Brave as a Lion: 5 Outstanding Tips for Making Friends with Spanish Grammar
Does the thought of Spanish grammar give you wild fear?
No need to panic! Our five tips will help prove that the unfamiliar Spanish grammar is, in fact, very approachable.
In fact, you could become friends with the beast you’ve built it up to be in your mind.
- Why You Shouldn’t Stress About Spanish Grammar
- Taming the Beast: 5 Tips to Make You Fearless of Spanish Grammar
Why You Shouldn’t Stress About Spanish Grammar
Do you know all the ins and outs of your first language’s grammar? Do you know exactly why you use one verb over the other, or what the rules are for talking about uncertain situations?
Unless you’re a language teacher, the answer is probably a bit fat “no.” That’s because you learned the rules of your own language without studying them at all.
“Are you saying you can throw in the towel and give up learning grammar altogether?” I hear you shout excitedly.
Well… not quite, but you should be comforted that learning the grammar of another language is totally possible. If you did it for one language without even thinking, you can definitely do it for another, even if there is some thinking involved.
You should also remember that the aim of learning a language is to communicate. And if you’re aiming for communication, not perfection, then there really is no need to stress out about grammar. As you probably know, you can communicate a lot without any verbs at all. Go into a shop and say “bread,” and you’ll likely end up being given some bread; no one will care that you didn’t use verbs to communicate this need.
That said, in some situations grammar is essential. It can be near impossible to figure out some sentences without it. If you go up to a friend and say “shop,” your friend may be confused about whether you want to go shopping, whether you are simply pointing out the shop nearby, whether you went shopping yesterday or whether you want to go shopping in three days time and are inviting your friend to join you.
Now let’s have a look at our five awesome tips.
Taming the Beast: 5 Tips to Make You Fearless of Spanish Grammar
1. Realize that grammar is everywhere.
Many students (and even teachers) make the mistake of dividing up Spanish language into strict categories or “skills” (reading, writing, listening, speaking, grammar) that never cross over. The fact is, they’re all related, so don’t just think that you’re only studying grammar when you’re dutifully filling in the blanks.
Grammar is part of every aspect of learning Spanish. It’s in the conversations you have, it’s in the books you read and it’s in the radio show you’re listening to. If all you do to learn grammar is do isolated grammar practice, without putting what you’ve learned into context or practicing it in real-world situations, you won’t improve your communication skills.
Try thinking about grammar while you’re practicing other skills too. So when you’re reading, you can focus on the sentence structure of the words you’re reading, and also jot down any new vocabulary. You could even underline structures you’re unsure of to look up later, or make a note of any unusual or irregular verbs you come across.
You can do the same when you’re listening to a Spanish song, watching TV or having a conversation. It’s all grammar practice if you want it to be.
2. Learn phrases, and then analyze them.
Just as grammar isn’t isolated, nor are words. Long lists of vocabulary are great, but then again, they don’t tend to aid communication. Phrases or “chunks” of words are the way to go. And with chunks or phrases, there is grammar.
Sounds confusing? Let’s take the phrase “¿Dónde está el banco?” and deconstruct it.
We know dónde is a question word. So that must mean that question words in Spanish come at the start of a question, just like in English. Easy.
Está is our equivalent to “is” in our English phrase “Where is the bank?,” and is only used to talk about he/she/it/you (singular formal). If we want to ask about the location of several banks instead of just one, we would have to say “¿Dónde están los bancos?,” changing the verb estar into a different form.
If you don’t know how to manipulate the verb estar in the present tense, now’s your time to learn. Get started with this post. If you’re unsure of why we use estar in this situation and not ser, this post will clear up your worries.
The next bit of the sentence is el banco. The el is the masculine article, which tells us that banco is a masculine noun. As we saw above, when we want to talk about more than one bank, we have to change both our article and our noun, to make them plural (los bancos). To find out more about gender in Spanish, see this post.
Perhaps that example was a bit simple for you, but you get the idea about how a sentence can be broken down and analyzed, and this exercise can be really useful to get your head around how Spanish sentences work.
Another simple sentence, such as “Ella tiene ojos azules muy lindos” can also help us with the word order of adjectives. It can help us remember that we need to put the noun ojos before the adjective azules in Spanish, for example.
One fun way to analyze grammar—while learning new vocabulary and improving your listening and pronunciation skills at the same time (didn’t we say that all skills are related?)—is to analyze song lyrics. Here’s how to get started on this.
3. Study little and often, and use a variety of resources.
It’s not how many hours you study that counts, it’s how you study. If you learn best by cramming in hours and hours at a time, then go for it, but most people learn best when they break up their studying. So remember to take frequent breaks, and that studying for half an hour each day is proven to be better than trying to study for four hours at a time on the weekends.
What sort of resources can you use?
Glad you asked.
Try reading books in Spanish, you can do this at any level, even beginners. You could also listen to podcasts or the radio, and you could watch videos. You can read the news in Spanish and watch TV. The possibilities are endless. And of course, finding someone to talk with helps!
But how exactly can you suck the grammar out of listening to a podcast or watching TV?
The best thing to do in this situation is to get some kind of written record of whatever you’re listening to. This might mean turning on the subtitles while you’re watching TV, or tracking down the transcript of a podcast.
Once you’ve got the written record in front of you, you can start to notice the grammar of the sentences (you might want to underline them or keep a note of them somewhere). You might notice, for example, the use of the subjunctive but not know why exactly the subjunctive is being used in that case. You can then look this up, save it to look up later, or ask your Spanish teacher or Spanish-speaking friend at a later date.
Once you get into the habit of listening to these structures, you may just want to listen next time without reading at the same time. As you’re listening, you can make note of any grammar points that you want to review or don’t understand. The beauty of listening to something like a podcast is that you can always pause and repeat the same part of the podcast over and over until you understand what’s going on.
Language learning apps are also another helpful resource that can ensure your Spanish lessons are manageable and consistent. Just download one or a few and pop them open when you have time available in your daily schedule.
Some apps, like FluentU, can also help you dissect native media as previously discussed. FluentU takes authentic videos, such as music and news, and combines them with learner tools to let you learn Spanish in context. Each clip comes with interactive captions that provide comprehensive information about the vocabulary used. You can review material with multimedia flashcards, word lists and personalized quizzes, and a built-in streak tracker can document your progress.
Remember that all the above activities include some element of grammar, but if you want to focus very specifically on one thing, then doing grammar exercises little and often is also a great way to get to grips with tricky rules and practice the parts of grammar that you’re really unsure of.
4. Track your progress.
One of the best ways to feel good about your learning is to measure it.
There are plenty of ways to track your Spanish learning journey. Yes, we did just call it a journey, and sometimes it feels like a long, hard one too. But this journey is easier to reflect on if you’ve kept a record of how you’re doing along the way.
There are a number of ways to do this. You might write in a little Spanish journal every month, day or week. You could write it like a real diary, recording what you’ve done that day, or you could write a little text using the new vocabulary and grammar you’ve learned since the last entry.
You could also use an app to do the hard work of tracking your progress for you. Apps like LangFolio create lots of clever graphs that help you see your progress, and you can use apps such as QuickVoice Recorder to record yourself speaking in Spanish and then listen back to hear how you’ve improved over time.
It’s a good idea to record yourself speaking for a set length of time, say one minute or thirty seconds on a specific subject (i.e. my family). You can then record yourself again talking about the same subject two weeks, two months or six months later (depending on how fast you think you’re improving, if you’re doing an intensive Spanish course you could even record yourself every day). You can then listen back and actually hear yourself getting better over time.
You can also review your recordings a couple of weeks or even immediately after you record them and see if you can correct any errors you made.
This is useful for improving several skills in Spanish, but if you want to focus on one grammar area in particular, you could record yourself talking in the past tense, in the future tense, trying to use conditionals, or whatever it is that you’re currently struggling with. You can focus on the same grammar point over several recordings until you’re happy that you’ve got to grips with it.
For an extra challenge, you could begin by recording a basic speech about a specific topic (family would also work well here) and then challenge yourself to add in a new aspect of grammar, such as those mentioned above, every time you record yourself.
5. Focus on problematic areas.
Now we all love avoiding a good problem, it’s in our nature. But we also mostly know that doing this doesn’t help us in the long run.
So it may be time to face up to your Spanish grammar demons.
If the Spanish subjunctive is a slippery concept for you and you find yourself avoiding it, then you need to focus on that area until you understand it. If you’re constantly getting the verb gustar mixed up, then you need to study the rules until you know them by heart, and try to use that verb as much as possible.
So write a list of your current grammar gripes, or ask your Spanish friend or teacher to tell you which areas you need to work on, and get to it!
Using these five tips, Spanish grammar domination will soon be yours!