So you already know Spanish…
Maybe you started learning it in high school or college.
But you’re clueless as to where to take it next.
In any case, you don’t feel quite confident enough yet to put “bilingual” on your résumé.
So it’s time to put down those grammar books, step outside of the classroom and start working on real fluency.
It may be easier than you think.
Cast aside your doubts, roll up your sleeves and check out these seven ways to improve your Spanish and take it to the next level.
7 Fun, Mostly Free Ways to Improve Your Spanish in a Jiffy
1. Make Spanish Your Preferred Language, Always
If you want to learn Spanish for real, the reasonable first step is to cut as much English as possible out of your daily life.
To start with, think of all the familiar programs and devices that you use everyday, like your computer, phone and television. Now think of the ones that communicate with you and remember that most of them are multilingual.
If you haven’t already done so, change the settings on them from English to Spanish. This can easily be done from the menu of most of your devices, as well as for your personal accounts, such as Gmail. Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest come with their own opportunities to practice the language.
You may already be doing the above, but there are plenty of other opportunities that probably come up for you to choose Spanish in your daily life that can grow your word bank and fluency.
For example, take advantage of the chance to read directions in Spanish. Just think, when you’re putting furniture together, reading instructions on cosmetics or food, you can double the productivity of that time by studying Spanish at the same time.
If you’re comfortable enough, you may even try to marque dos (press two) when calling customer service.
As a language that has spread and evolved around the world over hundreds of years, Spanish has a lot of variety.
An important question to ask yourself once you’re past the basics of the language is where specifically you plan on using your Spanish.
Once you have an idea about this, learning some background information about Spanish can give you an idea about how the language has evolved over the centuries and how to adapt it to your preferred country or countries.
Learning this information not only helps to refine and focus your studies, but also makes it easier to communicate with different varieties of Spanish by painting a clearer picture of the various Spanish-speaking regions and how and why they came to develop their own linguistic styles.
For instance, Argentinians speak with an accent that sounds very Italian because of the large numbers of Italians settling there in the 19th century, and the vast mountain ranges had a lot to do with the largely differing accents across Spain.
Some Spanish accents have entirely distinct pronunciations for letters. For example, in Colombia, they pronounce their capital city Medellín more like Medejin because they have a different sound for the ll from the standard Spanish you may know.
Castilian Spanish differs from Latin American Spanish in general, and you can find even more differences between Cuban, Bolivian, Dominican, Puerto Rican and Costa Rican Spanish, as well as all the other varieties of Spanish spoken from country to country.
Spanish in different areas can sound almost like a different language entirely if you’re not expecting it, so it can only improve your overall Spanish to learn at least a little about the major differences throughout the language.
Concentrate on how the language in the areas where you plan on using your Spanish differs from the standard Spanish taught in classrooms. This way you’ll know which dialects you can already understand and which ones you may need to do a little bit of specialized studying of beforehand.
In addition to learning about the differing dialects, you’ll also have a better idea of what people are talking about when language-related subjects or regional slang come up in conversation and have more chances to practice. There are many words, concepts and expressions in Spanish that can’t be easily translated and will give you a boost on vocabulary that you may not find in the mainstream of your Spanish study.
Here are a few ways to start advancing your knowledge of the Spanish language:
- Quizlet offers online flashcards for Spanish history vocabulary. This can give you a boost towards understanding various sources about the history of Spanish in Spanish.
- Spanish Obsessed offers a quick guide of the major dialects and breaks down the most distinctive differences between them. It also gives some helpful audio samples so you can hear the differences for yourself.
- FluentU uses authentic media to help you pick up on important regional and cultural information about Spanish-speaking countries while also learning Spanish. FluentU takes real-world videos—like movie trailers, music videos, news and inspiring talks—and uses them to create personalized language learning lessons that will help you move beyond the classroom and see how you can actually start using your Spanish.
- “A Brief History of the Spanish Language” is a more thorough and scholarly book, if you’d like to dig a little deeper.
3. Volunteer Abroad in a Spanish-speaking Country
You may think that you can’t afford to learn Spanish in a Spanish-speaking country, but a common way for anyone to see the world and also to improve their skills in a particular language is by doing volunteer work in a country where that language is spoken.
You can do exactly this to improve your Spanish.
Often, in exchange for a few hours of work during the week, volunteers are provided with accommodation, food and learning opportunities. There are many different programs and arrangements for this type of volunteer work in Spanish-speaking countries that range from working in a hostel to farming to serving as a nanny.
Living in a Spanish-speaking country among native Spanish speakers and having to use at least some Spanish every day will greatly advance your language abilities.
One of the most common websites to find positions like these is Workaway, where there are thousands of hosts from 155 countries around the world, many of which have Spanish as a national language.
Just type the country of your choice in the search box, and see what comes up that strikes your fancy, or browse through the hundreds of listings on the page for South America alone.
Immersing yourself in the language, learning some new life skills, meeting friends and having a real Spanish experience—it doesn’t get much better than that.
The website even has a section for those who intend to use the program as a language-learning opportunity. The only catch to this one is that it may require the cost of a plane ticket and at least a few weeks of commitment.
4. Hack Group Language Exchanges and Look for More Opportunities to Practice with Locals
Did you know that 17% of the American population is Hispanic?
This means that if you live in the United States, you shouldn’t have too much of a problem finding ways to practice Spanish.
Even if you don’t live in the United States, Spanish is the most widely-dispersed language in the world, so wherever it is you may be, you can likely find some other English speakers trying to learn Spanish or vice versa.
And this can really help you out a lot because one of the best ways to improve your Spanish is to put it to use outside of your home or classroom.
There are plenty of approaches to take, but one of the most highly recommended ways is to sign up for a group language exchange.
A language exchange is a casual event that usually takes place at a public venue, sometimes weekly, where people who are trying to learn a second language get together and help each other. You’ll likely find plenty of native Spanish and English speakers eager to communicate and practice with you.
Oftentimes, you’ll find that many of the people there are repeat attendees or have been to at least a few language exchanges in the past, which means they’re especially ready to be helpful and supportive.
Language exchanges can be almost like getting an extra class every week, except there are no grades, the cost is free and you get to talk about what’s relevant to your life rather than what’s in a textbook.
Here’s how to get started:
- If you’re into the idea of finding language exchanges and other activities in the same circle, one of the most useful resources for this is Meetup.com. Making meetups a regular event will surely earn you knowledge, a new perspective on the language and at least a few new friends.
- If your Spanish doesn’t flow very well yet in conversation, be sure to think of a few things you want to talk about and look them up beforehand to make the most of your time at the venue. And it wouldn’t hurt to bring a notepad, either!
- It’s a good idea to try to become a regular and practice new grammar and vocabulary points at each meetup. For instance, practicing ten new vocabulary words and a verb tense at each meetup could be a good start.
Aside from language exchanges, the possibilities of what you may find on Meetup are endless. Not only can you find people who want to get together to practice and study the language, but you may also find groups dedicated to other interests like cooking Spanish food, flamenco dancing or exploring Hispanic culture, which would definitely give you more insight and exposure to the Spanish language.
Also be sure to keep an eye out for more Spanish-language events in your area. In the United States, there’s even an entire month dedicated to Hispanic heritage (September 15 to October 15) during which you can find plenty of opportunities to dive into the culture and absorb more of the Spanish language—but it’s possible you’ll be able to find events in your area year-round!
5. Learn Synonyms of Spanish Words You Already Know
While this one may sound like overkill, you’d be surprised how helpful it is!
Think of how many different ways you can say a word or phrase in English and then remember that Spanish is many centuries older than English and spread out over dozens of countries.
Think of all the different variations of “what’s up?” in English.
There are just as many, if not more, in Spanish!
Just to name a few:
- ¿Qué pasa?
- ¿Qué tal?
- ¿Qué onda?
Imagine if you heard ¿qué onda? for the first time. It could be especially confusing since it translates directly to “what wave?”
As it sometimes turns out, the practical language you may be needing to communicate may be a bit different from what you’ve learned from books.
You don’t want to spend countless hours studying and memorizing only to find yourself confused when you try to put your Spanish to use and someone doesn’t respond using the same words as your book did.
Learning synonyms will not only expand your understanding of Spanish, it’s also as easy as 1,2,3:
- Learn a little about the specific dialect you plan to use.
- Learn some slang, common phrases and expressions of that area.
- Use WordReference to find synonyms for the common words and phrases you already know.
6. Write Your Planner and Other Notes in Spanish
While writing is just as important a skill as any other, it can be easy to lose touch with it after you’ve finished with your classes.
You may already be used to taking notes specifically for your Spanish learning, but since writing is one of the easiest and most stress-free ways to practice, why not just start switching the language you keep your daily notes in to Spanish?
You don’t even have to worry about finding that extra time in your schedule to do it, since the only thing you’re doing is switching from English to Spanish.
This means keeping your daily planner in Spanish, writing your grocery lists, recipes, reminders and anything else you put to paper (or digital device) in Spanish during your daily life. Most of these things can just as well be written in Spanish, or at least a combination of Spanish and English, since it’s just for your own personal use.
All of these things can easily be turned into a quick Spanish lesson. For example:
- You can make the focus of your grocery lists all about gender, and look up the gender of each thing on your list that you’re unsure about as you’re writing it.
- You can make the future tense the focus of your planner as you note all the things you will do or need to do.
Then watch how your speed, fluency and word bank grow in the process.
If you’re up for a bigger challenge, start a diary. Even if it’s just a few short, simple sentences a day, it will be interesting to look back on and see how much you’ve improved from the beginning to the end. And a diary is a great way to learn the past tense!
7. Become a Spanish-language Foodie
You probably already have some idea of how much a culture’s food has to do with its language. By hitting up some authentic local restaurants where the staff speaks Spanish, you’re sure to gain more than just a few pounds. You’ll get more exposure to the language, the chance to use Spanish menus and much more. Try to challenge yourself by placing your order and talking to the waitstaff in Spanish.
Another good strategy is to bring a dictionary and look up the words on the menu that you don’t yet have in your Spanish vocabulary. You may even learn a few words that don’t have an English translation!
Take it a step farther and learn by practicing recipes from the specific Spanish-speaking country of your choice.
If you have enough confidence in your Spanish and cooking abilities (or even if you don’t yet!), try looking up some recipes in Spanish from the region of your choice.
Here are couple good places to find recipes in Spanish:
- The Mexican version of Allrecipes is a popular website where you can find tons of Mexican recipes in Mexican Spanish.
- Comida Kraft has something for almost every Spanish-speaking country.
If you want more, you can always just type into Google recetas en español (recipes in Spanish) along with the country of your choice to find the style of Spanish and food you want.
The typical way recipes are written should give you an opportunity to practice the simple present tense, making them great material to focus on simple verbs.
Cocinar (to cook), cortar (to cut) and mezclar (to mix) are just a few examples.
If you’re not quite up to that level and would like to start off with recipes in English, the Food Network website has a huge variety of recipes. You can start off by learning the names of the dishes you’re cooking and looking up the translations of some of the ingredients, then try the above resources when you’re ready.
Hope these ideas help you on your quest to learn Spanish in a jiffy.
Happy studies and buena suerte (good luck)!
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