Improving your Spanish

As a Spanish Language Specialist, I can say that there are many ways to learn the language, and some are easier and more effective than others. Everyone knows that taking intensive classes and going abroad can be very helpful, but what are some small steps you could take in order to improve your skills? Steps that you could apply today? Here is a list of 10 things you could do right now.

1. Get an app

It doesn’t get any simpler than this: get an app on your phone to enhance your language learning. They are basic, easy to use, and a big help. If you are a beginner, an app that covers vocab and grammar will be a good choice. These will teach you and reinforce basic vocabulary, syntax and grammar. Apps are especially great to use when you are riding the bus or subway, or just trying to kill time while waiting in line at the store or supermarket.

2. Ditch the bulky dictionary

Japanese people always say “Simple is best.” It was one of the main lessons I learned from Japanese culture, and I apply this to many parts of my life. As a teacher, I always encourage my students to keep things simple. So I continue to be amazed at how many of my students come to class with huge dictionaries. I need not state how obviously heavy, cumbersome, and obsolete these dictionaries have become, but the reason why I am not partial to them is because they waste your time. If I mention a verb and my student does not know it, by the time they find it in the dictionary I have moved on to the next topic. An online app should be able to take care of this for you as well. Look for one that includes online verb conjugations.

3. Listen to podcasts and videos

The most difficult aspect of language learning is listening comprehension, which is why podcasts and videos are so important. I love videos because the interaction between actors will give you a good sense of the context. I highly recommend that you watch the video 3-4 times. The technique I use through the Diáfano Method is as follows: 1) Watch the video 1-2 times without any subtitles, depending on your level of comprehension; 2) If you have the transcription of the video, read it out loud, and look up any words you do not understand. If you do not have the transcription, put the subtitles on in the target language, and read the subtitles out loud while the video plays on mute; 3) Watch the video with the subtitles on for the target language; 4) Watch it a final time with the subtitles in English, if necessary. It is a good idea to occasionally stop the video and practice pronouncing words and repeating them as the native speaker in the video. The lack of images and context is the reason why I love podcasts: without any clues, it forces you to focus on listening. Again, you must listen to the podcasts 3-4 times. The technique I use through the Diáfano Method is very similar to the videos: 1) Listen to podcasts 1-2 times, depending on your level of comprehension; 2)  Read the transcription out loud; 3) Listen to podcasts with the transcription in front of you. Podcasts with various speed levels are a dream come true for language learners. Like with videos, make sure to occasionally stop the podcast and imitate the native speaker.

4. Listen to music

If you listen to a song in Spanish you probably will not understand anything, hence the importance to listen to songs that are specific to what you are learning. For example, I would never have my students listen to a song that uses the simple past (I went; you studied; she ran) until we have actually covered the simple past. However, once we learn the simple past, that song is very àpropos. Reach out to your Spanish teacher for level-appropriate songs. Read the lyrics out loud and get a grasp of the new vocab before listening to the song. For advanced speakers, you can first listen to the song before going over the lyrics. 

5. Watch a film or TV show (or soap!)

For high elementary to intermediate students, it is a good idea to watch films with English subtitles on them. For high intermediate to advanced students the subtitles should be in the target language. I am extremely pleased by how many of my students are proactive and find ways to improve. Caution: these shows are highly addictive!

6. Find a good book

A good book for language learning means the material is presented in a practical and logical manner. The grammar and vocab are clearly labeled and set up in a way that is easily accessed, without the need of you having to look through pages upon pages. Ideally you want one book for your classes and a grammar book that includes exercises. Make sure all solutions to the exercises are included. This will save you a lot of time and will help you evaluate your progress.

7. Read out loud!

My #1 rule for reading: all reading must be done out loud no matter what. Find a short novel appropriate for your level. If you need help finding one, ask your teacher for recommendations. If the novel includes comprehension questions, make sure you answer them as you read along. I’d also suggest you follow through with a short writing exercise on what you read (in Spanish!). For complete beginners, or for language learners with children, I highly recommend you buy children’s books in Spanish and read them out loud.

8. Go abroad without leaving town 

The beauty of cities like New York is having access to so many languages and cultures. Are there Hispanic neighborhoods in your city? Maybe it’s time you go explore them. I have encountered many students whose motivation to learn Spanish is because they wish to communicate with the many Hispanics in their neighborhoods. Perhaps on Sunday you could go to the other side of town and do the groceries en español?

9. Meet up with that old friend 

Everyone has a Latino friend who speaks Spanish. Why not meet to chat? That person would be happy to help you with your Spanish. I suggest you don’t approach the person to request “help,” but casually start speaking to them in Spanish. Start with increments of 10-15 minutes.

10. Open your mouth

Literally. Opening your mouth means speaking up. You are aware of your surroundings and ready to speak Spanish when the opportunity arises. But it also means you will enunciate words a lot more. You will speak with clarity and precision. That is the way Spanish must be spoke. This recommendation is applicable to language learners of all levels.

11. Find a Latino boyfriend or girlfriend

In the Dominican Republic, there is something called “la ñapa.” La ñapa is the extra bit. I promised you 10 recommendations, but I will give you 11. So as a final piece of advice for the single-and-looking language learners, I recommend you find a Latino boyfriend or girlfriend. I do find that people’s motivation is usually much higher when there is a Spanish-speaking significant other in the picture. Optional, of course, but could be a lot of fun ;).

Irma Cedeno

Irma is an educator, linguist, creativity expert, cultural competence strategist, and the founder of Diáfano, a company responsible for designing and implementing Spanish classes and programs at corporations. From universities and top US institutes to Fortune 500 companies, Irma has been an integral part of language learning and cultural competence training. After travelling to 40+ countries (and counting!) and over 10 years of working in education, she developed and honed her methodology in 2013. The Diáfano Method is student-centered methodology that breaks down language learning into clear and simple steps.
Irma grew up bilingual and is a proud learner of French, Italian, Portuguese, and Japanese. Check her out at www.diafanomethod.com.

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