Spanish is the most studied second language in the United States. Many Americans start learning it in middle school or high school, but most of us never reach a level where we can really communicate in Spanish. I studied Spanish for all four years of high school and have almost nothing to show for it besides, “Me llamo John-Erik. Yo nací en Los Angeles. Chicle en la basura, por favor.” As is painfully obvious from this thimbleful of Spanish I retained after high school, my relationship with the language never left the classroom and thus never really came to life. Where did I go wrong?
I needed expert advice so I consulted two guys with a lot to say about the Spanish language: Luca Lampariello, who hails from Italy and started teaching himself Spanish as a kid (he also speaks English, Russian, Mandarin, Japanese…), and Babbel’s polyglot-in-residence Matthew Youlden. Here are their tips for learning Spanish (or any language for that matter).
1. Connect it to your life
Don’t isolate your study of the language from the rest of your life. You’re not learning Spanish in order to talk about learning Spanish. This kind of recursive loop gets boring very quickly – and can be severely demotivating. Instead, think of Spanish as a new way to experience your everyday life: change the display language on your computer to Spanish; find Spanish-language movies and TV shows to watch (with Spanish subtitles); get your news or celebrity gossip fix from Spanish-language magazines, newspapers and websites; check out Spanish-language podcasts and youtube videos on topics that already interest you. If you use Spanish to do things that you’d be doing anyway, studying daily will become an automatic reflex instead of a dreaded chore. Just remember that languages are a means to an end, not goals in themselves.
2. Connect to native speakers
The best way to connect Spanish to your daily life is to spend time around native speakers. If any of your friends speak Spanish, convince them to speak it with you for at least half of each time you hang out together. If you eat at a Mexican restaurant, try to order in Spanish. If you travel to Latin America or Spain, don’t just fall back on “¿Habla inglés?” Any time an opportunity to speak Spanish presents itself GRAB IT! You need to practice what you learn and talking is always the best way to do that. Once you can hold a basic conversation, find a Spanish-speaking meetup group or club so that you can pursue one of your hobbies in Spanish. This could be anything from a dance class to a choir to an astronomy club.
This is also the secret to retaining what you have learned. As Luca puts it, “My parents had some good Spanish friends who came to eat at our place once a week, so I was able to practice with them. If you have the opportunity to speak many languages on a daily basis, then you won’t forget them.” This applies if you are juggling 10+ languages or if you are simply trying to keep a second language locked in your memory. The more you use it the less likely you are to forget it.
3. All roads lead to Rome
Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian can barely consider each other “foreign languages” since they all evolved from Latin. These “Romance” languages have such similar vocabulary, syntax and grammar that they are more like siblings. This overlap with his native Italian made it easy for Luca to start learning Spanish, but he still had to focus and make Spanish learning a daily practice.
By comparison, an English speaker appears to have a huge disadvantage when learning Spanish. After all, English evolved from Anglo-Saxon, a Germanic language. What could English and Spanish possibly have in common? Quite a lot, actually. English draws roughly half of its vocabulary from French and Latin, so although they may not be siblings English and Spanish are certainly cousins. Consider Matthew’s example, “la proclamación de la democracia”. That phrase barely needs to be translated into English! And as Luca elaborates, “democratisation, democratización, démocratisation, democratizzazione … you can learn four languages at the same time.”
4. The imitation game
An authentic accent: the final frontier. To master a Spanish accent you need to listen closely to native speakers and imitate what you hear. Think of yourself as a method actor: you aren’t just learning the lines, you are attempting to inhabit your character. However you expose yourself to Spanish (hanging out with Spanish-speaking friends, talking with tandem partners over Skype, watching Spanish-language movies and TV shows) imitate the voices you hear as accurately as you can. Over time this will familiarize you with sounds that you aren’t used to making. At first it may feel silly, like you are doing a bad impression, but once the correct pronunciation sinks in you will be “in character” when you speak Spanish.
Since Spanish has so many different regional accents, the people you choose to imitate can give your Spanish a particular regional flair. Because he studied in Barcelona, Matthew speaks Spanish like a barcelonés, while Luca developed his madrileño accent after dating a girl from Madrid. My Spanish might be light years behind theirs, but I’m trying to emulate my Mexican friends in hopes that, one day, I’ll be able to interject
wey into almost every sentence like one of the dudes.
5. Jump right in!
The tips above will only help if you simply start learning. No, not tomorrow—now. What are you waiting for? It’s OK, you can start small, like 10 minutes a day. Combine short sessions of daily study with the tips above, and you will hear yourself speaking real Spanish in no time!