Thursday, June 4, 2009

Tips for Learning Spanish from a Bad Student

I'm probably not the best person to offer advice about foreign languages. In high school it was the one class I always skipped and I've got a terrible ear, which explains why after nearly seven years living in Barcelona, my Spanish is good enough to communicate, explain my opinions and curse out drivers who run red lights - it's not nearly as proficient as it probably should be.  With that in mind, I'll tell you what I wish people had told me before coming to Barcelona, so after a few years living of here, people will speak in amazement about your español and not be shocked at how bad it is.

It's Spanish, not English.  I know this sounds obvious, but I can't tell you how many people I've met, who say: "But in English, we'd say..."  Things may sound strange to you and it might not be how we say it, but that's what a foreign language is all about.  Otherwise, it'd be English with Spanish words.   An example would be to call back, which is basically to return to call (volver a llamar).  If you were to translate it literally, it'd be: volver detras, which to a Spaniard sounds like you're calling them "behind," as in look out behind you!  Another example is to be hot, which in Spanish is literally to have heat (tener calor).  If you directly translate I'm hot in Spanish (Estoy caliente) it means you're horny.

Skip the grammar books and buy one just with Spanish verbs.  At least compared to English, Spanish is a real verb intensive.  Like with most Latin based languages, you have to conjugate all persons and the most common verbs tend to be irregular.  Unfortunately, the only way to really learn the verbs is to study them.  Trust me, I've tried not to, but there really isn't any alternative. That said: by mastering the different forms and conjugations of these TEN following verbs, you'll be well on your way to speaking Spanish more fluently than most guiris who live here. These verbs are tener (to have), poner (to put), hacer (to make/do), coger (to get) ir (to go), dar (to give) saber/conocer (to know). venir (to come), volver (to come/get/go back) and ser/estar (to be).

Forget the continuous.  In English, we spend most of our time saying: I'm doing something or she's going somewhere or They're calling about.  In Spanish: it's I do or she goes or they call.  The continuous is rarely used, and you're better off forgetting it even exists for the first few months. Same goes for other words we're so fond of using like actually, really, honestly and I wonder.  The Spanish don't have the need to qualify that - what they are saying is truly what they are saying - if you know what I mean, nor do they tend the announce the fact that they're thinking about something.  An example would be: I wonder if John is actually coming?  or I wonder who's calling. In Spanish it'd be: Will John come? (¿Vendrá Juan?) or Who will call? (¿Quien llamará?)

Be direct, but not rude.  Again our English politeness often has us starting a question with: Would you mind...? or Could you...? or Do you think that you could...?  or May I...? Just cut to the chase in Spanish.  So instead of saying: Would you mind pouring me a beer, please?  Say: Pour me a beer, please  (Ponme una cerveza, por favor).  Also remember this goes the other way around: Spanish will speak to you just as directly, so don't get offended.  It's not personal.

Open you're mouth, and say it loud and proud.  I remember as a child, my parents always stressed the need to be soft spoken and not shout.  If you take this approach in Spain, you'll find yourself waiting for service and ignored.  Of course this doesn't mean to yell, but it does mean to project your voice like you were giving a speech.

Accept the fact that the same letters have different sounds.  The most obvious example is the "Z," which in Spanish is closer to the "TH."  The same pronunciation applies for the "C."  Meanwhile the "V" is the same as the "B" and the double "L" like a cross between a "Y" and a "J" with the "J" like a hacking "H."  Did you get all that?

More than anything, take it easy.  Don't stress and feel like you have to be fluent in two months.  As the saying goes - "Rome wasn't built in one day" and neither is learning a foreign language.  You're going to make mistakes and a fool of yourself, but you probably do in your native tongue - at least I do.  Don't worry, the Spanish like it when people try and will often help.  Sure you'll probably run into the occasional one who is a jerk and if you do ask them to say "How will he hit the wicket?" for a good laugh.

Last but not least, don't be lazy - watch Spanish TV.  Personally, I found dubbed programs the least helpful because it's not how everyday people speak and I was translating too much.  The gossip shows and the news on the other hand were great and gave me an insight into the Spanish culture.  Be prepared to not understand anything at first, but if you stick with it, by the end of month three you'll be surprised.


  1. Having already moved to another country once, I agree with you that you need courage, perseverance, and a lot of hard work to break the ice of a foreign language. The more work you do before your move to Spain, the better off you should be (at least that's what we hope base don our previous experience).

    Read at least one article from a Spanish newspaper per day, listen to the radio (easy to do at as often as possible, watch the news ( every night, learn the grammar (the ten most used verbs is an idea that my husband also had some time ago when we were both struggling with the irregular verbs). We also bought the Rosetta Stone program, and we both found it quite helpful.

  2. Great post. I loved it! It reminds me of how my students feel about English, as if it didn't make sense sometimes. That's true for many Spaniards also. We just have to understand that different languages work in different ways and that's their beauty too.
    I think I'll borrow this post for my blog ;)