A friend told me that her one regret about her education is never learning Spanish.
It’s what happens when we want to learn a language but have no plan, strategy or time.
I’ve felt this regret, and I bet you have, too.
We want to learn the language so badly! We really do!
But so many other things take priority, and pretty soon the only space left for that language software is a shoebox in the garage.
So how do you keep this from happening? Without quitting your job, alienating your loved ones and moving to Mexico, that is?
Tuning In to Spanish in the World Around You
The greatest thing you can do as a language learner is to pay attention. You are, after all, by your very nature as a human, wired to learn language. Don’t get so caught up in the system and the tools that you miss the opportunities around you.
These opportunities are bound to crop up even if you don’t live in a Spanish-speaking country. Even if they don’t crop up by themselves, you can make them.
Learn new words and structures as you read the back of your toothpaste tube. When you overhear Spanish conversation, don’t tune it out. Instead, pick out words and try saying them yourself. Seek out patterns in speech, in radio advertisements and songs. Imitate the accents and intonations.
Memorize these two cardinal laws of language learning:
1. You must be exposed to the language.
2. You must interact with the language.
No matter what system you use or where you live in the world or how much time you devote to study, regular exposure to and interaction with the target language are the keys to mastery.
Exposure means you hear the language, and you read the language. The purpose is to encounter new things—words, structures, accents, etc.—and to get practice with what you already know. Getting exposure is so easy—and you’ll be shocked at how much you can learn just by paying attention to how language is used.
Interaction means using the language and getting feedback. With exposure, you encounter new words, and with interaction, you use them. Sometimes your usage will be correct, and often it won’t be. But there’s no better way to learn than from your own mistakes.
So what’s the best way to get exposure and interaction when you don’t have extra time in your schedule? Build Spanish into your life.
How to Build Spanish into Your Life
First, equip yourself
I use my iPhone extensively in my language learning. I look up words and I keep track of words and phrases in my notes app. Based on my own experience, I recommend having some sort of smartphone—it’s the quickest way to look up words and take notes on the fly—but skip down a little for low-tech advice.
We’ll also get to how to use all this stuff even if you think you don’t have the time, but first, here are some tools you’d do well to have at your disposal.
Believe it or not, my most-used language tool is Google. When I’m stumped on a grammar point, an untranslatable expression or even just the spelling of a word, I put it to the Google. There are tons of fantastic forums and resources for Spanish learners, and Google is the best aggregator. 9 out of 10 times, it gives me what I need.
For new vocabulary, I use Google Images. Pictures convey the meaning clearly and establish a strong association, making the words much easier to remember.
One learning tool I frequently use that I don’t hear spoken of often is Google News. Type in a Spanish word, and you’ll find dozens of articles that use that word.
Seeing it in context helps cement that word in your memory, and you’ll also find that some words we use in English aren’t used the same way in Spanish.
Google News is especially helpful when you come across new verbs where you know the definition but not the usage, or maybe when you read a phrase somewhere (or jotted it down in a conversation) and just don’t understand it.
For example, I once came across the phrase no se te olvide (which directly translated means “Don’t let it be forgotten to you!”) and I couldn’t understand why that was used instead of no olvides (“Don’t forget”).
I plugged it into Google News and found that the versions no se te olvide and no te olvides are far more commonly used than no olvides. It didn’t help me understand why that was the case, but I wouldn’t be confused the next time I came across it, and the next time I wanted to tell someone not to forget, I could bet pretty safely on no se te olvide.
And, of course, more obviously, there’s Google Translate. It isn’t totally reliable, but still very useful. It’s great for Spanish phrases or messages that I can’t understand at all. I run them through Google Translate, get the gist, then work them out word-by-word. In this way, it’s a great tool, because it gives me direction while still allowing me to do the work of learning.
Flashcards with SRS (spaced repetition)
There are flashcard systems out there that use special timing for keeping words fresh in your mind and helping you review words more efficiently. A lot of them let you make your own vocabulary decks, which is convenient for noting down words as you learn them and getting in the habit of reviewing every day. Some of them offer access to user-created decks, too.
If you don’t have time to make flashcards, though, and you also want to make sure the content you’re studying is completely accurate, FluentU gives you a whole pre-made system of vocab linked to fun videos that you can use on its app. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
I use the Notes app on my iPhone to keep track of words and expressions I want to ask about later (I use the default app on my iPhone, but do a Google search of “notes app” and you’ll see there are numerous ones to choose from no matter what your OS). Usually this occurs when I’ve lost track of a conversation. I note words I think I hear and what the topic (maybe?) was, then later ask a friend to help me understand.
The most valuable use for my phone is, of course, direct communication. I use iMessage and Facebook Messenger to write messages in Spanish. With these apps at my fingertips, I can work out what I want to say, understand what’s being said to me and take note of expressions for future reference.
Of course, this does require having people in my life who can communicate in Spanish.
If you don’t already have those people, equip yourself with a language partner or two through italki.com. You’ll find online language partners (free) and teachers (low cost) that you can talk to face-to-face or through writing. You also have the journal option, where you can write anything you want and make it available to native speakers for comment. It’s a fun and convenient way to practice.
Alternatively, pay someone to be your friend. Well, not exactly—pay someone to be your private Spanish tutor. You can do this on italki too, as there are thousands of Spanish teachers from all over the world giving lessons here.
Verbling also keeps every part of the tutoring process online, which is exceptionally convenient for busy language learners. No worries about getting to a meeting spot in town, or moving your schedule around a class in a university or institute. Find a tutor on Verbling who can work with your schedule!
I promised you a low-tech list of tools. Here you go!
You should always have a notebook, of course. Write down words and phrases, but also keep running questions, observations and journal entries. Make it your space to play with the language.
One simple exercise I enjoy is taking a piece of written Spanish—from a book or pamphlet or sign—and copying it into my notebook word-for-word, accent-mark-for-accent-mark. It’s a great way to develop a sense of the language grammatically and rhythmically, and as you take notice of the details of the language, you’ll find yourself asking new, more complex questions. This will make you a stronger learner.
The “Dictionary of Spoken Spanish” is a great resource for looking up unfamiliar phrases and words. And you don’t have to piece them together like you do with Google! There are a number of other great books (many slimmer than a dictionary) that you can carry for quick reference.
Carry them around and drill yourself, or carry around blank decks and make them as you go. The great thing about paper flashcards is that the very act of writing is a method of memorizing. Your brain remembers the look of the card, the color of the ink, the shape of the letters, and gives you stronger context to remember the vocabulary.
Once you’re equipped, use the time you have
I’ve never been successful in studying at designated times. There are too many other things to do—some more important, many more interesting—and if I relied on my own determination, I would never learn anything.
Instead of setting aside time each day for study, try studying throughout the day. Take a look at your day-to-day and find “spaces”—that is, time you can use for learning because you’re not obligated to be doing anything else.
Your daily commute to/from work is the perfect time to listen to podcasts or the radio, to call a Spanish-speaking friend for a little conversation or just to practice by yourself. Listen to a podcast designed for Spanish students like SpanishPod101, so that you can drill yourself on conjugations, interview yourself and pronounce all the words that trip you up in real conversation. This is an especially great opportunity if you’re by yourself, because no one will hear you mess up, and the more you practice saying those words, the less you’ll stumble.
Afternoon meetings, or any time you find you have to be somewhere physically but not mentally (or at least not 100%) are also great opportunities. Don’t be irresponsible or risk losing your job, of course, but if you’re in a situation where you know that you don’t really need to be tuned in, don’t zone out, either. Instead, review flashcards on your phone, or take notes in Spanish! You could even write a letter to a friend in Spanish.
Long line at the grocery store? You might usually be scrolling through Instagram, so use this as an opportunity for exposure. Find new Spanish Instagram accounts (more on this in a little bit), send a text, catch up on the news in Spanish. Or plan a Spanish-themed activity. Find events (via Google or your local newspaper) in your city to attend, and invite your friends to come along with you!
The times when you’re bored, when you’re scrolling aimlessly down your Twitter feed or looking up cat videos to pass the time—these are your spaces. Use them. It’s easy to feel like 5 minutes won’t make a difference, to forgo those small spaces, because what’s the point? The point is this: They all add up. Add something extremely fun, like the dirty and never-boring Gritty Spanish audio series. Gritty Spanish will keep you gravitating back to study time naturally, because you’ll want to hear more gossip, fights and cursing in their humorous Spanish dialogues. (Read our full review here.)
30 minutes a day is great! But so is 5 minutes, 3 headlines and 2 words. All of these are better than zero. Day by day, week by week, month by month, they add up. Everything counts.
Finally, do things you like doing
Keep doing the things you enjoy doing, the things you need to stay sane and would do anyway, but add a little Spanish.
Personally, I get one hour of uninterrupted exposure to spoken Spanish (and usually another hour of interaction through conversation) at church.
And a few times a month, I’ll attend a party, family dinner, wedding or game night where I get more exposure and interaction.
All in all, my Spanish “study” adds up to maybe 20 hours a month—and typically it’s closer to 10. But I’m able to progress because those hours are 10-20 dedicated, fun, high-quality hours of learning. The best part is, it doesn’t require any extra time or planning.
Integrate Spanish into your day-to-day with these methods:
Hack your gadgets. Don’t settle for just using the tools mentioned above. Change the language of your phone, apps, games and/or computer from English to Spanish. The learning curve on this can be steep, but the payoff is high. This article will walk you through how to do it.
Surf the Internet. You’re doing it anyway—just throw in a little Spanish. Set your browser homepage to a Spanish news or entertainment site, and start learning Spanish through your social media browsing, too.
Watch TED talks. Many have Spanish subtitles, so you can watch in English and read in Spanish. It’s a great way to learn vocabulary and more complex ways to express your ideas.
Find Spanish-learning friends. You’re more likely to succeed (and more quickly) if you have friends who will practice with you, encourage you and hold you accountable.
Meetup is a site where you can find other people who are learning Spanish. But this doesn’t have to be all work. If you’re into any hobbies or activities that may lean toward various aspects of Spanish-speaking culture, like dancing or concerts or foreign film, there may just be a group for you.
Do a search for your city and if you don’t find anything, start your own!
Yelp is another search tool you can use. Instead of people and groups, focus on finding restaurants that serve authentic food from Spanish-speaking cultures, as well as any studios, schools and community centers that may offer a new network for keeping your language skills sharp.
If you go to church, consider attending a Spanish service every so often. You’re more likely to stick with learning it when it doesn’t have a huge impact on your schedule, and what you learn will stick. You’ll be having fun and making associations left and right. It’s the best way to learn.
Just about anything you do for fun or relaxation can, with minimal effort, become an opportunity for you to grow your language skills.
You have a life full of obligations, and you deserve to spend your downtime doing fun things in good company.
You also deserve the tremendous reward of acquiring a new language.
Day-to-day, you may not see much improvement.
But build Spanish into your life, and at this time next year, you won’t be kicking yourself for never learning it—you’ll be using it.
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