Improving your Spanish: Some hints

You probably realize by now, in your studies of one or more foreign languages, that there are no short cuts to proficiency in them. Especially for adults, it can take an investment of years of determined effort. It helps to understand the process, and there is an entire field of investigation devoted to it, Second Language Acquisition (SLA). I won’t attempt to summarize that field here, but below are some practical suggestions that many students of Spanish have found helpful.


General skill development

1. Use every opportunity to speak to Spanish speakers, and volunteer to work with them. (And when you go abroad to study Spanish and immerse yourself in it, resolve that you will not use English ever, period.)

2. Listen to all the Spanish you can; for example, on the radio (locally in the Triad area, La Preciosa 94.5 FM) and TV (Univisión). Even if you don’t care for the programming, remember that you’re the one who’s adapting to Hispanic culture, not vice versa, and that soap operas, for example, are excellent sources of lively conversational usage for slower listeners.

3. New vocabulary and grammar: don’t cram them into your short-term memory (which isn’t designed for permanent retention); use them to make them part of your communication and therefore long-term retention. Your elementary-school teachers probably had you make sentences with new vocabulary; do that for your foreign language as well. As you walk around campus, keep using new words by thinking observations about what you see. For example: tercostubborn’: think sentences like “Esa chica es muy terca; no coopera con nadie. Pero yo nunca soy terco, claro está.” That goes for new forms such as verb tenses and structures too: thus, for the subjunctive, think observations like “Veo nubes grises. Es posible que llueva,” and as you get better with it, raise the complexity a little. This is not just a form of self-drilling, but can become the beginnings of thinking in the language.

4. Avoid the trap of translating (a “trap” because it’s hard to get out of later). In some courses or activities you may be called upon to translate something for a particular purpose, but for ordinary spontaneous communication (oral or written) in the language, don’t rely on it. It slows down processing in the foreign language and it short-circuits the acquisition of the ability that you’re trying to develop. It also produces more errors because you’re trying to render the structures and meanings of your native language instead of applying those of the second language; and by borrowing from a higher grammatical level of your native language than you think you can manage so far in your Spanish, you won’t sound more sophisticated at all, just more wrong and even unintelligible.


Reading in particular

Read Spanish, read lots of it. Studies have shown that outside reading is one of the biggest factors in vocabulary growth and in developing a better “feel” for the language and how to express yourself in it. Four types of reading in particular:

            1. novels, plays, short stories: yes, by all means. Modern plays are especially good for picking up conversational usage. But don’t limit yourself to higher literature...

            2. your computer: take advantage of all that’s available to you on the Web today. Start with American-based Spanish sites (for example, CNN en español) because their current events will be more familiar to you, then branch out to Hispanic newspaper sites  for foreign news and commentary. Pursue your special interests (chess? soccer? music? technology? travel? cooking? skiing? comics?) by reading about them in Spanish sites: just set “Google” for Spanish-language web pages. Even pause to read those in-your-face web ads in Spanish for a lot of useful vocabulary and command forms. Look for Spanish blogs and discussion forums on topics that interest you. Make virtual trips to Hispanic places—almost every town and tourist site in the world today has a website with photos, local history, businesses, and more links.

            3. Do you read scripture? Then get you own Biblia in Spanish (see Amazon or local bookstores) and read it, well, religiously. Even aside from the effect on your Spanish, you’ll find thought-provoking new meaning in familiar passages rendered in another language.

            4. Do you download music? Look for Spanish song titles in the type you prefer and get into their lyrics.



1. The out-of-class work that teachers assign has a purpose; it’s never just to make more work for you to write (or for us to grade!). Don’t play it safe with easy structures; use the opportunity to apply the material and try it out in your communication and to discover little problems before they grow into big ones.

2. Always start homework as soon as possible after class, while the lesson and class practice on it are still fresh in your mind. Homework that is postponed for a day or two often shows less recall of the lesson – and gets a lower grade because of less successful use of the material.

3. Read the instructions of assigned exercises carefully to make sure you understand the full task you’re being asked to carry out. And if you do that right after class (previous advice), there’s still time to contact me and ask for help or clarification.

4. After doing your homework, leave it for a while and go do something else; then come back to it with a fresh mind and proofread it critically, correcting mistakes that you overlooked earlier.

5. Make a list of those points you keep having trouble with in your work, try to resolve them and eliminate the errors they’re causing, and go see your instructor for help if you still don’t understand.


Other ideas that have worked for you? Drop me an email.