Learning How to Learn Spanish

Puedo hablar español. Un poco. Y la noche pasado era la primer vez que fue a un grupo de conversación en español. Me impresionó.

I can speak Spanish. A little. And last night was the first time that I attended a Spanish conversation group. I impressed myself.

I was able to have conversations in Spanish, even if they were limited in scope, and I was able to understand the main points when someone gave a synopsis of the Paulo Coelho novel, The Zahir.

I chatted about losing my job, writing this blog, and wanting to go to Buenos Aires at some point. ¿Cuándo? No sé exactamente. I don’t know when, exactly. I talked about how miedo, fear, had kept me from quitting my job, and how I was now setting out to face my fears.

Gracias especial, special thanks, to Carol, who really made me feel at ease. Cathy, Rolando, and Alejandro were all a pleasure to speak to as well.

Short of visiting a Spanish-speaking country, this was jumping in the deep end for me. Especially in light of the anxiety I have over conversing in large groups, regardless of what language it’s in. I have started taking steps to learn Spanish outside of the classroom, though (especially since the classroom has already done all of the damage good it was ever going to do).

Use smart flash cards

I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without an SRS, or spaced repetition (system?). I actually haven’t been able to figure out what the second S in SRS stands for, but I think it might be “system.” Anki is one such system, and I have it installed on my Android phone, and on my computer.

In most ways it works just like traditional flash cards. It shows you a word, either in English or Spanish (assuming you’re studying Spanish), and then you try to guess what the word is in the other language. After you guess, you press a button to reveal the answer. This is where SRS diverges from traditional flash cards though, and where technology gives a significant advantage to language learners.

Once the answer is revealed, you rate the word on how difficult it was to remember. If you didn’t know the word at all, it will be repeated again in this study session. If you remembered the word, but it was a little difficult, it will be repeated again tomorrow. If it was very easy to remember, it won’t be repeated for 8 days. If you’ve already rated a word as very easy in the past, and you rate it as very easy again, the number of days before the word will be repeated is increased. For example, you might not see the word for 21 days.

In this way, Anki is a smart flash card system. It shows you the words you actually need to practice more often, and only occasionally reminds you of old vocabulary just so you won’t forget it.

I’ve increased mi vocabulario dramatically thanks to Anki.

I could never go back to normal flash cards.

Have conversations with yourself

Not just with yourself, though. With yourself, and a couple of robots.

If you have a Google account, add two bots to your buddy list in Google Chat/Google Talk: en2es@bot.talk.google.com and es2en@bot.talk.google.com. These are Google chat bots who will either translate everything you say in English to Spanish, or vice versa.

What I do is invite these two guys to a group chat. Once I do that, I can ask and answer questions to myself in Spanish, and those questions and answers will be parroted back to me in English so I can verify that I worded everything correctly. Occasionally I won’t have any clue how to say something in Spanish at all, so I’ll just enter it in English and the chat bot will translate it for me. It’s much faster than a dictionary, and Google’s translation service has gotten pretty good about using context to know exactly what word, and what form of that word, to use in a given situation. As long as you have a grasp on syntax, and can tell when it occasionally gets something wrong (i.e. when you don’t give it enough context to make an intelligent decision), you should be set. (It’s certainly better than I am with colloquial phrases.)

Not learning Spanish? You should be able to do the same with any language that Google’s translation service supports. If you want the French to English bot, you should add fr2en, and so on.

Read a story

For me, the biggest hurdle is stringing together whole thoughts from many individual sentences, and following along through a larger piece or conversation.

I recently purchased two books, a copy of Oscar Wilde stories translated into Spanish, and Lestat el Vampiro, a translation of the Anne Rice novel. Ideally, I would have found something targeted at a bit younger audience, but working with translations of books that you’re already familiar with helps one consume large pieces of writing in an unfamiliar language. Your understanding of the story can help you figure out what’s being described. Harry Potter is one book I often find recommended for people to read in Spanish.

To be honest, Lestat el Vampiro is a bit over my head. In the few days I’ve owned it, I’ve only managed to make it to page three. But I do understand what’s going on, and even if I’ve spent a lot of time running unfamiliar words through an online translator, I do feel that it’s helping me get a better grasp on the language. Of course, I did spend about half an hour trying to figure out what he was trying to say about a statue before I realized he was talking about his stature. Live and learn, I guess.

Por último

Ultimately, if you want to learn to speak a language with other people, you have to do just that. And I took my first step in that direction last night. It wasn’t always comfortable especially when I had absolutely no clue how to communicate what I wanted to say, and had to give up mid-sentence. At the end of the night, these were the phrases that made me feel like I was saying something even when I wasn’t:

  • How do you say ___ in Spanish?
  • I’m sorry, I don’t understand.
  • I don’t know that word.
  • I don’t know how to say it in Spanish.
  • What does ___ mean?
  • ___ is the correct/a real word, yes?

Sometimes just being able to talk about not being able to talk is some of the best conversation you can have, especially if you have lots of different phrases to use to that effect. Most people, when able, will be happy to teach you the word you need to know. Like when I was trying to explain, in the most roundabout way, that I didn’t have any definite plans for visiting Buenos Aires. Alejandro offered “You should say no sé exactamente.Yep. That’s certainly easier than what I was trying to piece together.

If you’re trying to get over your fear of speaking in another language, then having the right tools at your disposal can be a major boon. Try the tools I’ve listed above. Just know that eventually you’re going to have to find a conversation group, a stranger on a bus, or a plane headed to a foreign country. Meetup.com is as good a place as any to start looking.

In other news

If you’ve read this far, then I know that you’re a true reader, and that you’ll likely be excited to hear about a little extra I have planned for Thursday. I’ve also learned from some of my favorite writers that you should reward readers who will stick with your long-winded posts. (Thanks for that!) What I have planned is nothing huge, but there is a neat little download I put together to accompany Thursday’s post. There’s not much that I can say, since it won’t make a ton of sense without reading Thursday’s blog post first, but be sure to check back and get all of the downloadable goodness. I’m going to talk about how I tricked myself into starting this blog, and how you can use a technique—one that personal finance gurus love to hate—in order to face your own fears. I hope it will be a helpful tool in fighting your own battles against fear.

Oh! And apparently there’s a contest going on for Best Person Development blog, and there’s even a category for Best Newcomer. Have I earned that honor? If you think so, you can nominate me over at this page. Have I not earned it? Tell me in the comments what I can do to win your vote.

See you Thurdsay.

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4 comments on Learning How to Learn Spanish

  1. edgar on 

    Another good reason to learn Spanish is so you can build a Spanish website. the competition is a lot less.

    great post, I found your site thru problogger I saw your comment.


    • Matt on 

      Yeah, I’ve been thinking that it would be cool to blog in both Spanish and English, but I’m not quite there yet. Thanks for stopping by.


  2. Jessica on 

    Hi, I came over from your post on AA.

    I’m learning German and have an Android phone, plus I commute. So I will definitely try out these flash cards. :)

    For me, writing in German helps more than reading. I sometimes blog in German, but when that feels too daunting then I tweet in German.

    The most helpful is of course, actually speaking it. It takes a lot of nerve to do but is always worth the effort. I have given up trying to speak ‘perfect’ German, and allow myself to make many mistakes. If I waited to be perfect, I would be waiting forever!

    Good luck learning Spanish.


    • Matt on 

      The flash cards are really good. Can’t recommend them enough. Plus, if you install the program on your phone and you computer, it will sync between the two.

      I’m muscling my way through the book at about a page an hour. Hopefully I’ll be faster by the end of the book; there’s just so much vocabulary that’s new to me at this point. Occasionally I can get through a whole sentence or paragraph without looking anything up, but other times I have to look up almost every word. Additionally, this is really helping me learn all of the colloquial phrases (which, thankfully, Google is really good at translating). For example, “sí mismo”, which is literally “yes same”, but which means “him/itself”. Couldn’t for the life of me figure it out until I looked it up…

      And yes, one ultimately has to speak to learn the language. I made lots of mistakes at the Spanish conversation group, but I was still able to have conversations.

      Good luck to you, with German. :)


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