Living in Spain

Tips #2: Learning Spanish

Wow, I only started this ‘Tips’ series yesterday and already I have another, inspired by a blog I discovered about a Londoner’s Spanish learning journey. So, here are some of the most important lessons I learned after I turned up in Spain 7 years ago without a word of Spanish. I’m sure I’ll keep adding to this, and please do contribute your ideas in the comments below.

One: Motivation. To learn any language efficiently, quickly, and well, you need to be very motivated to do so, otherwise it takes forever. And I mean very motivated. If you only have the ‘I might try and learn a bit of Spanish’ kind of motivation, then give up and do something else. You need to be desperately keen to learn Spanish, longing to get out there and speak it fluently. Motivation ‘targets’, or reasons, include: ‘I want to move to Spain a.s.a.p.’, ‘I want to be able to talk to those beautiful Spanish girls/men,’ ‘I’m obsessed with Spain and I want to go as deep into the culture as I can…’ N.B. You don’t have to be fluent in Spanish to move to Spain. In 6 months you can go from zero to conversational, and to fluent in 9, if you move here and surround yourself with it.

Two: Hard work and hunger. Once the motivation is in place you’ll need to really throw yourself into it, working on the language constantly and consistently, devouring as much Spanish as you can get your hands on at every possible opportunity, which leads me to the next point…

Three: Total Immersion. Surround yourself with Spanish, bath yourself in Spanish! Watch Spanish films, read Spanish magazines and newspapers, get a decent text book from the local bookshop, buy a decent dictionary (and a pocket one). Get hold of novels or ‘readers’ that match your abilities. A reader is a reduced, graded book with a range of vocab that matches your level. Estimate your level by picking up a reader in the bookshop and reading a page. If you have trouble with around 6 words then this is your level. More than 6 and it is too high, less and it is too low.

Four: Prioritise. Think, ‘do I need to know such a complicated word yet? Have I learned enough useful stuff already?’ For example, if you come across the word for ‘railing’ before you have learned basic shopping vocab, then you may want to let it slip out of your memory for now, concentrating on the basics for the time being. I hope that makes sense, it really worked for me!

Five: Join a class. Learning with a group isn’t just a social thing, it’s really motivating to be in the same boat as others, and a bit of inter-group competitiveness never does any harm. Plus, teachers structure language learning nicely and pull you up on those recurring mistakes. The bi-weekly classes I took in my first year in Spain made a huge difference.

Six: Enter yourself into an official exam. Honestly, it isn’t that terrifying and it really gives your motivation a kick. The Instituto Cervantes offers official diplomas (the ‘DELE’) and has centres all over the world. I did the Intermediate level exam years ago and later the ‘Superior’, the latter really honing those damn subjunctives.

Seven: The Intercambio. You meet with a Spanish speaking person once a week, in a bar, cafe, wherever, and speak for an hour or more in Spanish, then the same in English. That way both parties benefit. Look or advertise on language school or college (especially Erasmus/ foreign students) noticeboards, and in the ex-pat press in Spain. This is invaluable for practicing your speaking, and really is my top tip, the single best thing you can do to improve your Spanish. Be warned (or not): many a lasting relationship, marriages included, have begun with an intercambio – here is one who speaks from experience!

Eight: Some random techniques. Some people use white stickers to label every object at home in Spanish – worked for my sister. I used to carry a sheet of paper around with all the basic tenses and verb types on, testing myself on the metro… Old fashioned vocab sheets work a treat – English words on one side of the page, Spanish on the other – you cover one side and try to remember the words’ translations. Self-testing whilst walking around -‘Do I know the word for that?’ (whilst looking at a lamp post, letter box etc). Carrying the pocket dictionary everywhere is great for that.

Nine: Think in Spanish. Another old language learning trick, but it works. If you can’t regularly talk to others in Spanish then you can always practice by holding an internal dialogue with yourself!

Ten: Learn on the go. An obvious one. This really applies when you are actually in Spain (or South America etc). Need to open a bank account? Learn the relevant vocab before you go into the bank. Same goes for shopping at the market, buying bread, getting a haircut, chatting up the ladies/men on a night out, buying a train ticket etc etc….

Eleven: ENJOY IT! Use the techniques that work for you and aren’t too tiresome. If it’s boring or no fun you’ll soon give up. This is where things like classes and intercambios really help, especially when the latter has an element of the blind date thrown in for good measure (podcast no. 18 goes into this!)

Any thoughts, additions, suggestions? Please comment below! Hope this helps…