Ah yes, that classic question…”are you fluent in Spanish?”
You want to say “claro que sí!” (of course!) with all the confidence in the world, but instead you mumble “I’ve taken a few classes…”
And yes, it’s true. Maybe you’ve taken a handful of Spanish classes or you’ve tried intensive language immersion through your local language school. Perhaps you’ve even taken the time to travel to Spanish-speaking countries or make Spanish-speaking friends in your city.
But, despite all of this effort and time, you still find yourself making beginner mistakes and talking to your Spanish-speaking friends mostly in English with the occasional hola amigo (hello friend) or qué pasa (what’s up) thrown in there.
Perhaps you get discouraged and find yourself asking “how on Earth do I become fluent in this language?”
Don’t fret. We’ve all been at this crossroads.
Luckily, since so many people have come down the road before you, there’s plenty of information that you can use to better inform your plans to improve your Spanish skills.
How to Achieve Spanish Fluency and Find Your Spanish Voice
Learning any language comes with a long learning curve and you need patience. However, simply trying to speak once in a while and taking courses here and there won’t cut it if you really want to become an independent and fluent speaker.
Here’s the golden rule that my Spanish teacher told me in university: “si te sientes incomoda, vas bien porque estás aprendiendo.” (if you feel uncomfortable, you are on the right track because you are learning.)
Bask in the discomfort. Own it. The challenge here’s quite a paradox: you need to make discomfort comfortable—and not only that, but that discomfort needs to become a learning tool.
Getting out of your comfort zone isn’t all that hard. I’d love to tell you why right now, but I don’t want to jump the gun. We’ll get there in a few.
Let’s kick off our fluency discussion by defining what the term “fluency” actually means.
What’s Spanish Fluency?
Fluency doesn’t mean to be a perfect bilingual. In fact, that doesn’t really exist. Research has unveiled that even children exposed to two different languages from a young age will still have stronger skills in one over the other.
You also aren’t striving to be a translation machine. This would require you to have the ability to quickly translate everything you hear and say between English and Spanish in your head. You’d automatically know the literal English equivalent to every Spanish sentence you read or hear. No way, Jose. But why?
Direct translations will result in limited fluency, continued incorrect grammar use and awkward sentences. Ew. For example, you can say “yo soy 25 años,” and everyone will understand what you mean, but you really need to remember that, in Spanish, age is used with the verb tener (to have), so you’d say “tengo 25 años,” unlike in English where we use the verb “to be.” As you can see, literal translations will only get you so far.
Beyond that, language shapes our perspective on the world. Spanish and English speakers think differently, and so to be fluent means that you have the ability to think in Spanish and carve out your own voice within the language. This is why fluency comes with a great depth of knowledge.
The key is just to remember that fluency doesn’t begin and end with knowledge—to be truly fluent in Spanish you’ll need to develop, slowly but surely, the ability to think, write and speak in Spanish without any English floating around in your brain.
Being able to think in Spanish is, as you might imagine, a very personal thing. That’s why there’s no one-size-fits-all track to Spanish fluency. Everyone needs to determine their own path to getting there. Let’s take a look at how you can start doing this.
Spanish Fluency Made for You, by You
Consider these two key questions:
1. Why do I want to learn Spanish?
2. What do I want to use Spanish for?
Defining your why and what when it comes to fluency is extremely important. Having the answers to these two questions will give you direction, purpose, the ability to define short-term goals and adjust techniques to your unique needs.
All of this is crucial in language acquisition as speaking foreign languages plays heavy on our egos and confidence levels. You want to have a concrete vision in mind of what you’ll be like as a fluent Spanish speaker. Without any kind of strong vision or defined final destination, you’ll never get to really assess your progress and accomplishments.
Let’s explore some possible why and what answers to help you get started.
The Why and What of Spanish Fluency
Why: “I want to learn Spanish and travel to South America or Spain.”
What: “I will use Spanish to manage travel logistics and get around.”
In this case, you would require fluency with vocabulary tailored to travel and tourism in the Spanish-speaking world (hotel bookings, flights, buses, food, shopping). It would be smart to tailor your Spanish to the specific countries where you’ll be travelling. There’s quite a lot of regional linguistic variety.
Why: “I want to learn Spanish for professional advancement.”
What: “I will use Spanish for meetings, workshops and conferences abroad.”
In this case, you’d require an advanced level of fluency with vocabulary tailored to business and your industry, perhaps in trade, language teaching or tourism.
Why: “I want to learn Spanish to communicate with my extended family or partner in their native language.”
What: “I will use my Spanish for personal reasons, to bond with people and strengthen relationships.”
In this case, you’ll require fluency with vocabulary linked to family, food and home (the holidays, special occasions, food, feelings).
Or maybe, just maybe, you have no particular reason and you just like learning languages or you need it in order to call a Spanish-speaking country home. That’s fantastic! Once you’ve defined your own personal why and what for Spanish fluency, you can get going on the next section: techniques to achieve Spanish fluency.
7 Techniques to Become Fluent in Spanish
1. Subscribe to stuff
When I say “stuff,” I mean Spanish language channels on YouTube, movie networks, television channels, FluentU, Netflix, Hulu and more. Anything with great, authentic Spanish video content that you can watch regularly.
FluentU is actually a pretty sweet resource to use for this technique.
FluentU takes real-world videos, like music videos, commercials, news and inspiring talks, and turns them into Spanish learning experiences.
Other sites use scripted content. FluentU uses a natural approach that helps you ease into the Spanish language and culture over time. You’ll learn Spanish as it’s actually spoken by real people.
FluentU has a wide variety of videos—topics like soccer, TV shows, business, movies and even magical realism, as you can see here:
FluentU brings native videos within reach with interactive transcripts. You can tap on any word to look it up instantly. Every definition has examples that have been written to help you understand how the word is used.
Plus, if you see an interesting word you don’t know, you can add it to a vocab list.
Review a complete interactive transcript under the Dialogue tab, and find words and phrases listed under Vocab.
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU’s robust learning engine. Swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you’re on.
The best part is that FluentU keeps track of the vocabulary that you’re learning, and recommends examples and videos for you based on the words you’ve already learned. Every learner has a truly personalized experience, even if they’re studying with the same video.
Once you’ve tracked down the right video content to watch, the “subscribing to stuff” technique will improve your fluency in threefold ways: (1) it gives you vocab variety, (2) you get sick pronunciation practice and (3) you’ll get exposure to native speakers in natural-sounding conversations.
Aim to watch between 1-2 hours of programming weekly, or 1 movie per week. Two things are essential to this technique:
- Put on Spanish (not English) subtitles. You’ll be listening and reading to Spanish, helping your overall comprehension practice.
- Jot down between 3-5 new words or expressions for every 30 minutes of video content. Keep a little notepad going so you can write down your newly-found words along with their contextual uses. How was the word used in the video? Write it down. This will give you approximately 20 new expressions and vocabulary words monthly.
Here are some popular Spanish language channels that you’ll find in the USA (you can also access many of the videos online through the links included below):
- ESPN Deportes (Sports)
- CNN Español (News)
- Telemundo (News, Sports, Entertainment)
MundoFOX (News, Sports, Entertainment)(No longer available) Azteca America (Latin American sitcoms, telenovelas, programming from Mexico)(No longer available)
- HBO Español (Television series)
And here are five great movie titles that are currently available on Netflix with Spanish subtitles, for your viewing pleasure:
- “El Secreto en Sus Ojos” (Chile)
- “Amores Perros” (Mexico) *My personal favorite!
- “Y Tu Mama También” (Mexico)
- “Mar Adentro” (Spain)
- “Volver” (Spain)
If you have a Spanish conversation partner or go to regular Spanish language club meetups, take your notepad and use your 3-5 new words from the week in live conversation. Actively using new vocabulary in conversation is critical for long-term retention. Speaking of which…
2. Never stop talking
Join your local Spanish conversation club or find a language exchange partner (local or online).
Then it’s time for conversation, conversation and more conversation! Habla, habla y habla (talk, talk and talk) with native speakers!
Having conversations with native speakers challenges you to use more diverse vocabulary and explain things more in depth. Oh, and they’ll correct you! It’s like having a live autocorrect in front of you! Investing 1 hour weekly to talk at your local Spanish Convo Club or with your language partner will pay off huge dividends in the long run.
Getting into the habit of having this weekly conversation exposure incorporates Spanish into your regular life and allows you to form a solid base of conversational Spanish. Thanks to applications such as Skype and online language exchange networks, finding native conversation buddies is a breeze nowadays.
- Global Spanish Language Meetups (find a local Spanish group)
- ConversationExchange (face to face exchanges)
- MyLanguageExchange (online exchanges)
3. Listen to audiobooks
For those interested in gaining serious, all-around fluency or studying Spanish literature, audiobooks are fantastic tools to increase your literary vocabulary, reading comprehension and writing skills. This technique works similar to technique #1 (subscribe to stuff), exposing you to written word alongside audio, however, it requires high levels of concentration and patience.
Following a literary work with audio is much more difficult than a talk show program or sports report on TV. To make this an effective strategy, look for books you’ve already read and enjoyed in English and find the book and audio in Spanish. Look for less complex writing styles, such as those found in Young Adult literature. Alternatively, pick an audiobook that covers a topic you know inside and out. All these strategies help ensure that you won’t get confused or discouraged after flipping to page 2.
Here are 2 titles I enjoyed, with complete audiobooks available on YouTube:
In addition to audiobooks, podcasts on topics of interest are always good resources for learners!
4. Move abroad
If you’re young and/or have few major responsibilities, move to a new country for a year—and make it a Spanish-speaking destination!
Moving abroad is key to achieving fluency in any language, and it does indeed enrich your life. There are over 20 Spanish-speaking countries scattered across the Americas, Europe and Africa. And you don’t just have to pick a spot and move there all alone (though you certainly could do that if you’re an adventurous spirit). There’s a wide array of university exchange programs, international co-op placements and teaching programs out there to support you and help you take those first steps. So, why not go abroad?
Another big plus to this plan is that Spanish-speaking countries are generally cheaper to live in than English-speaking countries, so your savings will go a long, long way. You don’t need a huge income to enjoy a comfortable life in cities such as Lima, La Paz and Bogotá.
Warning! Simply moving won’t make you fluent. You have to make local friends. The availability of international exchange problems (and the relative affordability of international travel) means the chances of you running into English speakers and fellow countrymates is high, especially in big cities.
Avoid the trap of moving to, let’s say, Madrid, and spending a whole year meeting other Americans, eating at American franchises and talking to Spaniards that only speak English. Guess what will happen? Although you’ll return home with greater Spanish comprehension, your conversation skills will be the same as, if not worse than, when you left.
It’s be your own darn fault, too, because you didn’t take advantage of every opportunity to practice. On top of that, you may have adopted incorrect sentence structure and vocabulary use by listening to other English speakers who use the language incorrectly!
For the brave, try to avoid living in big cities and instead opt for small towns or rural areas. You’ll run into fewer English speakers out there, trust me!
A few programs for English speakers in the Spanish-Speaking world:
- North American Language Assistant Program (paid English teaching in Spain)
- InsidePeru (paid co-op placements in Peru)
- ChileInside (paid professional development in Chile)
Also, look out for opportunities in the American Embassies in your country of choice!
5. Get yourself a Spanish-speaking “partner”
Ah, yes, el amor (love).
Is there any better way to learn than through love? I mean, to a certain extent this one is just up to destiny. And, hey, it doesn’t have to be true love either. But no matter the nature of the relationship, when you find someone you get along with well it’ll open you up to new ideas and experiences. Find someone who’s fun and understanding. It’ll motivate you, encourage you and create a safe space where you can practice freely and become a Spanish language expert.
It’s not like you can apply this technique as a real learning strategy, but having a Spanish-speaking boyfriend or girlfriend, perhaps that you met while you were living abroad, can be one of the most effective ways to really become fluent in Spanish and get exposed to local culture. Why?
Firstly, you’ll be talking to this person daily. But this won’t only be talk about superficial topics but, rather, you’ll get to talking about your likes and dislikes, work stories, past experiences, future hope and dreams, feelings, fears…talk about variety in vocab and verb tenses!
Your Spanish romance vocabulary will also get a big workout, especially during those special little love-oriented holidays! There’s also a good chance that a big family will come in a package deal with your partner, and by meeting them you’ll get exposed to culture, food and general local ways of thinking and being.
All of this is invaluable for your fluency and language development. Plus, if it works out, you’ll have the cutest little bilingual kids!
6. Do some daily Spanish writing
Keep a small notepad or journal by your side at all times. Whenever you have a moment, try to write out your thoughts with 5-10 full Spanish sentences.
Writing regularly like this is a great way to get creative, express yourself and improve your fluency in Spanish. Plus, it’s a practical technique that you can do anywhere and at anytime. It’s great for spare moments at work, at home, on the train or bus—even in a cafe on a lovely Sunday morning.
Start by writing at least 1 entry weekly, then gradually increase this to 2.
If you’re really invested in your fluency happening sooner rather than later, set aside 15 minutes daily where you write in your Spanish journal.
Challenge yourself with the topics. One day you can write about how you feel, the next day you can write about the food you ate. Another day you can write about a discussion you had or will have with someone. This way, you’ll exercise though verb conjugating muscles and use past, present and future tenses while extending the reach of your vocabulary.
For this technique, try to use vocabulary you already know and slowly incorporate new words that you hear while watching your television shows and movies (technique #1) or listening to your audiobooks (technique #3). This should be an enjoyable activity, not one that you stress about. When you feel confident, get your language exchange buddy or a friend who’s a native Spanish speaker to read over your entries and make note of any recurring spelling and grammar mistakes.
7. Talk to yourself out loud
Remember, habla habla habla (talk, talk, talk). You’re carving out your own voice, aren’t you?
Well, then it’s really important to not only talk to others but also to get used to your voice and speech in your foreign language. Try to do this in private spaces where you know no one can hear you (at first). This way you’ll feel safe and free to blab away. Perhaps your safe space will end up being in the car, in the shower or in your bedroom.
Combine this with technique #6 (daily Spanish writing) and you’ll get great results from your fluency practice. This is also a great technique to work on those tricky pronunciations in Spanish, like rolling your RRs or perhaps pronouncing a long word like civilización (civilization).
Try looking in the mirror when you do this, and then record yourself from time to time to hear your progress. You’ll definitely notice the difference in your overall fluency and confidence over time, trust me.
Now you know how the art of achieving Spanish fluency works, so let’s review what you need to get done:
- Define what Spanish “fluency” means to you.
- Outline your why and what for Spanish fluency goals.
- Review and begin testing out techniques 1-7.
- Pick 2-3 techniques that meet your needs, interests and learning style. Adjust as needed.
Most importantly, stick with them long-term and
If you do, your brain will thank you and your Spanish fluency will become personalized to your needs. No longer will you be imitating or translating. You’ll be too busy speaking and communicating for that. Olé! (oh yeah!)
Hasta la próxima, amigos! (Until next time, friends)!
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