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How can you soak up Spanish like a sponge — so that it ends up in your active memory, ready to use?
I’d like to share what worked for me. Rather than a lecture on what you can do, this will be a revelation of what I personally did to soak up Spanish. And since the approach I used worked for me, we can be reasonably sure that it will for you too, at least to an extent if not all the way.
I’d like to share what worked for me. I can’t promise that they’ll work equally well for you, but I have a feeling they will. It’s worth a try, especially if you’re looking for a new way to approach your Spanish language learning.
Let’s Start with the Bad News
Before we dive into my modus operandi, I have bad news for those looking for an instant solution along the lines of “Kapow! You know Spanish!” I don't know if there's a magic pill out there that offers that, but the ideas I implemented don't.
I should also say this: there are plenty of articles out there that show you how to absorb Spanish passively. I am no expert, so it may be possible to learn Spanish passively. But if that's the kind of shortcut you're after, this article isn't for you. Language is a skill. And a skill doesn't just come to you while you laze in your hammock daydreaming. It's an effort-intensive process. You ought to invest yourself in the journey. There are no miracles here. At least that's the philosophy driving my journey with Spanish.
Finally, this discussion isn’t about memory tricks to learn vocabulary and grammar. That's a separate conversation altogether. This one is about keeping Spanish in your active memory, handy for use, after you’ve done the learning.
Learning a language and being able to use it confidently are two very different things. There are tons of ways to make the learning process fun and effortless: mnemonics, word associations, visualization, etymology, the list goes on. But that's the easy part anyway. The hard part is actually putting all that learning to practical use. If you’ve memorised lots of Spanish words, but you get tongue-tied when it comes to speaking Spanish, then it’s not yet in your active memory.
Building a strong active memory comes with immersion. And practice. A lot of it. There just isn't any shortcut around this that I'm aware of.
So to summarize:
- It takes time, this is no shortcut
- It takes effort, this is no magic
- It’s about getting Spanish into your active memory
With that out of the way and our expectations in place, we can dive right in.
Step 1: Embrace Spanglish as a Way of Life
Using “Spanglish” means mixing up Spanish and English.
Please hear me out before you dismiss Spanglish as not real language. You're right, it's not a real language. But that's not the point here. The point is, it's enough Spanish to give you a decent headstart, and enough English to keep you from feeling lost. Think of it as an optimal mix of the familiar and the unknown. And the best part about it is that there are no rules! Spanglish, being a non-language, is amenable to your comfort. And equally scalable.
So how do we go about it? The short answer is, however you feel like. The longer and more useful answer is, have a strategy. I will discuss mine here.
When I started out, my challenge was to familiarize myself with Spanish words and structure. And that's going to be yours too, well into your Spanish-learning journey. Even if you have mastered Spanish grammar, the language continues to sound alien to you because you're not used to its ways. In order to address this problem, I started translating English sentences into Spanish, both in writing and speaking. This was taxing and far slower at getting me anywhere than I expected. This is what most of you might be doing as it's one of the most cited pieces of advice in the language hacking community.
But the problem with that approach is that it slows you in pursuit of perfection. You never get a chance to get natural with Spanish because you're constantly struggling to get it right, grammatically and semantically. You want the whole shebang translated right off the bat. That's where Spanglish comes in. I wasted a lot of time before this idea hit me, you don't have to!
The idea is to forget perfection and focus on communicating. Just start easing Spanish into your writings and speeches, one word at a time. No need to translate the whole thing, just a couple of words is good enough. Start with nouns:
English: I need coffee with my breakfast.
Spanglish: I need café with my desayuno.
I did this for maybe a week or so, as often as practically possible. Talk to the mirror, write stuff down in a notebook, use every opportunity to churn out some Spanglish. Vow to never use an English noun in your communications. I sounded ridiculous doing this, but the dividends are worth the embarrassments. It's alright to reference a dictionary at this stage (believe me, you won’t be using the dictionary as often as you think).
Eventually, consider taking it up a notch. Start using Spanish verbs along with Spanish nouns that you're already using:
English: I need coffee with my breakfast.
Spanglish: I necesitar café with my desayuno.
You need not conjugate your verbs just yet. Take it easy. Just focus on assimilating as many common nouns and verbs as possible. Remember, you're just building your word-bank and publishing it to your active memory at the moment. Don't worry about getting it all correct for now. Dictionaries are still okay to use. Continue this practice for a couple of weeks. I say two weeks instead of one because this time you have more words to absorb and naturalize, so take your time. No need to rush it.
Now start conjugating your verbs, one tense at a time. Focus on these tenses in the following order:
Simple present tense
Don't bother with other tenses. Not for now anyway. Give each tense about a week before you move on to conjugating your verbs in the next tense on the list. So for the first week from now, just ensure you use all simple present tense verbs in its right conjugation. In all other tenses, leave the verb unconjugated as before. The following week, start conjugating in the present continuous tense along with the simple present that you're already conjugating. The third week, do the preterit, and so on. You might want to give more than just a week for the subjunctive though, it's kind of a tough cookie to crack. Toward the end of this exercise, your Spanglish will be looking more like Spanish and less like English. It also pays to throw in some prepositions and articles to the mix along the way.
Step 2: Describe Simple Images in Spanish
Using a mix of Spanish and English is a good strategy to ease Spanish words into your active memory. But while doing so, my challenge was creating opportunities to use Spanglish!
You see, I come from an Asian country and both Spanish speakers and learners are hard to come by around me. Using Spanish words, even a handful of them, in my conversations was not an option for me. At least not in real-life conversations. So I came up with a workaround: simulating conversations in my head.
You are constantly seeing things around you the entire time you're awake. Real things, pictures, people, and everything in between. Why not describe them aloud, I thought. For instance, as I get dressed for work, I describe the shirt I'm going to wear:
This is una camisa azul.
Took a cab, described the driver. Had a coffee, described the beverage. Called up a friend, described her voice. This was getting fun.
The description doesn't need to be long, just one sentence describing one attribute that stands out is good enough. It's always possible to graduate to more complex ideas with time. Color, shape, size, sound, smell, you could pick literally any attribute that strikes you. You don't have to say it to anyone if you can't, just mutter it aloud to yourself. As long as you're producing some Spanish, even if it's to your own self, you're doing well. Again, referring to a dictionary is no taboo here, though you'll be depending on it less by the day.
A week or two in, you could graduate to a slightly more challenging chore: describing pictures, and in more than one sentence. Take any picture of your choice, online or offline. Just make sure it's not too complex. Simple comic book cartoons with not a whole lot going on are your best bet. And write down at least 4-6 sentences describing various aspects of the picture in question. A week or so of writing and then you could graduate to doing the task orally. To yourself, if necessary.
If you're also doing Spanglish alongside this, which you should, the bulk of your descriptions will be in Spanish by this time. Keep spinning and give no thought to overall perfection.
Talk to the mirror, describe your face. Talk to the bed, describe the sheets. Talk to your kitchen, describe a recipe. Ridiculous yes, but really effective!
Step 3: Write Short Sentences Using Newly-Acquired Grammar Concepts
This one is a tad more mundane in comparison to the previous two strategies. But keep pushing. In order to bolster my Spanglish and shorten my path to 100% Spanish, I started writing simple example sentences using the grammar concepts I was studying at the time. I focussed on only one grammar topic a week for a thorough assimilation. It could be a conjugation, an idiomatic verb, a prepositional phrase, or a new structure. Just one at a time until it becomes second nature.
Here's what I did: I thought up sentences in English that employed the grammar topic I was studying, and translated it into Spanish. In writing. Then I did the same with a new sentence. And went on and on, like a broken record, for days. I targeted at least 20-30 sentences a day for at least a week before moving on to the next topic. So, suppose I learned the preterit tense conjugation today. Then the following seven days, I'd be translating at least 20-30 random preterit-tense sentences every day into Spanish. This can get boring very quickly, but it works wonders when it comes to driving home complex grammar rules.
Of course, you're going to make mistakes. A lot of them. But that isn't a problem either. Make Spanish-speaking friends on Facebook who can correct your translations for you. No one friend is going to be generous enough to do this on a daily basis, so have as many as possible. Also try out communities like Lang-8.com built with this exact purpose in mind. I used Lang-8 extensively because there were't a whole lot of friends on my list who spoke Spanish back then. You could even look to Twitter to kick-start your imagination!
Just a month or two of this exercise done with diligence will produce astounding results. You will become more comfortable with Spanish without even realizing. For best results, though, do this in tandem with the other ideas discussed here. Following any of these in isolation will severely impede your progress. And like I said before, give no thought to either perfection or time. Don't treat this as a time-bound deliverable. Just take it one day at a time and keep going indefinitely.
Step 4: Describe Short Videos…Again, in Spanish
This one is similar to Step 3, except this time we have a more concrete thing to talk about. Find a short Spanish video on YouTube. I prefer videos between 30 seconds and a minute. Anything longer and you'll be lost.
Watch it a couple of times to thoroughly understand what's going on. Done watching? Now try describing as much of what you watched as possible. In Spanglish. Sounds easy? Believe me, it's not. I said Spanglish because that'd be in line with the whole idea of easing into Spanish rather than abruptly running into it headlong.
So what kind of videos, you ask? Music videos are a big no because there's too much going on in them all at once which makes them hard to describe even in one's first language. The best videos for the job are simple cartoons with simple characters and minimal details. Think Tom and Jerry, for instance. Duration is also important. Too short and there's hardly anything to talk about. Too long and you won't remember half of what happened. Videos longer than 30 seconds and shorter than a minute worked the best for me. The idea is to be able to describe it in no fewer than 10 sentences and no more than 20.
What to describe? Everything, or at least as much as possible. Colors, features, actions, etc. Try to smush in as much Spanish as possible. At least make sure all nouns and verbs are in Spanish, even if the latter are unconjugated in the beginning.
Synchronize this activity with your grammar lessons for maximum dividends. Learned a new verbal phrase? Try using it in your description if possible. A new preposition? Plug it in. Picked up a new irregular conjugation? Figure out a way to use it in your description. Remember, most of what you're going to use at this stage will be verbs and conjugations used in real-life conversations. Nothing exotic just yet. Since you're describing live actions, you'll hardly be using future tense, which is good because future tense is not something you need to bother with until much later.
Step 5: Maintain a Mini Journal in Spanish
Every night before going to bed, make it a point to jot down all you did that day in a journal. It's a good practice even outside of language learning. To make it a powerful Spanish absorption tool, do it in Spanish. Or at least Spanglish.
I started doing this for two reasons:
a) It gave me a chance to reflect upon how effectively I spent my day and what I could've done better, and
b) it helped me actively drill more Spanish into active memory.
The idea of messing with Spanish just before going to bed after having done a whole lot of it through the day has another benefit too. It ensures there's some Spanish reinforcement going on inside your brain even as you sleep. This might sound like passive learning because it is, but only because you've actively done something to kick-start the process. Passive learning is a magic pill indeed, but it doesn't happen without some effort on your part. And this time, that effort comes in the shape of a mini journal in Spanish.
Keep it short though. I recommend writing 20 sentences on all the key experiences you had during the day. Had an important meeting at work? Add it to your journal. Boss gave you a rundown? Add it. Got stuck in traffic? Add it. Cooked your favorite recipe for dinner? Add it. Anything that stands out. And if nothing does, write about the mundane. Also, feel free to use the dictionary whenever the urge hits.
Key Takeaways for Spanish Immersion
The key to getting fluent in a language is in maximizing exposure to it. And the key to maximizing exposure to a language is in weaving a bit of it into as many different parts of your life as practically possible.
It might not always be possible to find native Spanish speakers depending on where you live. It also might be a tad awkward to speak with native Spanish speakers at first, especially if they're not your friends. But speak you must, despite the awkwardness.
Here’s a summary of my five step approach:
- Graduating to Spanish via Spanglish: This was an incredible way to ease myself into a completely alien tongue. A gradual move is always less taxing and more rewarding in the short run.
- Describing pictures in Spanish: A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. That makes it super easy to do at least a few dozen words off one. I would pick any random image — a cartoon, a meme, etc. — and describe it in 4-6 short Spanish sentences.
- Writing random short sentences in Spanish: This is similar to describing pictures but a bit more challenging. This time, the focus is on employing the grammar rules, conjugations, etc. Not more than 20-30 example sentences a day to reinforce your learning.
- Describing short videos in Spanish: Describing videos is slightly more challenging than describing images. This time, the focus is on activities, employing more grammar constructs and conjugations than before. I recommend between 10 and 20 sentences off a very short video, not shorter than 20 seconds.
- Writing a daily journal in Spanish: Writing just before going to bed can help better reinforce the day's learning. At least that's what some researchers say. Start jotting down an account of your day in a journal before hitting the sack. In Spanish, of course. Again, not more than 20-30 sentences. This will not only help with Spanish but also give you a chance to reflect on how productive you've been.
None of these activities is a substitute for actually going out there and conversing with live native speakers. These are mere support systems. You just cannot truly internalize a language through writing alone. Fluency calls for confidence more than knowledge. These activities help you with the knowledge part; confidence still comes from speaking. So don't be afraid to get talking!