Unconventional strategies for practicing Spanish
December 26th, 2019
Language skills are highly multi-dimensional*, so while learning a language, it's important to come at it from lots of different directions. Here are some of the tricks I've used to practice Spanish that I haven't heard so many other people use. (They're likely useful for other languages too, of course.)
(1) Translate past writing you've already published in English
One fun exercise is to take something you wrote in English, translate it to Spanish, ask a friend to proofread for mistakes, and re-publish it. Example
This is a good way to learn domain-specific vocabulary for topics you care about. For example, I think a lot about economics, transportation, and urban planning, but these aren't topics you'll find in top 1,000 word flash card sets or a Duolingo course or most other materials meant for Spanish-language learners. Those materials have to cater to the lowest common denominator of language, teaching vocabulary that's useful to everyone, not your niche interests. By contrast, I obviously have a special interest in learning to express those concepts since I already used them in a non-Spanish context. Translating a piece of writing you yourself wrote is a good forcing function to look up those words in a contextual way. Rather than synthetically building up a list of words that come to mind, this instead is a much more organic way to learn the words you actually use.
Another perk is that if you publish your translation you then are publishing content to the world in that language you're learning. It's good for the Spanish-speaking world, because they get access to content that might never otherwise be translated into Spanish. This is also good for you personally, because it signals that you're interested in learning that language and thus acts as a lighthouse to attract other people who are also interested in that.
(2) Start a Spanish-speaking Twitter account
I've had lots of fun with my Spanish-speaking Twitter alt account, @devon_dos. With that account, I follow Spanish language accounts and tweet almost exclusively in Spanish.
Sometimes, these tweets just quote my usual English-language tweets in my primary account and translate what I've already said directly. This is great for the same reason as my first suggestion above—your own tweets are a sort of "found" language, where you're practicing saying things you clearly actually want to say, since you said them already in your native tongue. You already have things you clearly want to be able to say, so you're really learning how to express yourself. One of my biggest problems with most language-learning approaches is that they decontextualize the language you're trying to learn. The result is that you often find yourself not knowing vocabulary about the things that are most important to you because they were never covered in the textbook.
Sometimes, there are topics I'm much more excited about tweeting about in Spanish than in English for some reason, so I go for that and it's fine. (It'd be interesting to look at which topics these tend to correlate too... something something Sapir-Whorf?)
Tweeting and following accounts in Spanish is another approach to the lighthouse theory of the internet. It shows people that this is something you care about and are investing your time in, so more people will come out of the woodwork. It's also so fun to see the people who follow you then crowdsource corrections for you when you make a mistake. Making mistakes is fun when you let people help you improve!
This is also a great method for learning slang, for developing a sense of how people joke around in the particular country's flavor you're targeting, and for following trends. Twitter is much more akin to the kind of language you'll find on the street of a Latin American or Spanish city, compared to your blog which is generally going to be a lot more formal. It's fun to try to incorporate the language patterns of Spanish speakers you follow into your own tweets. Also the contents of your blog are limited to just whatever you could come up with; a well-seeded Twitter feed injects a lot more randomness.
Also, tweeting as I along my language-learning journey has also served as a fun sort of diary for tracking what I've learned. For example, I tweet/retweet things I learn about the language. It also serves as a nice archive of little tricks I've learned so I can find them again later, in case I've forgotten them.
Aprendí a poner un acento rápidamente en una Mac!— Devon número dos ☀️ (@devon_dos) September 22, 2019
Option ⌥ + E, y después cualquier vocal que querés acentuar. pic.twitter.com/IUbaV4ZQZN
Finally, tweets are very un-intimidating because they're so small. So it's easy to convince yourself to just tweet once a day, or once a week, or whatever cadence you want to get just a little bit of practice every day.
(3) Rewatch your favorite kids movies in Spanish
My writing of this post is appropriately timed with the recent launch of Disney Plus. Because I'm already familiar with the stories in my favorite childhood movies, they're much more accessible than some artsy film might be. These are also often movies that I miss and haven't seen in a long time but won't otherwise take an evening to re-watch, so it's a good excuse to revisit your favorite movies from childhood. Disney movies are particularly good because they tend to have really high quality dubbing, with a different voice actor for each character rather than just a single voice for the whole show, which is standard.
One tip: I find it's useful to have subtitles in Spanish while watching a movie with Spanish audio dubbing, because even though I understand most of what's going on in the movie, it can be challenging to parse words every once in a while.
(4) Set up a quick-access translator app
One tool I've found really helpful is getting the Intelligent Translator in my Mac menu bar. It's much faster than continuously opening Google Translate tabs, dramatically reducing the friction for looking anything up.
This means that not only can you translate words you read or sentences you're trying to say but are stuck on faster, but also that it means you're more likely to look things up in the first place and try more challenging language tasks. For example, I now feel more comfortable reading tweets and articles in Spanish because I know it'll only take a moment to look up an unfamiliar word, whereas before it was more of a slog. And sometimes I have a strike if fancy where I think things like "Huh I wonder how you'd say 'saffron' in Spanish" or some other random concept that pops into my head, and it's just a keystroke away to fulfill that whim.
The ergonomics of the app are quite good. I have a custom hotkey to open it from any other app (CMD+SHIFT+W to toggle to toggle the menu popup) and another to translate to translate my highlighted cursor selection (CTRL+CMD+C). It also immediately translates everything on your clipboard and displays a small preview in the menu bar, if you set it to.
(5) Opt for e-books rather than physical ones
I have a special place in my heart for dead-tree books, but an ebook is a godsend when learning a foreign language. It's easy to select a word or phrase and use the lookup function to quickly get a translation, compared to having to pull out a dictionary or translation app every time you get stuck.
(6) Subscribe to Spanish language podcasts and YouTube channels
I've had a bit of a hard time finding many good podcasts and YouTube channels in Spanish. There is lots of language learning content, but much of it runs into the same problems as textbooks, where they focus on boring topics rather than contextualized topics you actually care about. When I listen to most of these shows, my only interest in them is that they're in intermediate Spanish and thus something I'll actually have a chance of understanding, but otherwise I'm uninterested in their content. Unfortunately this means that I get bored quickly and zone out, which reduces their effectiveness.
However, podcasts and YouTube channels are a good source of practice for understand informal uses of language, which for me is more difficult to parse than more regularized, formal audio samples like audiobooks. So despite having a hard time finding great content to consume, I've been determined to keep looking.
From searching for a while, I've found a few shows that are actually quite interesting in their own right, while still being simple enough for me to follow along for the most part. Here are a few podcasts I've found, which may be more interesting for you:
And here are a few YouTube channels in Spanish I've found somewhat interesting to play in the background while I'm doing paperwork-type tasks:
I wouldn't say any of these are among my favorite podcasts or channels overall, but they're interesting enough if you're looking for something in Spanish. If you have additional recommendations, please do let me know!
(7) Use spaced repetition
Spaced repetition is a useful tool for embedding vocabulary and phrases deep into your brain so it can't get dislodged. An example where this has been especially useful for me: while I already know that "mucho gusto" is what you'd say as a greeting when you meet someone for the first time, my retrieval is pretty slow in the moment when I actually need to say it, and in those social interactions, pacing is everything. If you don't get out the proper greeting in the right moment, you've generally lost your chance and the conversation has moved on. As a result, I've added that phrase to my spaced repetition flashcard deck so that I have it on the tip of my tongue in the moments where I need it.
I also try to put every cool phrase I come across that I particularly like into spaced repetition deck. In particular, I've added lots of Argentinian idioms into my deck. That way I can deploy them in appropriate moments and surprise everyone.
I must say that flashcards are my least favorite method I'm suggesting here, though they do have their uses. Flash cards decontextualize words, which as you can tell from above I'm not a huge fan of. However, they are incredibly helpful for getting key vocabulary on the tip of your tongue at the right moment, which can do wonders for increasing your reaction velocity and confidence in conversations. So I recommend flash cards less for learning new words and more for imprinting the ones you already know and simply want faster retrieval for into your mind.
None of the spaced repetition apps are great, so here are a few that I've tried and are "just fine":
- Quizlet (this is the one I currently use)
(8) Word of the Day newsletters
To get a little injection of new vocabulary into my day, I'm subscribed to a Spanish Word of the Day newsletter. It blends into all my other threads pouring into my inbox, so I don't have to exercise additional self control to go look up a new word each day. This means that every day I learn at least one new word in Spanish, even if I forget or don't have time to do any other practice.
(9) Change your phone's system language to Spanish
My key fluency goal is to be so comfortable in Spanish that I don't even think about the fact I'm using it. While it felt very odd to see all of my phone's menus in Spanish at first, I use my phone so frequently that it quickly faded into the background and I now have very little problem with understanding the UI. (It's also an interesting exercise in seeing which parts of the UX are intuitive on their own without labels, and which ones I'm more dependent on the labels for.)
I still haven't changed my system language on my laptop, because I do far more complex tasks there and view many more different UIs, whereas the set of apps and the flexibility of the OS on my phone is more limited. Also I do actual work there, where I don't want my discomfort with the language to get in the way of getting my work done. Maybe one day I'll give it a try though.
(10) Build muscle memory for typing accented characters
This isn't exactly to learn Spanish, but it makes it easier to type in Spanish: learn the hotkeys for the Spanish characters!
- ñ — Option + n, n
- á — Option + e, a
- é — Option + e, e
- í — Option + e, i
- ó — Option + e, o
- ú — Option + e, u
- ü — Option + u, u
- inverted question mark (¿) — Shift + Option + ?
- inverted exclamation point (¡) — Option + 1
- left angle quote («) — Option + \
- right angle quote (») — Shift + Option + \
(11) It is fine to fill in the gaps with English and Spanglish
My instinct when I don't know a particular word in Spanish is to stop dead in my tracks and ask what the proper word is. Instead, I've learned it's more fun and practical to override that instinct and instead just power through and take my best guess. This is a great source of entertainment for everyone, and I'm constantly surprised by how frequently I hit upon the actually correct word (or at least something close to it) when I thought I was just taking a wild guess.
For example, yesterday I was talking about the word "despegar", which means "to take off", and I asked "despegar como un rockete?". "Rockete" is not the word for rocket—the proper word would've been "cohete"—but it could've been, and it was a good enough guess that my speaking partner could correct me quickly and teach me the right word. (Also apparently it was hilarious.)
The general pattern I use is to first say a sentence fully with the guess word in place of the vocabulary I'm not sure of, then to make a facial expression to my conversational partner to indicate that I'm not confident of what I just said. The facial expression is shorthand for "I realize the sentence I just said may be extremely confusing, so please correct me if I'm wrong... and if I said it coherently, please give me positive reinforcement so I know I can keep going."
(12) Date an Argentinian
The single biggest piece of advice I can give is to start dating someone whose first language is Spanish. (Though I suppose this is easier said than done. 😋) I studied Spanish in school for years, but my comprehension, verbal skills, and confidence with the language grew an order of magnitude faster as soon as I met my boyfriend, who grew up in Buenos Aires.
I learned more Spanish in the first few months we dated than in the half decade I studied it in school, including the summer I lived in Panama. Now that I'm with him, I am far more motivated, our conversations are contextual, and I feel even more comfortable than usual at being a beginner because I'm with someone I trust.
There is no greater motivation to learn a language than wanting to impress your boyfriend's parents. His family lives in Argentina, and it's very important to me that I can communicate with them in their native tongue. I can't exactly explain why—they all speak English so it's not like I wouldn't be able to communicate with them at all—but it feels like an important sign of respect, and I want to be able to participate fully in their family and social life when we visit. This winter I'll be back for my second visit, and I'm really looking forward to seeing their reactions when they see how much my Spanish has improved. 😊
Another benefit is similar to the contextual nature of the first two suggestions here—when I speak with my boyfriend in Spanish around the house, our conversations are about real things that I actually care about, rather than an artificial set of words compiled in a textbook trying to take a stab at what topics will be useful to the greatest number of people.
Also, the language I use with him is situated in space, so I can associate words in a sort of memory palace. My language use is now grounded in the physical world as we go around daily life, instead of learning new vocabulary in a classroom, severed from the environment where they're used. For example, I re-learned the word for "fork"—"tenedor", which I always had a hard time remember in school—while we were in the kitchen while I was holding an actual fork in my hand. This etched a much deeper pathway in my mind for that word than when I saw it on a vocabulary sheet printed out by my high school Spanish teacher. (Or at least that's how it feels... I'm not actually sure of the cognitive science here.)
Finally, it's incredible what a difference it makes to learn a language with someone you deeply trust and who can simulate your speech patterns and mental models well. He understands my Spanish better than most other people, and he can simulate where I'm likely to get lost and give me some assistance. It's interesting to see how wide a range there is on this front when talking to different people. It's particularly stark between talking to native Spanish speakers who have done exchange programs abroad where they had to learn a new language, and to native Spanish speakers who don't have the personal experience of being throttled on your ability to express themself. The former group has a lot more empathy and can better predict where you might get stuck. Now that I have had more of that experience, I'd like to think that I've also improved on my ability to speak with English language learners.
* I drafted an essay about this a while ago but haven't gotten around to polishing and publishing it. I will link it as soon as it's up.
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