Survival Spanish: Five quick tips for rapid language learning

Welcome back to the Survival Spanish series! Having recently passed the one year mark learning the Spanish language, I’m going to mix up the format a little and offer some practical advice for learning. These nuggets of advice apply to my own experience with Spanish, however I hope (and expect, to some extent) that they will help in any language-learning escapades.

I’m sure you saw this coming but there is no substitute for hard work. Language learning is difficult for the vast majority of people, even those multi-lingual geniuses us poor grunts all come across from time-to-time. Nevertheless, hopefully I can offer some insight into my own endeavour and (mainly) failures which have led me to start believing I can speak a foreign language.

1. Practice, listen, or study almost every day

This is typical advice dished out to language learners, but of course very difficult in practice with such full lives and tired minds. The important thing is to power through moments where you are lacking motivation or just don’t want to think about Spanish/your chosen language any more. Even if the interaction is passive, you will gain a lot over time through small increments. Even listening to a 10-minute podcast every day means more than an hour’s varied listening every week. Couple this with skimming the news for 5 minutes over your coffee at work and you are already well on your way.

2. Leave your pride at the door

This is absolutely crucial. Prepare to be humiliated time and again (at least in your own mind). If you can’t handle the embarrassment of getting things wrong, then perhaps language learning isn’t for you. Think about it for a moment: children learn languages easily, right? There are a lot of reasons for this, but think about how they always make “silly” mistakes (e.g. in English: “I goed to the shops”, “I done it”, mixing up “f” and “th”, etc). But it doesn’t matter. They don’t care, and adults find it cute and might correct them or just let it slide. Children absorb a lot, but they experiment with the language, try new words and phrases out to see if they work. There’s no reason it should be any different as an adult.

3. Keep a diary

Related to my first point, a diary can really bring on your writing skills and help get you into that “little bit every day” habit. Even if it’s just a few lines every night, it will also help you internalise common phrases very quickly and use a mixture of tenses, which can be invaluable in real conversations (Hoy, fui a…/”Today, I went to…”, Cuando llegué…/”When I arrived…”, Estaba lloviendo y…/”It was raining and…”). Yes, I do lead that thrilling a life. A diary also allows you to benchmark your progress and look back on your achievements in those moments of frustration.

4. Learn what works for you

I cannot emphasise this enough. People learn in different ways, people speak in different ways, people have different personalities. Use the accepted wisdom as a guideline, but you need to find what works best for you. If you like to visualise words or spelling in your head, scribble notes furiously in class or online. If you are outgoing and chatty, use that to nail your conversation skills. Of course, you need to work on reading, writing, speaking and listening (crikey!) but find the mix you are comfortable with, as I have found that each area can feed off the others. For example, if I write a lot for an assignment or – ahem – catch up on a few days of my diary, I suddenly find that my spoken Spanish becomes a bit more fluid.

I also liked to use classes almost as milestones or platforms rather than driving the learning process. You can learn some basic words and phrases but won’t get far without some grammar and, perhaps, the structured guidance of a class. However, I felt that this quickly started to hold me back, so I gave it more time before moving to more advanced classes. I essentially skipped the beginner classes and went straight to elementary, then took some time to improve outside of the classroom before I felt I needed more structure and was able to join an advanced level class while travelling. That’s not to say you won’t find the progression through each and every class level essential or motivating.

5. Communication is key

This bears some relation to the previous point, but deserves special mention. The overwhelming opinion in language learning is that total immersion is the most effective, quickest way to learn a new language. I disagree that this is best for everybody. Of course it has huge benefits, but it is easy to feel lonely, isolated, or just lazy.

As a relatively new learner in particular, I believe that even if you are following the immersion route – for example by travelling, or even within classes – try to take some breaks. Speak to people in your own language occasionally if you can. Take the opportunity to have more advanced (or more low-brow!) conversations than you are having in the language you are learning. Use it to build confidence again. Some of my greatest leaps with Spanish came alongside periods of socialising with English speakers. Another aspect for competitive people like me is that if you are with other non-native speakers this can make you really push yourself in the language you are all learning.

Particularly vivid for me is a week spent in a hostel in Bilbao, where I was constantly switching between English and Spanish as we had a nice balance of around 50-50 in Spanish and international travellers. Having a good time and relaxing in my own language left me fresher to speak Spanish, more confident in general, and led to probably my best Spanish performance to date in the wee small hours in a bar in the old town!

I believe there is a fifth skill we can add to reading, writing, speaking, and listening: that is communication, and you can work on this through any medium you like.

Agree or disagree with any of this? Your comments are very welcome!

Bonus: recommended podcasts

La Casa Rojas (Luis Rojas talks about anything and everything in this long-running podcast. From sport to politics, family to philosophy, everything is covered in this great series. As this is all in Spanish, good for intermediate-advanced learners but I’d recommend listening in at any level.)
Showtime Spanish (A very clear and actually enjoyable walkthrough of a range of Spanish grammar. Great for post-beginner through to intermediate learners.)
Notes in Spanish (Short conversational pieces which are great for beginners to intermediates.)