How to Improve Your (Already Pretty Good) Spanish

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When I first went to Spain in the spring of 2008, my Spanish wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good either. I got there and realized all the Spanish I knew wasn’t useful when trying to explain to the school why I needed to change rooms and how the shower head wouldn’t emit a normal stream of water. I struggled to understand the cashiers at the local grocery store when they told me how much the total was: “Cinco con dos.” Wait, what? Five with two? Does that mean seven?

I came back having improved, but not that much. I was determined to return and, while there, get better. I did so, thanks to a number of things that I would like to share with you all.

I used to think pisar meant “to piss.” Point taken.

But first, let me explain. This list is for people whose Spanish is already past the AP test and who don’t need me to explain how to conjugate the past subjunctive. If you do need that, I suggest other methods. However, undertaking mine won’t hurt you!

Even Barbie listens to me!

Practice, practice, practice. I make this mistake with Mario a lot – I revert back to English whenever there’s something I don’t know how to say (i.e., I’m too lazy to get my butt to WordReference and look it up). In college, one of my professors espoused the idea of circumlocution. If you don’t know how to say, for example, door knob, say something like “the thing that you use to open the door” or “the round thing you use to turn.” And so on. But suck it up and forget about if you’re going to make a mistake asking the lady on the street corner how to get to the train station. She’s probably heard much worse.

This is your brain on Spanish. 

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Read. I enjoy reading the Spanish newspaper, especially certain sections like the editorials where the language tends to be a bit richer. Just yesterday I read part of an editorial that used three words/phrases I didn’t understand in one sentence (ouch!): desmemoriado, irse de rositas, estropicio. Luckily, I complained to Mario and he told me all the meanings. Great for me, right? I know, it’s annoying that I can just be lazy and ask him, but I also spend a lot of time on WordReference. The forums are a godsend!

Write. I’ve just noticed this in the past few weeks. As a part of my job, I translate a newsletter for one of the teachers. Then I ask my handy dandy personal assistant to edit it for me, just to make sure my errors aren’t too egregious. When I first received them, the red marks (thanks Microsoft Word!) were a lot more frequent. Now there aren’t so many of them. As I drove home yesterday, I began to realize just what great practice this is, translating a similarly formatted document with different wording again and again. I recommend it, even if you don’t have a Mario. There are websites out there where you can write and have native speakers correct you (LiveMocha, for one).

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Listen. If you’re a newbie, try the TV, where you’ll be able to see the people’s lips move (unless it’s dubbed, not an uncommon practice in Spain). Try the 3 o’clock news if you’re actually in Spain, too. If that’s way too easy (who are you and how can I hit you in the face?) try the radio. If you’re like, “Psh, girl,” then try a soccer game. If you can understand a soccer game, you have arrived. I congratulate and perhaps even bow at your feet. I hope they do not smell.

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 Notice errors. Spanish people do this thing called leísmo, meaning they use the “le” pronoun instead of “lo” in certain circumstances. For instance, they might say “Le veo,” when it should be “Lo veo.” Another common error is when they use hubiera twice instead of habría + hubiera. For example, “Hubiera ido si me hubieras dicho.” Wrong. It should be “Habría ido si me hubieras dicho.” It’s an error that sounds okay to Spanish ears (kind of like mixing up lay/lie/laid), but I pick up on it, and ask Mario if they’re wrong. I like understanding errors and how to avoid them. Mario, like any good Spaniard, does employ leísmo from time to time, and I’ll admit, it’s rubbed off on me somewhat. Having spent so much time in Castilla León, it just rounds right to me.

So does this. Right on!

Eat at restaurants. If you want a challenge, try to learn the names of all the meats, cuts, fishes, cooking methods, and so on. I assure you, learning what morro is may ensure that you will never, ever eat it. I haven’t—and I promise you I don’t regret it.

Pick up a book. I read the Millennium series in Spanish. It felt like the best of both worlds. I was constantly immersed in dialogue in Spanish and I learned how to say things like, “La cocina daba al comedor,” that I probably wouldn’t have known otherwise. Also, I don’t think the Millennium series was especially rich in English and in Spanish it was much the same. However, I didn’t notice it in a foreign language.

Get mad. Try using a foreign language if you’re angry. I assure you, it will be difficult to continue speaking the language of Cervantes when there’s steam pouring out of your ears. Nonetheless, you will definitely learn something. You may want to pick up a few swear words here and there. Cat recently wrote a post that I found particularly amusing. I endorse it fully. A few of Mario’s friends seem to have lots of experience in swearing. Thus, their lexicon is quite impressive. (Note: Mario is far from this.)

After all, swearing mitigates pain. What more do you need?

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15 comments

  1. You’re amazing chica! Lots of great ideas here. One thing I like to do is keep wordreference and google translate handy on my iPhone as apps so I can just whip them out as need be.

    1. Good idea! In Spain I unfortunately had just a regular old phone :( Now with my HTC Inspire, I have lots of resources at my fingertips.

  2. Reading was definitely helpful for me in Madrid – it helped me pick up words that I wouldn’t otherwise hear but are super relevant in the context of the book. Example: the word for “straw” is everywhere in The Wizard of Oz (one of the books I read) but not really an everyday word.

    Also, I’d personally recommend watching Jersey Shore dubbed in Spanish. Funniest way, ever, to learn some funny vocabulary words. Not that I know from experience though or anything…

    1. Riiiiight. You know, I never had MTV when I was in Spain (except if I visited Mario’s parents and then, um, I wasn’t going to put on MTV), so I don’t know!

    2. or get the authentic cani spanish and watch gandia shore! (if you can aguantarlo!)

      i love these tips – and i’m a big fan of the no pisar sign in salamanca! i have a picture of myself there making the same joke. i love cheesy spanglish humor.

  3. I wasn’t expecting to read “get mad” on the list, but you bring up a goo point!

    I feel like I fall too far into one category (picking up a book) and don’t get the well-rounded experience of doing all of these things in conjunction.

    Another tip if you are in a Spanish-speaking area? Eavesdrop! This seems so obvious, but it’s all too easy to plug in the ‘ole earphones and suddenly you’re missing the animated conversation next to you on the metro.

  4. Ah Kaley, I love your posts! These are great methods and definitely ones I use. The “no pisar” cracked me up. I used to always say “Comemos los sobres?” instead of “las sobras” and people would always make fun of me for wanting to eat envelopes instead of leftovers. Anyway, other things I do that probably have helped me improve are: seeing a movie I’ve already seen in English dubbed in Spanish, and, (a little time consuming) but sometimes when I read in Spanish I save all the words I don’t know in a word doc. (even though I understand what I’m reading through context) and later I look them up with word reference. Usually I look at the list a few months later and find I know almost all of the words.

    Btw, what are you doing for work right now? Are you planning to come back to Spain soon?

    1. Right now I’m working teaching ESL at a local school in my hometown. We’re seeing how the job hunt goes for Mario. Then we’ll decide. Thanks for asking!

  5. Haha yes, love the list! Getting mad is such a good one… that I use frequently with Paco :p If you can say what you really want to say while you’re angry, you’re pretty much good to go in any situation. I loved the no pisar thing too hahaha. I read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas my first year here and learned so much from it! But it was accessible enough that I didn’t need to read with a dictionary by my side.

    I didn’t realize that you were back in the States, awesome!! Good luck to you guys over there!

  6. “to espouse” comes from the french “espouser” and means “to marry”
    I believe you meant to say “to expose” that comes from “exposen” and means “to present to view”.
    “espoused the idea of circumlocution.”
    Just a random ghost trying to help you.

      1. Still, it makes more sense to say that the teacher “exposed an idea” than “espoused an idea” when she was in college. Maybe she wanted to use “espoused” but I sincerely doubt it.

        1. “Espouse” as a word for marrying is archaic. (Perhaps you use it that way because you are a ghost?) It is now used to mean “to support, adopt or embrace an idea or cause.” Her usage was perfectly standard and I think “exposed” would be the wrong word.

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