Spanish is the language that started off my lifelong obsession with language learning, so it holds a special place in my heart. Thanks to Spanish I was able to discover what was holding me back from becoming fluent in any language.
My road to fluency in Spanish was messy, full of false starts and bad methods. But I learned from that, and can share what I learned with you. In this post, I share five steps to take you from beginner to conversationally fluent in Spanish. This post is for beginners, or anyone who has been thinking of getting started in a new language, but hasn't yet pulled that trigger. It's time to get moving!
Of course a single blog post can’t provide a full Spanish language course. There are plenty of Spanish courses out there anyway. Instead, here are the strategies and mindsets you can use to become a Spanish speaker sooner rather than later.
Why Conversational Fluency is What Really Matters
You’ll notice that I said “conversational” fluency, and not just “fluency”. Here’s why:
- You have to speak. Speaking is by far the most important part of developing your language skills. Most of us learn a language to connect with others. If you can’t say anything, you miss that connection.
- You won’t get stuck on perfectionism. Getting caught up with the idea of being able to read, write, listen and speak perfectly will overwhelm you and cause inaction. Aiming for conversational fluency gives you a stepping stone on the path to full fluency (including reading/writing) and then mastery.
With that in mind, here are five essential steps that will take you to conversational fluency in Spanish.
¡Vamos! Let’s go!
Step 1: Find Your Real Passion for Speaking Fluent Spanish
Learning to speak fluent Spanish can be way easier than a Spanish teacher will ever admit.
Even so, there will still be times when it’s a struggle. You’ll only push through this if you have a good reason for learning Spanish. I like to call this your passion.
Everyone's reason for learning Spanish is different. For me, I was committed to proving that I wasn’t “destined” to be bad at learning languages. I was passionate about proving a point and showing what perseverance and hard work could accomplish.
For you it might be different. Maybe you have a love interest who is a native speaker, or perhaps you want to pursue a career that involves the Spanish language. Literature, travel, adventure, hobbies — they can all fuel the motivation you need to keep you pushing forward with your studies and practice.
By exploring your real reason for learning Spanish, you have a better chance of keeping your motivation high as you progress. Whenever you feel stuck at Spanish, go back to the reason you picked it up in the first place. That’s what will keep you strong.
Bonus Tip: Don’t limit yourself to just one passion. Learning because your grandparents speak Spanish? That doesn't mean you can't also pick up a Spanish-related hobby, learn songs in Spanish, or start reading Spanish literature.
Step 2: Create Your Own Spanish Language Phrasebook
Most Spanish phrasebooks will provide you with hundreds or thousands of words and phrases. Chances are, at least 70% of them will be useless to you.
You can get around this by creating your personalized Spanish phrase book and vocabulary list. These are the words and expressions you will use all the time. Focusing on these is the fastest path to conversational fluency.
When starting off, make sure to come up with a list of words and expressions that deal with your life. Here are some topics to get you started (and some examples of what I might say):
- Your life and experiences (“I have been traveling non-stop for 12 years.”)
- Your family and relations (“I just got engaged!”)
- Your hometown and country (“I’m from a small town in Ireland.”)
- Your hobbies and interests (“I’m a vegetarian.”)
- Your school and studies (“I studied engineering.”)
- Your job or profession (“blogger”, “polyglot” or “online business”)
As you try to speak with others in Spanish you'll naturally encounter other words or phrases that you will want to add to this list. You'll also be able to check your initial attempts at translating it, to getting it right.
Bonus Tip: Frequency word lists are a great resource, but rather than take the list as it is, go through and select those words that you know you will use on a consistent basis. Usually after the top 100 words (the, to, yes etc.) you need to focus on words more relevant to you.
Think of it like a “you filter”, where you're filtering the list to narrow down those which are most relevant to you and your life.
Step 3: Learn Spanish Conversational Connectors
Fluent Spanish speakers don't talk like a book. If you try to talk the same way people write, you'll wind up sounding like a robot.
Spoken Spanish has elements that allow you to bridge ideas and phrases, or add space to the conversation where your mouth can catch up with your brain (or vice versa). I call these “conversational connectors” (hat tip to Anthony Lauder who introduced them to me) and they are one of the keys to creating a more “fluent” sound in Spanish.
There are 10 main categories of connectors that I focus on:
- Apologising — (“don't be upset, but …”)
- (Dis)Agreeing — (“most certainly”)
- Closing — (“to sum up …”)
- Filler — (“well, as a matter of fact …”)
- Elaborating — (“to be more precise …”)
- Opening — (“that is a good question …”)
- Passing — (“and what do you think?”)
- Qualifying — (“to tell the truth …”)
- Quoting — (“recently, I heard that …”)
- Switching — (“by the way …”)
Conversational connectors bridge the gap between written and spoken Spanish, so they’re a big help in developing conversational fluency.
Bonus Tip: Don't try to memorize all the Conversational Connectors at once! Pick a few and use them as quickly as you can. This is the fastest way to ingrain them into your memory. You only need one or two to start, and then you can add to your repertoire as you gain more experience and confidence.
Step 4: Chat with Native Spanish Speakers
This is where you truly hit the ground running! To reach conversational fluency, it’s best to speak Spanish on a daily basis. Your goal is to use as much of the language as you can, as often as you can, wherever you can.
Location is no excuse. I’ve talked at great length about how learning online is better than in-person, and even shared methods for finding the right teachers on italki and how to use Skype to learn languages.
So, finding opportunities to speak shouldn’t be an issue.
Even if you are one of those rare people with no Internet, no native speakers in your city, and no resources, there is still a way to speak Spanish all the time:
Speak to yourself!
All the normal self-talk that you do in your head during the day can be done in Spanish! For example, instead of thinking “Boy, I’d really like to go for a walk”, think it to yourself in Spanish instead.
This might sound silly, but this type of “internal” training can do wonders to increase your fluency in Spanish by helping you to at least get used to thinking in Spanish.
You’ll also need to listen to spoken Spanish. So be sure to check out my list of Spanish language resources, including podcasts, videos, online services, and more.
Bonus Tip: When using listening materials, don’t just listen passively, but actively study what you hear. Listen and then listen again. Work for comprehension and try to duplicate the sounds you hear. This sort of active study of what you hear will increase your ability to speak like a native.
Step 5: Focus on the Easy Parts of Spanish
In any language learning project, you can easily get overwhelmed with all the things about the language which are challenging. In fact, it seems this is the first thing many beginners do.
So, why not try a different approach? Mindset and your approach to learning a language can be one of the greatest determiners of success. That’s why I recommend looking at all the ways Spanish is actually easy.
I share over 60 pages of techniques in the guide, but here are a few specific things to keep in mind to understand why conversational fluency in Spanish is certainly achievable.
Spanish is Phonetic
Reading Spanish is MUCH easier than reading English (mainly because English is so weird). Once you learn the pronunciation rules (which take very little time at all) you will be able to say anything you can read! That makes pulling out a dictionary to find the right word a breeze!
There Are No Cases in Spanish
Did you know there are fourteen ways of saying pretty much every word in Czech? Many Slavic and Germanic languages have noun cases which can make learning a word like “house” a chore. In Spanish “casa” is always “casa” no matter if you are in the house, going to the house, talking about the house etc. You learn a word and it’s that way for good.
There Are No Tones in Spanish
If you’re learning Chinese, Punjab or Thai, a word with the same consonants and vowels can mean something completely different depending on if the tone is high, low, rising or falling. While Spanish has a different accent and musicality to English, the intonations are very similar (for example, when you ask a question). It’s a lot more familiar than you think!
Cognates: There Are Thousands of Spanish Words You Already Know
Thanks to the occupation of England by the Norman French, we ended up with many French words in the English language. Fortunately many of these are very similar to the same words in Spanish!
Changing just the ending of words can give you dozens if not hundreds of words in Spanish.
For example, changing the “-tion” ending to “-cion” gives you words like “asociación” or “instrucción”. Learning these “cognate” rules instantly gives you an expanded vocabulary you never knew you had!
Remember, It’s All About Your Mindset
Your ability to become conversationally fluent in Spanish has nothing to do with whether or not you are “gifted” or the specific rules of Spanish itself. It is really all about your mindset and approach to learning the language.
Back when I started learning Spanish I stumbled across a totally new philosophy which has fueled my study of languages from that day forward: I could only learn to speak Spanish if I spoke Spanish.
These five steps are a road map to help you move forward on your path with Spanish. But regardless of the course materials you use or the method you employ, if you want to be conversant in Spanish, then you need to actually converse.
It essentially boils down to getting out there, opening your mouth, and making some friends. So, what are you waiting for?