The struggle with intermediate Spanish is so real.
Chances are good that you feel like Sísifo (Sisyphus), perpetually pushing the same boulder up the same hill trying to reach the elusive Level C, only to be let down time and time again.
Enter the B1/B2 slump…or, as I like to call it, The Bump.
Not too long ago you were congratulating yourself on your Spanish learning achievements. Level B! You did it! You can successfully order at a Mexican restaurant all on your own, officially making you not a beginner!
But now what? You may still blank when spoken to and you may be timid in your responses to anything more substantive than, “¿Cuántos años tienes tú?” (How old are you?). Your inner monologue might even be saying, “Yes, I know Spanish, but you caught me off guard and now I’ve forgotten the first half of your sentence!”
Don’t worry. This happens to all of us.
Having studied Spanish for more than 10 years, I’m embarrassed to say I can’t remember how many times I’ve taken a class leveled at B1. The level that says, “Yes, I do know my tenses” and “Yes, I do understand you,” but apparently doesn’t qualify me to think fast enough to make coherent sentences in a real-time conversation with native speakers.
Though my comprehension has increased tremendously, I’m still relatively slow to create responses in an appropriate amount of time. Most people are patient and don’t rush me, but I can’t help but feel a little ashamed that I haven’t improved more at this stage in my studies. It’s this horrible, sticky plateau that plagues many foreign language students and can either stall you or stop you altogether.
So, what is it that’s so difficult about B1 and B2? Why do so many students end up having to repeat the class at various stages in their language development?
You can ramble on and on about what your daily life looks like, what you used to do when you were a child and even what you will do in the future, but still there are some holes in your grammar, and not to mention, some surprise new tenses (Subjunctive, what?!).
Now what? What can you do to revive the old study regime? How can you push yourself more to finally get that piedra (stone) over the hill? Fear not! Regardless of how many tips you’ve read about before, there are always more innovative ideas to rejuvenate your inner student.
Think back to when you were a child and began learning about the five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell. It was easy to comprehend these ideas because you were actively engaged with them every day. This goes along with the of the technique of active learning—as students, we need more physical activity involved in the memorization process to improve retention.
Quite simply, sensory input builds context.
The next question is, how can you get good sensory input related to Spanish grammar on a daily basis?
Here’s how! Try these tips to employ all your sensory abilities and incorporate Spanish grammar practice into your everyday life.
The Sensory Approach to Intermediate Spanish Grammar: Learning Methods for the 5 Senses
Reading is excellent practice for visual learners. Try studying your Spanish with e-books, those natively written in Spanish and those made for Spanish students are both useful. One reading resource that was designed specifically for intermediate learners of Spanish is Fluent Spanish Academy from I Will Teach You a Language (the brainchild of polyglot Olly Richards). You’ll be taught grammar points through short stories in e-book form. Read to learn!
If you’re on the lower end of the intermediate Spanish learning spectrum, Olly also has a course for you: Grammar Hero was specially designed to give you a solid foundation in grammar using a visually appealing method.
Never underestimate the power of flashcards.
One of the best things my high school Spanish teacher ever did was force us to create conjugation flashcards. I still have them to this day! They’re great reference materials and provide a good way to study a lot of information in a short amount of time in between all the other things you have to do in your amazing and busy life.
To save time when creating your own set, use a conjugation website. If you aren’t too keen on making your own cards, you can buy a complete set online or at a bookstore. There are also plenty of resources available online where users have uploaded their own submissions. Some examples are SpanishDict or Quizlet. The downside is that then you’re at the whim of what someone else has deemed correct and, since they’re only human, they aren’t infallible.
If you’re looking for that perfect balance—fabulous, informative flashcards that are tailor-made for you, but flashcards that you don’t have to make yourself—then you’ve got to try FluentU.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
The flashcards on the site come straight from this awesome video content! And there are a few different ways you can go about playing with these flashcards.
After choosing an individual video based on your skill level and personal interests, you’ll be prompted to choose between “watch” and “learn” modes. If you opt for “watch,” you’ll watch your videos as normal with interactive subtitles that are translated both by word and by sentence.
If you click on “learn,” then you’ll go straight to the personalized flashcard content using key vocabulary from the video, giving you a chance to practice either ahead of time or after watching the clip. This “learn mode” actually integrates pictures, video clips and example sentences into the flashcards, making for truly memorable in-context learning experiences. Try it out on the website, on the iPhone app or get the Android app.
Listening to the news is an extremely underrated study method.
Nowhere else will you get such a diverse combination of tenses as you do when you watch the local Spanish news channel—what happened last weekend (past tense), what’s happening today (present tense), what the weather will be like tomorrow (future tense), what the nation will do if so-and-so is elected (subjunctive/conditional tenses), etc.
I remember when I was living in Chicago, I would purposefully turn on las noticias (the news) before my Spanish class to help prepare my ears. Bet you didn’t think your ears needed a warm-up, did you? Try it!
When you’re surrounded by only your native language, you have to push yourself more and more to look for new opportunities to learn.
Inside everyone, there’s an actor or actress waiting to have their moment. Simply listen to programs, perhaps while getting ready for work or preparing a meal, and repeat the information as if you were the commentator, narrator or main character. This will get you used to using multiple tenses within the same oration. It’s a small change that will have immense benefits!
Want something more discreet? Not into watching the news?
How about public radio? Sure, listening to all the Latin pop songs can help you learn Spanish, but they can only take you so far. Unless, of course you’re looking for help flirting in Spanish.
For real grammar practice, especially at the intermediate B1/B2 level, public radio is good because it will employ the tenses you need to practice and can be utilized while multitasking.
For a while, I’ve been looking for a Spanish equivalent to America’s NPR and I finally stumbled upon Radio Nacional de Espana (Spanish National Radio). They have a long list of programs and podcasts tailored to whatever topic might interest you. And they’re short! There’s also Onda Cero, Instituto Mexico de la Radio, and Radio Nacional de Argentina, to name a few.
Want something even more realistic? Even grittier? You should look into the Gritty Spanish audio program (assuming you’re all grown up and okay with some mature language). They often incorporate slang, accents and curse words into their dialogues, so it can be a fun—and slightly offensive yet humorous—way to hear real-life Spanish in action, used by native speakers in real ways. Yeah, sometimes life gets vulgar, and now you’ll be prepared to face it in Spanish.
Plus, the Gritty Spanish audio dialogues have lifelike background noises (subway train movements, people talking and cutlery clinking in a restaurant) that make you feel even more immersed in the audio scenes. Try a free sample on their site!
Achieving a goal of listening for at least 20 minutes every day is easily managed. Simply choose a station and put your headphones in! You can also try writing or typing what you hear if you’re in a quiet environment like a library.
If the speed at which the commentators speak is too difficult or intimidating, there’s also News in Slow Spanish, which The Guardian named one of the Top Ten Podcasts to Help You Learn a Language. This seems like a wonderful idea, but unfortunately, access to all the content isn’t free.
Another great audio (and video) resource designed for Spanish students is by Innovative Language. They’ve got over 1,600 audios and videos to go through, and they cater to all skill levels.
The physical act of writing has been known to increase comprehension and memorization. So, go out and buy a journal.
Try to write one sentence every day in every tense. Start a routine in the morning, in the evening or even during your lunch hour. Write in the same order every day until it becomes a habit.
Here’s a list to remind you of all the Spanish tenses you’ll need to cover:
- Past Imperfect
- Past Perfect
- Compound Tenses
- Present Participle
- Past Participle
- Past Perfect
- Pretérito Anterior
- Future Participles
Even if you don’t like cooking, I think we can all agree that we like eating.
A great way to practice the Spanish imperative tense is to try translating your favorite recipes. Recipes can be from your most recent vacation or family legends passed down from generation to generation.
You can find a variety of recipes online to get yourself started if you feel at a loss. Choose one you like and translate it into both forms of the imperative, formal and informal. As an added bonus, use the negative imperative in the more complex recipes.
Try one recipe at a time. Here are some traditional dishes, in English, to get your brain and your taste buds started:
- Tortilla Española (Spanish Omelette)
- Fideuá (Spanish Pasta and Seafood Dish)
- Ropa Vieja (Cuban Style Shredded Beef, literally meaning, “Old Clothes”)
- Carne Asada con Mojo (Grilled Beef with Orange Marinade, popular in Mexico)
Once you’ve finished your translation, get to cooking!
This is a sense that could be combined with Taste and Touch, if you love multitasking as much as I do.
When you’re writing in your notebook, try to describe the scene through scents. Scents can trigger memory more than any other sense. Ask yourself some descriptive questions to make sure you use multiple tenses:
- What scents do you remember from yesterday or last weekend? Maybe you went to a crowded concert that reeked of moldy beer and body sweat? (recent past tense)
- What can you smell right now? Food? Drink? Perfume? Pets? (present tense)
- What scent has a specific memory for you? Maybe Grandma’s famous cherry pie? (distant past tense)
- How could a bad scent be improved upon? Perhaps the dog would smell more lovely if its owner chose to bathe him more often? (subjunctive tense)
Take your notebook and describe los buenos olores (good scents) or los tufos (bad scents). If you need some inspiration, you can go to a local park or to a cafe and describe the scents there! You can find ways to use intermediate grammar almost everywhere.
This could also be seen as a creative outlet. It’s common in contemporary society to overlook the smallest details of our days in favor of getting things done and constantly checking our phones. Try writing a poem describing your sensory day. If that’s not really your style, try a Spanish-style wine tasting and describe las aromas (the aromas) your glass of wine evokes.
At the end of the day, this is the most difficult phase of language learning as you know enough to be somewhat confident, but not enough that conjugation comes naturally.
To overcome the Bump, all you need is a little dose of daily discipline!
¡Buena Suerte! (Good Luck!)
Jenny is a twenty-something Master’s student from Detroit. She is currently studying International Relations and Spanish in Barcelona, Spain. Obsessive hobbies include, but are not limited to, traveling, reading, cooking and photography. Keep up with her adventures at The Spinning Jenny.
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