As the Spanish say, “los idiomas se aprenden en la cuna o en la cama”—languages are learned in the crib or in the bed.
I’ll admit it: I got lucky. I had my own personal, 6’4″ Spanish tutor my first year in Spain. But I also had a whole lot of personal motivation to learn, regardless of that relationship. If you’re already hitched, becoming close friends with a Spanish native can be (almost) just as helpful as finding yourself a dashing gentleman.
Before arriving in Madrid to teach English with the North American Language Assistant Program, I wasn’t completely clueless about Spanish. I had studied Spanish throughout school and used helpful online resources in my free time. Just as important, I had a lot of motivation to learn. If you’re reading this right now I can bet that you also have the kind of personal motivation it takes to reach fluency.
However, living in a Spanish-speaking country for an extended period of time is still a must in my opinion. The benefit of both hearing and speaking Spanish every day is invaluable to language learning. If you’re planning a trip to practice all the knowledge you have gained from FluentU, I’d definitely say Spain is a great destination.
I’ll admit I’m a little biased. I arrived in Madrid from the U.S. thinking I would stay for nine months. Two years and one Spanish hubby later, I have no intention of returning anytime soon! However, if you have not yet gone abroad, don’t worry—you’re on the right track with FluentU. In the meantime, continue to immerse yourself in the Spanish language while at home like I did before making the jump.
¡Pero ojo! (But watch out!) If you plan on going abroad, you also need to plan on making the effort to meet native speakers rather than flocking to American groups. I could have easily avoided speaking Spanish for the entire year in Madrid, a big city with lots of international students and eager English learners. My boyfriend at the time (now my husband) also spoke English at an advanced level so I had to force myself to speak Spanish with him.
My commitment paid off. At the end of that first year, I found myself thinking in Spanish and making jokes with his Spanish friends. Just like with any other valuable skill, however, I still had to make mistakes first. A lot of them. If you aren’t making any mistakes then you probably aren’t speaking in Spanish enough. If you make a fool of yourself—are red-faced and mortified and want to jump on the next flight home—at least you’ll never make that mistake again!
In fact, I came to relish those moments because I knew that whatever word I just completely butchered would never be butchered again. Plus, you can usually get a laugh and a story out of these embarrassing moments which is great for small talk with your new Spanish-speaking friends.
Not all mistakes are mortifying though. Some mistakes are small but, like a bad habit, you just can’t seem to shake them no matter how hard you try. Sometimes the same little mistakes will slip out over and over in conversation even though you know the correct way to say them in your head.
Take a deep breath. This is normal.
The important thing is that you’re communicating often, naturally and at a steady pace. This leads to fluency.
A couple of months before the end of my first year in Spain (when I had almost achieved fluency) there was still some knowledge I had about Spanish that refused to perform for me when I needed it in conversation.
Here’s a list of my most recurring mistakes at that time. Get this grammar solidified now and save yourself some pain later!
How to Speak Spanish Fluently: Stop Making These 5 Common Mistakes!
1. Choosing the Past Simple over the Present Perfect
One day as I was describing my morning to my husband in Spanish and using phrases like “me duché” and “fui al supermercado” he stopped me to explain a very important point. A big difference between Spain’s Spanish—known as Castilian Spanish or Castellano—and Spanish from other countries is Spain’s favoring of the present perfect over the past simple. So instead of saying that I showered (me duché) and I went to the grocery store (fui al supermercado) I should have used the present perfect. For example:
I have showered — me he duchado
I have gone to the grocery store — he ido al supermercado
The direct translation sounded quite strange to me in English and that’s why I wasn’t inclined to use it. However, when an action has happened quite recently (in this case on the same day) the Spanish use the present perfect and not the past simple. Past simple is used for things that happened farther back in the past. This is a nitpicky detail, but valuable to know if you want to sound fluent in Spain.
2. Assuming I Can Use Hacer for Everything
This flexible word is very useful indeed. However, there are some occasions when you’ll need to swap it out for another word in order to sound fluent.
Hacer vs. Cometer Errores
Pitifully enough, a lot of the time I couldn’t even say “I always make mistakes in Spanish” without making a mistake in Spanish. The correct sentence would be:
Siempre cometo errores en español.
And my mind translating it directly from English produced the incorrect:
Siempre hago errores en español.
Hacer vs. Tomar Decisiones
In Spanish the verb tomar (to take) is used in the phrase “to make decisions” and not the direct translation from English which would be hacer. So the correct phrase is:
Tomar decisiones — to make decisions
Since I knew that the Spanish verb hacer meant to do or to make, unfortunately it was my natural first choice in both of these cases.
Thankfully the hacer versus tener sentido (makes sense vs. has sense) sunk in pretty fast and I never had a problem with this distinction, although it isn’t a direct translation from our English equivalent.
3. Forever Confusing Reflexive Verbs
Quedar vs. Quedarse
It took me an embarrassingly long time living in Spain before I was aware of the difference between this verb and its reflexive variation, and once I knew it I still couldn’t get it to come out right half the time.
Basically, quedarse means “to stay” and quedar has many meanings but is usually used when speaking of arranging to meet.
Voy a quedarme (or simply me quedo) — I’m going to stay
Voy a quedar con Javier (or the more common he quedado con Javier) = I’m going to meet with Javier
Ir vs. Irme
Same case as before with the reflexive variation meaning “to leave.” Ir means “to go” (to a specific destination) and the reflexive me voy means “I’m leaving” (from this place).
Tengo que irme — I have to leave (from this place)
Tengo que ir al supermercado — I have to go to the grocery store
4. Mixing Up Traer and Llevar
Where to even begin? These two verbs gave me so many problems my first year because in English we colloquially use the verb “bring” for all situations regardless of location. In Spanish they aren’t so relaxed about this. Basically, this is the difference:
Llevar— to take (to go someplace and carry something with you)
Traer — to bring (to come to someplace and bring something with you)
In the end, it’s all relative to your location. If you’re speaking of something you’ve brought to the place you’re currently located, then traer is the verb you’re looking for.
If, however, you’re discussing taking something to a location other than the one you’re currently in, then llevar is the correct verb choice.
So, in other words, if you’re home, you might talk of llevar something al colegio (to school) and traer something a casa (the place you’re currently located).
5. Saying Venir Instead of Ir
The whole coming and going issue is tricky for many. Some would say that llevar is to ir as traer is to venir, which helps a little. You’ll really need to develop a gut sense for the direction in which you’re moving with your actions, and you’ll have to remember to switch up the words you use accordingly.
Ir — to go
Venir — to come
This is by no means an extensive list of the many, many daily mistakes I still made after almost a year of living in Spain. I wasn’t even taught the imperfect subjunctive before coming to Spain so that was a big challenge for me as well in reaching fluency.
On the bright side, I did reach fluency by the end of my first year, testing at a C1 level according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. I also passed what I like to call the “party test” at the end of the year.
What is the party test? Picture yourself at a Spanish bar late at night. The music is loud and pumping in your ears. There are several small groups of your Spanish friends conversing simultaneously, practically screaming over the music. You approach one of the groups and manage to jump into the conversation, actually understanding what’s going on and perhaps even contributing. Bam! You passed the test.
I also mastered the alveolar trill or “rolling my r‘s” as well as the pronunciation of the Spanish j that year. While at first it felt awkward and forced to pronounce those letters in Castilian Spanish, by the end of the year it became second nature along with the Castilian lisp of c‘s and z‘s .
If you have any experience with trying to learn Spanish, then you know that sometimes it feels like Spanish fluency is a carrot on a stick endeavor. It doesn’t help that every Spanish-speaking country sounds like it’s speaking a completely different language sometimes. When I first arrived in Spain I had to slowly trade vocabulary from my Mexican lexicon for words and phrases particular to Spain which wasn’t always easy.
But don’t fret! In the end, you’ll be understood if you have mastered the basics and will come to find that the richness of the Spanish language is something to get excited about. At the beginning of my year abroad I would have never guessed that my carrot on a stick was in reach, but that first sweet bite of fluency recognition is a lot closer than you think.
Constance Chase is a writer and English teacher living in Madrid, Spain with her Spanish husband, Javier. When she is not making hopeless attempts to explain terms like “hipster” and “swag” to her students, she can be found reading on the Metro or wolfing down Spanish ham and two euro wine in old man bars.
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