“If you want to learn Spanish, the absolute best way to do it is by going to a Spanish-speaking country.”
How many times have you heard that said?
While being immersed in the language is a fantastic way to learn quickly, there’s still a problem. Have you ever known somebody who’s been living in a foreign country for some time, yet they still barely speak the local language?
I know some expats like this here in Buenos Aires who are employed by a foreign company and thus never have to speak Spanish at work. They have an expat social circle and therefore don’t have to speak Spanish in their social life either. So these folks are living in Argentina, but can barely get by in Spanish.
So if spending time abroad is the best way to learn a language, why does this happen? It’s because simply being in a Spanish-speaking country doesn’t automatically ensure that you’ll become better (although it is often the case). There are some tips and shortcuts you can use to maximize your time abroad and learn Spanish fast.
Here are the techniques I have used to go from barely speaking and understanding Spanish to fluency—all in just three months. First I’ll share ways to improve by yourself, and then ways to get better that involve speaking with others.
How to Improve Your Spanish Level Fast by Yourself
Watch your favorite movie or TV show in Spanish
The best teachers know this: learning should be fun. Whatever it is, sports, math or cooking, your brain learns quicker when some good emotions are associated with the learning process. So if you’re not yet ready to dive into Spanish movies and soap operas, start with your current favorites.
What’s your favorite movie or TV show at the moment? You should watch it dubbed in Spanish for several reasons.
First, since you will already have seen the episodes or movie in English, you’ll subconsciously pick up some useful vocabulary in Spanish while having fun watching something you like again.
Secondly, you can improve both reading and listening comprehension by watching it with Spanish subtitles. Since you’re already so familiar with the show or movie, you won’t need English subtitles when listening in Spanish.
The best choice is to listen to the Spanish audio with Spanish subtitles. This way, your brain won’t be translating back and forth from English to Spanish, but rather will be forced to think solely in Spanish—an important skill to develop while living abroad.
By engaging both your eyes and ears when watching in Spanish with Spanish subtitles, you’ll greatly improve listening comprehension and make it easier to naturally produce the foreign language instead of translating.
Read your favorite book in Spanish
Now think of a book you’ve read and enjoyed. Reading that same book again in Spanish follows much of the same logic as watching a familiar movie or TV show in Spanish. It’s about allowing yourself to make connections between what you already know and what you are looking to learn—in an interesting way.
Sometimes, and it’s really funny when this happens, you’ll find a poor translation has been made (which is a huge indication that you’re improving, by the way). For example, once I was reading a nonfiction book in which “401K” (the retirement account) had been translated to $401,000 USD.
Make sure that you use this technique regularly. Read just one or two pages every day—that’s enough! With public libraries and Amazon, you can easily find Spanish translations of your favorite books. If you read with a Kindle, try downloading a Spanish dictionary (not English-Spanish) to use while reading. Then, touching an unfamiliar word will instantly bring up the definition in Spanish, keeping you fully immersed.
For those of you reading paper books, try using a Spanish dictionary app to look up new words. Be sure to keep a handwritten list of new words you look up while reading, and review it every couple of days.
Try to repeat what people around you are saying
For this idea, either take a walk in a busy place or sit down in a nice café, and then try to repeat what everyone is saying around you! It’s really fun, I promise.
Do this in some really busy venues—like a shopping mall, pedestrian street or a café (but please don’t go to Starbucks!). Go to one of them and try to repeat every little bit of the sentences you hear around you. Even if you don’t understand what everything means, just make sure to move your lips and that what you repeat is as similar as possible to what the person said.
This will allow you to work on your pronunciation in a fun way, and learn to recognize over time words that you’ll hear often—like local slang, phrase structure and common verbs. Interestingly enough, this exercise also gives you the sensation of what it feels like to speak Spanish—even if you can’t actually speak the idioma (language) yet, which is a nice step forward.
Write in Spanish for five minutes every day
For five minutes every day, write in Spanish about the nicest thing that happened to you that day. Writing in any language is a highly-engaging mental exercise, so this one is really effective. Let me tell a short story to show you just how worthwhile it is.
I used to do an internship in Buenos Aires in an online retail store. In order for my school to validate my internship experience, I had to write an internship report at the end of it. So for two months straight I kept a journal in which I wrote down everything that I’d need to remember later to write this report.
But here’s the catch: In order to keep practicing my language skills, I wrote this journal entirely in Spanish. When I didn’t know how to say something, I just asked Google how to say it and listo (done)!
I honestly think that this had a major impact on my Spanish improvement, and would highly recommend that you keep a journal and write for as little as 3-5 minutes every day. Consistency is key. Write about something cool or crazy that happened to you that day, or something that you sincerely would like to remember.
To keep the writing flowing, rather than stopping to look up words in the moment, another option is to write words you don’t know in English (wherever they appear in the sentence) and put parenthesis around them. So a sentence from your journal could look like this:
“Hoy fui al supermercado y compré manzanas, (kale), leche y pan.”
Again, the important thing is to make it a daily habit. Writing in Spanish forces you to think in Spanish, and you’ll learn useful vocabulary that you regularly encounter in your life.
Watch the news or listen to the radio and repeat
This exercise is similar to walking around busy places and repeating what people are saying. Perhaps a good warm-up is this variation: Turn on the local TV or radio station and try to repeat everything that’s said during 30 seconds. It’s a pretty exhausting and discouraging exercise at the beginning, so just doing it for 30 seconds a day is actually enough.
I can assure you that if you want to improve your accent and speaking speed, this technique will work wonders for you. After a while, when it becomes too easy, you can go on for one minute, then two minutes and go all the way up to five minutes a day if you can.
Allow me to emphasize again that this exercise is really hard at first, but if you stick with it you’ll seriously improve your understanding of Spanish subtleties as well as your ability to express yourself.
Think in Spanish for one minute every day
This is another secret sauce of mine, and a technique that has contributed tremendously to the fact that I reached Spanish fluency. I decided to take as many opportunities as I could to practice my Spanish. One of the best (and often overlooked) opportunities is to practice in your mind!
Whether you’re regularly in your head a lot or not, just try to think solely in Spanish (about anything) for one minute every day. But there’s one more step: While you’re thinking, jot down any words you’re unsure of, or phrases you couldn’t express. This is, of course, so that you can look it up afterwards.
This could be a frustrating exercise if you’re brand new to Spanish. But if you give it serious effort, your understanding of Spanish will skyrocket and you’ll quickly find yourself thinking in Spanish automatically without even trying—which is so rewarding!
Once again, progress will come from consistency. Just do it for one minute every day at the start, and as you begin to form the habit, slowly increase your Spanish thinking time.
How to Improve Your Spanish Fast by Socializing with Other People
Take a non-language class in Spanish
You have hobbies, right? Is there an activity you enjoy that you do regularly in your home town? Is it dance? Play ultimate Frisbee? Sketch or draw? Play guitar? Whatever it is, taking a class abroad related to your hobby can yield some great improvements to your Spanish skills as well as your social life.
Indeed, this will force you to communicate with other people in Spanish while practicing something you like and may be good at. Again, it comes back to stimulating your brain to learn a new language while keeping it fun and engaging. Since you’ll already be familiar with the activity, you’ll most likely recognize some terms and quickly enrich your vocabulary.
Taking a class in a Spanish-speaking country will also help you meet new people and build your social circle. You already have an interest in common with your classmates, which makes it easier to become friends.
And if you don’t already have a hobby of this type, now is the perfect time to start! I remember when I first started taking tango classes in Buenos Aires (what a stereotype, right?). It was awful at the beginning (awful might even be an understatement), but I kept at it and ended up dancing decently!
The biggest benefit, however, were the friends from all over the world that I made at those classes. We were a little group of French, Argentine, Greek, Dutch, Danish, British, Australian and Italian folks who were taking tango classes together. Soon we began hanging out in bars, clubs and restaurants, or just having an asado (Argentine barbecue) at one of our apartments. And guess how easy it was to practice my Spanish then?
Find a language exchange partner
Believe me, you are lucky. In every single Spanish-speaking country in the world, there are people who want to improve their English. Why not find some of those people and help them practice their English while they help you improve your Spanish? You’ll likely find quite a few people interested in doing such a cool language exchange (intercambio).
So how do you find such people? You can use websites like couchsurfing.com (social network for travelers), craigslist.org or conversationexchange.com (website for people who want to practice languages) to do so. Create a profile or post, and reach out to locals to find those that want to have casual language exchange meetings over coffee, for example.
You can also look for local interest groups on meetup.com or just browse through Facebook groups for any local conversation groups already in existence.
Here are a couple of tips to make sure that both participants get the most out of every languag
- Speak equal amounts of time in English and Spanish (15/15 or 30/30 – minutes).
- Make sure that when one of you makes a mistake, the other corrects it immediately.
- Meet once a week at the same time to make it a standard weekly meeting.
- Have fun and keep the conversation light.
Attend events for language learners
In several big cities, there are groups of people who gather for the specific purpose of practicing languages. How cool is that? These kinds of events are really successful, and you can end up speaking several languages in one night thanks to the number of participants.
Some of these gatherings may be organized by local hostels, language schools, universities or private entities charging you a small fee for the experience.
Just ask around town and search local Facebook events, Craigslist events, library bulletin boards, university newspapers, Meetup events and Couchsurfing events to find language exchanges.
Always speak in Spanish when you’re with Spanish speakers
People naturally tend to take the path of least resistance. So if someone speaks to you in Spanish and realizes it’s difficult for you to understand what they’re saying, that person will usually switch to English. Now, if you have a poor level of Spanish when you land in a Spanish-speaking country, and every one keeps switching to English because you don’t understand, how in the world will you ever progress?
This is why you have be bold with people and simply say that you need to practice your Spanish skills. Don’t switch to English when someone else does; continue answering in Spanish and they’ll get the picture. Most people will be delighted to see you going to such great lengths to learn their mother tongue, so they’ll be more than happy to help you out. I’m speaking from first-hand experience here!
When I arrived in Buenos Aires, I couldn’t understand nor say hardly anything for several weeks. And yet, I was forcing people to speak to me in Spanish because I knew this is how I would get better. And I did! Like most endeavors in a foreign country, it was difficult at first, but helped me progress really fast.
This is because the best way to advance your Spanish-skills quickly is to always, always use solely Spanish when you hang out with Spanish-speaking people. Don’t get lazy like everybody else, because this is how some people live abroad for years and still don’t speak the local language: They never use it.
Don’t spend time with non-Spanish speakers
If you want to learn to speak Spanish fast, you’ll have to keep yourself from non-Spanish speakers. That can be challenging when all you feel like doing is connecting with other expats going through the same feelings as you, but at least in the beginning, sticking with Spanish speakers is key.
This is another example of ceasing every opportunity you have to practice your Spanish. Especially when you’ve just landed, you’ll want to focus on improving your language abilities since. So take it seriously and don’t get lazy.
Organize your very own weekly language exchange
Okay so this could very well be your secret weapon for lightning-fast Spanish improvement.
I know a British guy that I met in Buenos Aires—let’s call him Bob. Bob is a regular guy who wanted to improve his Spanish, so he got to Argentina and started looking for a job. He got a job and it was all right, but he quickly saw that it wasn’t that easy to find people to speak Spanish with when you’re a foreigner and can hardly speak the language yourself.
He then had the idea to form his own Spanish practice group. He went out and told to a couple of friends about his idea and they started to get together every Tuesday night at an Irish bar. The idea got out. People liked it, and quickly more and more participants were joining his event week after week.
Three years later, his event is now held three times a week in Buenos Aires (as well as in London, Montreal, Berlin, Sydney and Ireland) and gathers around 500 locals and foreigners from all over the world every week to practice Spanish as well as French, German, English, Italian and more.
Now, this last tip is not about encouraging you to build such an empire (although you could). The interesting part is what Bob got out of it; He became fully bilingual in a couple of months and has been propelled in an incredible and diverse multicultural community of which he’s taking full advantage to enrich himself and his estancia (stay) in town!
Now, how would you go about creating your very own small language exchange meeting and dramatically improve your Spanish? Here are five easy steps:
- Step 1: Find one language exchange buddy (using the tips given previously).
- Step 2: Decide what day and time you’ll meet every week, and also choose an appropriate location for the meet up (make sure it’s not too loud for conversation).
- Step 3: Ask your new buddy to help connect more people who want to practice Spanish and English.
- Step 4: Create your own Meetup group and/or Facebook event for your weekly conversation exchange gathering and invite people using Facebook groups, Couchsurfing, Craigslist and Conversation Exchange. You could also send out a weekly email to members, reminding them of the event.
- Step 5: Make sure to personally invite the people you meet who you think could be a good fit for your small conversation practice event. When new people come in, get their contact information, invite them back and ask them to invite their friends.
Follow these five steps and you should find yourself with around six cool and supportive people to hang out with every week while improving each other’s language skills over a drink! Could there be a better way to learn Spanish?
So for fast Spanish learning in a Spanish-speaking country, try out the different techniques outlined in this post and see which you like the most. Maybe start with just one strategy to use regularly when you are by yourself, and one when you are surrounded with other people.
You could get overwhelmed by trying to implement all 12 at once, so just start small and slowly build up your comfort level. Remember to practice consistently and push yourself out of your comfort zone. Compliments about your Spanish-speaking abilities are on the horizon!
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