Brush Up! 8 Ways to Reignite Your Dormant Spanish
Let me ask you something.
¿Dónde está el baño?
Oh wait, you forgot what that means? Swear you’ve run into that sentence before?
Then maybe you need to brush up on your Spanish—before you have some kind of bathroom-related emergency.
Or maybe you’re farther ahead in the game, meaning you’ve achieved an advanced or nearly fluent level of Spanish, but still managed to let your language skills fade away a bit.
The scenario is common. I’m imagining that you took some Spanish classes a few months or years back, had a decent amount of hours put in and you were getting better with the language overall. But in the rush of life, your Spanish has since faded into the background.
No worries! This post is going to get you back on track with eight incredibly fun ways to brush up on your Spanish. You can once again point anyone to the nearest baño, or navigate yourself there, in no time.
First, let’s take a look at the three simple steps you should take to approach each of these fun methods.
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)
The 3-step Method to Brush Up on Your Spanish
Step 1: Immerse
Fight the temptation to hit your old Spanish books immediately. There’s a time for them, but it’s not at the very beginning of your Spanish immersion time. Do that and you’ll find yourself plowing through those books slower by the minute—so slow you might get frustrated and even decide to drop Spanish altogether.
Why don’t you casually immerse yourself in Spanish instead? Remind yourself how beautiful and melodious the language is. Remind yourself why you fell in love with it in the first place.
So instead of doing thorough reruns of your grammar books, why not do reruns of the best telenovelas around, for example? Rest assured, you’ll find one to suit your taste. Or if you’re more musically inclined, you can listen to the melodies and beats of Spanish radio stations. Soon, you’ll get your Spanish groove back.
I’ve got many more ideas for Spanish immersion coming up (remember, I promised you eight good ones!) so keep on reading.
Step 2: Run to the Dictionary
As you sit there with your telenovela or your music, you’ll hear three major types of Spanish words, phrases or expressions. The first type are the words that you already know. (Congratulations, you still got it!)
The second type is made up of words that you swear you used to know, but, for the life of you, can’t figure out this time. These tip-of-the-tongue words, phrases or expressions are the rusty part of your Spanish. They’ll take you to the Twilight Zone. They’ll be itching in your brain and, if you’re the obsessive-compulsive type, you’ll be tossing in bed all night trying to remember the meanings of these.
The third type you’ll hear will be words, phrases and expressions you’ve never heard before. You never thought there was such a word. Who knew?
The last two types are fertile ground for learning, so get ready with your pad and pen. Write them down. In cases like online videos, where there are opportunities for playback, perhaps the first time you can try watching the episode without writing anything. Just take everything in. See the big picture.
In your second pass, you can start jotting down some familiar or some new words. They can be embedded in dialogues or in the lyrics, for example.
But remember that you can easily overdo this. You can write like crazy and find yourself with a mountain of assignments. Moderate yourself. A list of 10-15 is plenty enough.
When you get your list, that’s when you run to the dictionary (or Google). Study the word, its translation and its usage. Milk it! And here’s a very important tip: After studying the word itself…study the words and concepts related to it.
Say, for example, you forgot what the word desde (since, from) meant but it sounded super familiar, so you included it in your list and looked it up in the dictionary and grammar books later. After studying desde and rediscovering that it’s a preposition, take your review a notch higher and study other prepositions. Maybe you can also relearn prepositions like: entre (between, among), detrás (behind) or hacia (until, towards).
Or if you just got ahora (now) on your list, you can study up on phrases that contain the word, like ahora o nunca (now or never), la juventud de ahora (the youth of today) or ahora mismo (right now).
You can now see that, with just a simple list, your learning will compound very fast. Plus, you get the advantage of the words being contextualized in a telenovela or a song.
Step 3: Record & Review
One of the most important things that you can do when you’re brushing up on your Spanish is to keep a record of the things that you’re relearning. Your written notes will come in handy when it’s time to review.
And do you know what the magic word is when it comes to brushing up on anything?
Yup. My guess is, you’ve not been consistent before, and that’s why your Spanish got soft. You were probably pulled away to do other stuff and then left consistency behind in your classroom days.
Make it different this time. Have a firm routine where you religiously review Spanish. Day in, day out. The best buddy for review is a growing set of notes that records the words and phrases as outlined in the last step.
Make that time sacred, dedicated only to Spanish and before long you’ll shed all those rusty Spanish feelings and be silky Spanish smooth.
Okay. Now that you know the simple three-step method for getting back your groove, next we look into eight activities that are not only fun, but that have tremendous immersive properties—useful especially in the first step of our method. That being said, you should be careful to apply all three steps to each of these ideas!
8 Fun Ways to Re-ignite Dormant Spanish
1. Read Children’s Books
This works even for learners who were previously more advanced or near fluency. Wait a minute, don’t feel insulted. Children’s books and stories aren’t just for kids (or just for bedtime).
Think about it. A language learner is essentially a kid in their target language. They’re still starting out, having only a tenuous grasp of the language.
What better way to start brushing up on your Spanish using literature that’s geared towards the beginner, containing simple sentences which use basic vocabulary within basic grammatical structures? All characteristics of a proper children’s book. After all, these books are designed specifically for readers who are still developing their language skills. They’re written to guide you along and help you intuitively grasp new words and grammar.
Children’s books let you in on the most basic aspects of the language. They teach you to get up and running with your Spanish by showing you how even the simplest of sentences can communicate a complete thought or tell an entire story.
Here are some titles to check out:
- “¿Eres mi mama?” — This is about a young bird who goes around looking for his mother. It’s oh so sweet!
- “El gran oso pardo” — Follow the mischievous misadventures of this big brown bear and notice him growing on you.
- “Jorge el curioso El jonrón” — How would you like Curious George to teach you some Spanish?
2. Watch Authentic Spanish Videos
Before you dive into a full-length movie or a five-season telenovela, you might want to start with something easier to digest. The key to short videos is to use authentic ones—that is, videos made by and for native Spanish speakers.
Authentic videos let you see the language in use naturally, reinforcing what you already know and providing context for new concepts and vocabulary.
The downside to authentic video learning is that it can be difficult to find videos that are just right for your level, which can lead to frustrating study sessions where you only understand one out of every 10 words.
That’s where a program like FluentU comes in handy. This language learning website and iOS / Android app has hundreds of authentic Spanish-language videos like movie clips, music videos, news segments, vlogs and more. Unlike just watching on your own, though, the program is equipped with tools to help you choose the right video and learn from it.
Videos are organized by difficulty level, topic and format, ensuring that the videos you choose will be engaging and not too difficult or easy for you. Once you start watching, accurate Spanish subtitles with optional English translation captions will help you follow along.
These subtitles are interactive, so if you come across an unfamiliar word you can click on it for a definition and example sentences and video clips. You can add new words to vocabulary lists as flashcards without leaving the video player. Review these later through personalized quizzes that adapt to your learning speed and include opportunities to type and speak your answers.
FluentU encourages active watching, which will bring back everything you thought you might have forgotten. It also provides a lot of context for learning new vocabulary and other aspects of the language you might not find in a textbook. Plus, since it has content for learners from beginners through advanced learners, it can be a companion on your journey to fluency.
3. Watch Telenovelas
Telenovelas are heart-stopping, adrenaline-pumping companions for brushing up on your Spanish. They have the benefit of contextualizing words, phrases and expressions in a plot that’s full of engaging twists and turns—of dead people coming back to life, of scandalous romances and of an evil sibling enjoying the luxury of her adopted family while a virtuous one wallows in abject poverty.
Telenovelas create unforgettable scenes so that when a character says, “ahora o nunca!” you’ll remember it’s that fork in the road when Maria forces Miguelito to decide who he’s going to run away with. In short, lines and dialogues from telenovelas are memory-friendly and they go a long way in helping you brush up on your Spanish.
Some titles to check out are:
- “Yo soy Betty, la fea” — A story of one woman’s relationship and career endeavors, mixed with goofy humor and practical life lessons.
- “La Mentira” — A story of love, deception and revenge, a classic telenovela plotline.
- “Señora Acero” — If you wanna see Lara Croft speak in Spanish, this might be the one for you.
4. Listen to Spanish Songs
Ever wondered how a teenager can memorize every line of every song of a Katy Perry or a Taylor Swift album and yet barely recognize a shopping list from a list of academic Spanish words?
Beats. Melody. Harmony.
The catchy tunes lead us along and the brain finds it all very hard to forget. So if you wanna get your Spanish groove back, why not actually get into a Spanish groove? Any song as a whole will provide meaningful context to the words within it.
If you want, you can translate the whole song. You not only learn plenty of new words and phrases this way, but all the lines together convey a coherent message. And if you’ve got the lyrics of one Spanish song memorized, think of the number of words you’ll never forget.
Here are some titles to check out:
- “Adios” — A song about that familiar pain of saying “goodbye.”
- “Quizas” — A song about meeting an old flame from, who else, Enrique Iglesias.
- “Estoy enamorado” — A catchy song full of romantic confessions, longings and love.
5. Listen to Spanish Talk Radio
Spanish talk radio is one of the best authentic sources of Spanish material online, meaning that you get the exact same Spanish that native speakers get. Even though you’re half a world away, it will be just like living next door to those native speakers. And you have the Internet to thank for that.
Spanish talk radio presents anyone who wishes to brush up on their Spanish the chance to get a feel for the real rhythms and cadences of the language. So while children’s books make it a point to be simple, Spanish talk radio makes it a point to give you Spanish as it’s wielded by full-fledged, adult native speakers—grammatical violations, slang, expressions, accents and all.
The different radio programs will involve sets of vocabulary distinctly related to their respective fields. So you’ll get unique vocabulary sets from sports programs, political programs or showbiz talk shows. By listening to different types of radio programs, you add texture and nuance to your vocabulary and start to specialize your Spanish in one way or another.
In addition to learning the language, you’ll also take a peek into important social issues in the Spanish-speaking world. So, check out some of these radio stations from around the world:
- Radio Nacional de España — This is Spain’s national public service radio, which means no commercial breaks!
- Radio Fórmula — Get the flavors of Mexico by listening to talk shows that cover politics, economics, showbiz and sports.
- Radio Mitre — If you’re an Argentinian news buff, you’ll feel right at home here.
- Radio Deportes — Get a load of sports with ESPN’s Spanish-speaking affiliate.
6. Stay Updated with Spanish Newscasts
In addition to getting authentic Spanish into your ears, Spanish newscasts bring a visual component to the whole affair. But this isn’t what Spanish newscasts really bring to the table. Newscasts are high-powered language—where every word, every phrase, every line is well-considered and premeditated.
Unlike radio talk shows where hosts can vamp freely, newscasts are all lean meat. They deliver the most information with the least number of breaths. There’s no fluff because airtime is mighty expensive.
This high-powered nature of newscasts can help anybody wishing to brush up on their Spanish. First of all, you know that the words you’re learning are important, relevant and understood by native speakers. Second, the words are embedded in a socially charged story (otherwise it won’t make it to the news)—which make them eminently memorable.
With Spanish newscasts, you’re not only apprised of vital information in the Spanish-speaking world, but you also get a kind of review of the language that’s timely, relevant and up-to-date. Besides, when you get to talk to a native speaker, you’ll amaze them on how up-to-date you are on the important things that matter to their country.
Check out these sites for the latest in Spanish news:
- Antena 3 — Spain’s first private TV station can get you the latest news in politics, business and gossip with the click of a button.
- Univisión — Many Hispanic Americans get their daily dose of news here. You should too.
- CNN en Español — One of the most trusted three letters in news, in Spanish.
- Excelsior — Who said the news was boring? Definitely not this one.
7. Skype a Friend (or Stranger)
On any ultimate list of the most useful technology when it comes to learning a second language, Skype would be right at the top.
Skype provides you the chance to be part of the Spanish conversation. Unlike radio and TV shows where you can’t interact with the people in real time, Skype places you front and center of the webcam and drops you onto the screen of someone living several time zones away.
Find a (a) fellow language learner, (b) tutor or (c) professional teacher and use Skype to practice communicating with them. There’s no shortage of people willing and wanting to help you with a second language (either for free or for a fee). A fellow language learner will make you feel that you’re not alone. A tutor can give you translations and correct usage. A professional teacher can listen to you on the other side of the world and correct your pronunciations.
With Skype, you have access to the native speakers who might hold the key to rekindling your dormant Spanish.
8. Change the Language Settings of Your Life
Many of the things around you have become international. From gadgets like cellphones and tablets to the big social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, anything digital can be turned into a Spanish learning machine.
Simply change the language settings and hit “Spanish” on the menu. Think of the good this will do those needing to get their Spanish chops back. Every time you use your phone, you’ve got Spanish staring back at you. Every time you log in, Spanish greets your return. Your day gets bombarded with practice and immersion so that, soon enough, you’ll be able navigate Facebook without even noticing that you’re doing it in Spanish.
So instead of setting aside a few minutes each day to consciously learn the language, you’re putting learning opportunities your way by giving yourself tasks that can only be accomplished using your target language. This can add up to way more than just a few minutes.
Some even take this several steps further and find Spanish-speaking friends on Facebook and Twitter. They read the comments and revisit “Step 2: Run to the Dictionary” when they don’t understand something. They post comments in the target language, (sometimes having informed everyone that they’re on the learning curve) and the wonderful native speakers on these networking sites gladly assist them along the way. Isn’t that amazing?
Good luck on your return to Spanish!
I know you’ll have an even more wonderful time than the last.
It’s better the second time around.
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)