Tips for Learning Spanish
Congratulations! You decided to learn Spanish! By doing so, you join over 525 million people who speak Spanish as either their first or second language. In other words, you’re in good company.
However, the journey to fluency can be a long, difficult, and overwhelming one. There are thousands of words and verb conjugations to learn, as well as countless hours of studying and practicing ahead of you. But what if I told you that it doesn’t have to be so overwhelming? What if you had some tips to make the journey easier?
As a Spanish-language learner, I can empathize with your struggles because I experienced them too. I started my journey during the spring semester of my second year of college. By the time I graduated from college, I had finished four semesters of Spanish, I had made friends with native Spanish speakers, and I was able to hold conversations in Spanish, even with strangers.
You’re probably feeling a variety of emotions. You might be incredibly excited to embark on this journey, and you can hardly wait to get started. You might be nervous or overwhelmed by the idea of learning a new language. You might be wondering if you will ever understand what a native speaker says, never mind converse with them. You might even be questioning your decision to learn a new language.
No matter what you’re feeling, I’m here to help you. Most of my tips center around learning Spanish. However, the majority of this advice is applicable, regardless of the language you’re learning.
With all of that said, here are my best tips for learning Spanish:
Take a deep breath. Before you get started, take a deep breath. You’re about to embark on a big, exciting, life-changing journey. Whatever you’re feeling, give yourself some grace. The journey might be a bit rocky at times, but remember this: if learning a new language was easy, everyone would do it, and if doing so was impossible, no one would do it.
Think about your motivations to learn Spanish. Do you want to learn Spanish to qualify for that promotion at work.? Do you want to be able to converse with your Spanish-speaking friends? Do you want to prepare for your dream trip to Mexico? Whatever your reason, hold it close to your heart. Doing so will help you to stay motivated when your journey gets difficult. I recommend writing your reason down onto a sticky note and putting it somewhere where you’ll see it, such as your bathroom mirror or the steering wheel of your car. That way, you can see it multiple times per day.
Find native Spanish speakers to help you practice. If possible, find someone who speaks Spanish as their first language. Almost all of my Spanish professors spoke Spanish natively, and it was helpful because they could answer tricky questions about verb conjugations, pronunciations, and slang. If possible to do so, find native Spanish speakers. If that’s not possible, find a non-native speaker who’s bilingual (or as close to it as possible).
Learn the difference between “ser” and “estar.” Both of these verbs mean “to be,” but they are used in different circumstances. For example, “ser’ is used for permanent characteristics, such as your name, your occupation, your religion, your hair color, and your height. “Estar” is used for characteristics that change, such as your emotions and your actions. This difference can confuse new Spanish-language learners, so it’s worth it to take some time and study this.
The sooner you converse in Spanish, the better. You can study for as long as you want, but if you can’t hold a conversation, you’re not going to become bilingual. It can be nerve-wracking to speak a language you don’t know very well, but the more you practice, the easier it will be.
Don’t let the fear of making a mistake hold you back. Any time you do something new, you’re going to make mistakes. You’re human, after all. It’s not realistic to expect perfection the first time you do something new. But that shouldn’t stop you from trying. Making mistakes is how we learn best.
Cognates make your journey to fluency easier. Cognates are words that are the same in both English and Spanish. They’re pronounced slightly differently due to differences in their alphabets, but they’re often spelled the same. For example, the word for “cancer” in Spanish is “cáncer” (pronounced KAHN-ser). Cognates make your language learning journey easier because it means fewer words to memorize.
At the same time, beware of false cognates. Not all similar-sounding words are cognates. Being aware of false cognates can spare you from unnecessary embarrassment. For example, “embarazada” means “pregnant,” not “embarrassed.” Saying that you’re pregnant instead of embarrassed can cause confusion, misunderstanding, and awkwardness, especially if you’re a male speaker. Focus on these false cognates, and spend extra time memorizing them. Doing so will help you improve your conversational skills.
Learn about Hispanic/Latino cultures. Contrary to popular belief, Hispanic culture is not a monolith. Every Spanish-speaking country has its own culture. Mexican culture is different from Cuban culture, which is different from Spanish culture. Don’t lump them together.
One way to avoid lumping these cultures together is to learn more about the Hispanic/Latino cultures in your area. Ideally, traveling to one of these countries would be best because you can experience their cultures authentically. However, due to finances, schedules, or the Covid-19 pandemic, this might not be possible. If that is the case, there are other things you can do, such as visiting local cultural centers, reading books, trying new foods, and making friends. All of this will give you greater exposure to Hispanic/Latino cultures.
If you do not know where to start, look at the speakers in your area. What are their cultural ties? In my area, there are Latinos from countries all over Central and South America. I live close to a major city that is incredibly diverse and welcoming towards refugees and asylum-seekers. However, all of my Spanish-speaking friends have cultural ties to Mexico, either because they or their parents came to the United States from Mexico. Because of this, I have spent a lot of time learning about Mexican culture. I attended cultural events at my church, I asked my friends about their experiences and listened to their stories, and I tried new-to-me foods, such as Pan Dulce from Mexican bakeries and homemade Tamales.
Language and culture are highly intertwined. You cannot learn about one without learning about the other. Because of this, it is critical to take the time to learn about Hispanic/Latino cultures.
On a related note, keep an open mind when you are learning about other cultures. To the best of your ability, let go of any preconceived biases and prejudices you have towards unfamiliar cultures. What may be strange to you is familiar and comforting for another person. When you are invited to experience another culture, act the same way you would if someone invited you to their house. In other words, be polite, follow the house rules, and thank your host for the invitation before you leave. Using your manners will help you to keep an open mind about new, unfamiliar cultures.
Show kindness to ESL students. When I was younger, I thought that English was not a hard language to learn. I used to believe that it was something that everyone could learn with a little effort. I realized that that belief was naïve when I was in college. While I studied Spanish, I was going to school to earn my B.A. in English. I learned how difficult the English language is, even for a native speaker. Even once I graduated from college, there were still times where I had to look up grammar rules to double-check my work.
Along the way, I met my friends, all of whom learned English as a second language. Many of them struggled to learn English, and they depended on the patience of native speakers to help them learn. Because I knew what it was like to struggle to learn a new language, it became easy for me to empathize with them and be patient when they struggled to find the right words. Since then, whenever I hear about someone being ridiculed for speaking Spanish or struggling with their English, it upsets me because that could have easily been my friends.
Because you’re learning a second language, you will likely encounter ESL students. Be kind and patient with them. They are doing their best, just like you. Besides, any efforts to learn a second language should be encouraged, not discouraged.
It is okay to ask for help. Learning a language is a long journey. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s okay if you need help and support. You aren’t going to achieve your goal without some level of support. Asking for help doesn’t make you “weak” or “dumb.” It takes strength, courage, and humility to admit that you don’t know something. I promise that there are people out there who would love to help you. There’s plenty of help available, depending on what you need. For example, if you’re having a hard time holding a conversation in Spanish, see if you can practice with a friend. If you don’t have anyone nearby to help you, consider taking a class with ReDefiners World Languages. There is help available. All you have to do is ask.
Deciding to learn a new language is a huge step. It might feel overwhelming at first, but as long as you keep a few things in mind, your journey will be easier. Give special attention to trickier parts of the language, such as the difference between ser and estar and the false cognates. Find support from native Spanish speakers or through classes like those offered through ReDefiners. Learn about other cultures, and keep an open mind. When you meet ESL students, show them the kindness and patience you want them to show you.
You might still feel a bit overwhelmed right now. That is okay, and it’s perfectly natural. Don’t let your feelings prevent you from taking the first step, though. Take a deep breath and know that it will be okay. Take it one step at a time, and you will be fine. You got this!
If you need some support on your language-learning journey, check out ReDefiners. We offer online and in-person classes in English, Spanish, Mandarin, and Arabic. We offer online and in-person classes, as well as group and individual classes, for kids and adults. Our classes are designed to teach you about the language, as well as the culture and influences. For more information about our classes, please visit www.redefinerswl.org or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.