You imagine yourself in your favorite Spanish-speaking country.
You’re casually exchanging witty remarks with the locals.
You’re strolling confidently to the mercado (market) where you’ll be surrounded by the Spanish language at every stall.
You can’t help but think that this is the only way you’re ever going to become fluent in Spanish—living abroad.
Well, that’s not true and it’s time to stop daydreaming. (Or if you insist on doing so, please do it entirely in Spanish.)
And no more excuses, either. It’s possible to become fluent in Spanish right where you are.
One of the easiest ways to incorporate real-life Spanish practice into your daily routine is in small, deliberate chunks.
Workbooks, grammar reviews and flashcards are all well and good, but they don’t really prepare you for the flow of a real conversation with someone whose first language is your second (or third, or fourth…).
Ergo, the following is a simple list of things you can do to enrich your study schedule and deepen your communicative abilities in Spanish.
5 Small, Deliberate Ways to Add Spanish to Your Daily Routine
1. Choose a Great Text
Find a text you already know and love
Find a Spanish translation of a book in English that you know cover-to-cover and read for at least 20 minutes every day.
Try to master the instinct to take out your phone and Google-translate every word or phrase you don’t know. Instead, read the content within your English knowledge of the story.
Using deductive reasoning while reading can massively increase your confidence in verbal exchanges with Spanish speakers. This is because your brain will be primed to accept a lower threshold of understanding without going into panic mode.
Basically, reading and understanding most of what’s on the page can be helpful in deriving meaning when you can’t literally translate every word that’s being said.
This is a useful skill to have when conversing with native Spanish speakers, but it’s something that takes time and is best done reflexively rather than consciously.
Taking something you’re wholly confident of in English and retracing it in Spanish will give you confidence in your ability to advance both your reading and speaking skills.
Go out on a literary limb
If you’re ready to venture out into the unknown, choose an intermediate novel originally published in Spanish and take the plunge into reading Spanish literature.
Reading English translated to Spanish provides a segue into truly reading in your non-native language, but a book in translation will almost inevitably lose some of the nuances of its original language—idioms, slang and sentence structure are the cornerstones of language.
Reading a book that was originally written in Spanish offers the non-native speaker an opportunity to submerge themselves in the language at their own speed. There are also various strategies that a reader can utilize when approaching a text in their non-native language.
2. Amp Up Your Listening Skills
Learn about Spanish-speaking cultures
I was introduced to podcasts on NPR Latino USA by a professor in college. Their archive of 16 different categories means that there’s something to interest everyone. It might feel like a break because the stories are available in English, but language and culture go hand-in-hand.
That means learning about what’s happening in the Latino community is a good way to prime yourself for conversations with people who live in those communities (especially if traveling).
Want to learn about why fútbol (soccer) is so beloved? “The Beautiful Game” will tell you why.
How about segregation? What, it’s not a thing of the past? (Answer: No, it’s not).
Additionally, the breadth of the Hispanic community covered means that, more likely than not, there will be a story from the country or region you’ll be in during your travels.
Tip: If simply listening isn’t enough, try translating the episode into Spanish as the speakers are talking. Doing this for just a few minutes each day will significantly increase your speaking and comprehension rate.
Check out Spanish-speaking audio
Want something that’s more focused on the intricacies of the Spanish language? Coffee Break Spanish is great for those who are at the intermediate or advanced level of Spanish.
You can download the basic episodes for free, but if you want extended lessons and explanations, videos and notes, you’ll have to sign up for the premium version. Lessons are around 15 minutes long so you can listen to an episode (or maybe two) on the way to the grocery store.
Another resource you should keep handy is FluentU. While it’s not a podcast, it does have authentic materials that’ll help train your ear to hear the nuances of the Spanish language.
It’s a platform that helps you learn through the use of authentic materials like music videos, movie clips and audio dialogues. It also has a Spanish learning blog that gives you all sorts of interesting language and cultural tidbits.
3. Notice All the Words Around You
Stroll around the neighborhood
Go for a walk around your house or neighborhood with a notepad. Try to comment on everything around you the way you would in your native language.
This is a deceptively difficult exercise that I began doing with a friend walking to work through downtown Arequipa, Peru every day. It was a little discouraging at first (“Crap, how do you say sidewalk in Spanish? It’s not the same as street…”).
However, by taking note of what we would have liked to talk about and then looking the words up later, we’re steadily amassing an archive of useful vocabulary words that we naturally review every day.
Look for opportunities around the house
Finding new words outside to add to your vocabulary is great, but you also want to take advantage of all the words you see around your house.
Get a small dose of Spanish multiple times a day by labeling items in your house—cabinets, refrigerator, bathroom mirror, everything!
You can write the words out by hand on sticky notes, or use Vocabulary Stickers, which have the labels already made for you. You’ll find 132 stickers for everyday items you see around your home and office. That’s 132 reminders to use a little bit of Spanish each day!
4. Find Your Rhythm
That’s right. It’s time to build a new Spotify playlist.
You might be saying, “But I don’t know any good Spanish music!”
Maybe not, but we all know artists who sing in Spanish—Shakira, Enrique Iglesias, JLo—any of these names sound familiar? All are pop stars who have music in Spanish, even if their most popular stuff in the United States is the poppy Billboard Hot 100 junk we hate to love and love to hate.
Also, like all music, many popular Spanish songs feature other Spanish-singing artists (see where this is going?). You’ll have a playlist going in no time.
Personally, right now I’m obsessed with “Andas en mi cabeza” (“You’re in My Head”) by Chino & Nacho and Daddy Yankee, “Nada” (“Nothing”) and “Amarillo” (“Yellow”) off of Shakira’s new album and “Hasta el amanecer” (“Until Dawn”) by Nicky Jam.
I always have the lyrics pulled up on my phone to practice singing along. Doing so also helps me acclimate to the speed at which Spanish-speakers sing and talk—their singing is often much faster than their actual speaking.
This means that I’m much more likely to improve my conversation skills after listening to rapid-fire Spanish words in music.
5. Descansa (Rest)
Give your brain a rest, but only slightly. Right now, there are a lot of popular shows available on Netflix (and the internet in general) that are a big old mezcla (mix) of Spanish and English and/or offer the option of Spanish subtitles.
In “Narcos,” the Spanish is imperative to understanding the plot.
In “Jane the Virgin,” it’s softer and acts as much more of a supplement to the actual storyline, enriching our understanding of the main characters and leading us into their culture rather than blasting us in the face with it.
Both shows are worth watching when you want to keep Spanish on your mind with minimal effort—after all, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to read subtitles. For an extra challenge though, try taking them away.
I’ve found it an interesting exercise to compare how you translate something in your head with the given translation on the screen; oftentimes I understand it correctly but the wording I ascribe to it is very different from the show’s.
One of the most challenging aspects of learning a new language isn’t necessarily the language itself. Rather, it’s developing the discipline and focus necessary to practice regularly and truly work to incorporate the target language into your daily life.
By making little changes to your routine, you’re giving yourself a better chance to acquire and retain it.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Spanish with real-world videos.