidence suggesting that learning in several short bursts is more effective than learning in one long session. In my experience, the best way to learn Spanish is to study in thirty minute sessions and do three or four sessions on a big day. If I’m just trying to do a little bit, then two or three sessions of fifteen minutes a day work great.
Put yourself in situations where you have to speak Spanish
If you’re reading this from the road, in a Spanish speaking country, then no problem! You’re probably already in the thick of things every day. But even if you aren’t in a Spanish speaking country or are a part of a group or tour where it’s easy to get by with English, then you’re going to have to get a little more creative.
However, there are lots of ways to force yourself to practice Spanish in your daily life, no matter where you are. One of my favorite ways to practice is to switch my cell phone or other mobile devices to Spanish. That way you’ll have little bits of Spanish sprinkled into your mind throughout the day.
If you’re looking for a real challenge, switch your web browser on your computer to Spanish. That’s only for the more advanced among you though. The world wide web in Spanish is pretty damn hard to navigate.
Other good ways to get yourself speaking and listening to more Spanish is to switch to Spanish Netflix.
Yes, I know how much time you waste watching Netflix. Why not use all that time for learning?
Or you can read Spanish books, listen to Spanish podcasts, writing yourself important notes in Spanish, journaling in Spanish (great for advanced learners) or finding a conversation partner or language group.
However you do it, getting Spanish into your daily life is the best way to force faster learning.
How to speak Spanish more while traveling
If you’re traveling in a group of English speakers and are letting your guides or group leaders do all the talking for you, then it’s time to take the lead. Get yourself out there and speak to some locals. Shop owners make easy targets because they want to talk to you and sell you things. Don’t let them speak English though, otherwise you’re just wasting your time.
It can be pretty scary to get out there and start putting sentences together when in a strange country. If you’re having a hard time thinking of what to say, or how to approach someone, you’re not alone.
It’s important to realize though, that most people in Latin America are incredibly kind, and happy to talk. Especially people who are at work. If you approach a local who is standing around at work or tending to a stall, chances are they will happily answer your questions. So ask them anything. Ask them where they’re from, ask them if there’s a park nearby, ask them if you can take them on a date, ask them anything!
Once you get the first question out of the way, you’ll open the door to more natural and fluid conversation. Sure, you might feel pretty incompetent the first few times you freeze up, but don’t worry. With a little practice it will become normal to have simple conversations in Spanish.
If you’re really looking to become fluent, then go get a job or a volunteer position in a Spanish speaking country. Working at hostels, teaching kids (not teaching English), or doing home-stays are all sure ways to achieve fluency. You’d be surprised by how many businesses in Central America are run nearly entirely by traveling volunteers. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what I’m doing in Guatemala as I write this article.
Focus on your accent
One of the most overlooked parts of learning to speak Spanish is the accent. So many people spend all their time focusing on learning more, more, more, and they never stop to think about how they are speaking and learning. Because even if you have the biggest vocab on the block, you’ll still sound like a gringo if your accent sucks.
Furthermore, you don’t really need to know that much Spanish to sound fluent, if your accent is good. My accent got me by for years while I developed my vocabulary to match. I frequently had locals telling me that my Spanish was very good, even though it wasn’t. After all, when you speak, it’s all about how you sound.
This is another big reason why it’s so important to listen to Spanish and speak it, not just read. Make sure that when you listen to Spanish, you listen to native speakers too. Preferably, listen to someone who is native to the part of the world where you are likely to travel most. Spain has a very different Spanish than is spoken in the Americas, so make sure you learn the right one.
Honestly, correct pronunciation in Spanish is not very hard. The biggest thing that most English speakers mess up are the vowels. Most Americans pronounce their vowels like English and it makes them sound exactly as gringo as they are. In Spanish, with very few exceptions, the vowels always make the same sounds, especially E, A, I, and O, which are the most commonly misspoken.
Learning to pronounce your vowels correctly won’t take care of all pronunciation problems. However, it’ll take care of the vast majority of them. Don’t make the mistake of letting pronunciation and accent fall by the wayside. If you focus on sounding like a local from the time you start to learn Spanish, you’ll achieve fluency much, much faster.
Whatever you do, don’t quit. Remember that it can be difficult and time consuming to learn Spanish. Learning a language is not something that happens overnight. But if you use these tips to get the Spanish language into your daily life, learning Spanish really isn’t so bad. Feliz viaje a la fluidez!
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