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.
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!
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.)