Help me learn Spanish!
October 5, 2011 1:49 PM   Subscribe

How can I most effectively learn a language (specifically Spanish) while in a college Spanish class?

I've done extensive searching, but there are a lot of posts about language learning and I definitely may have missed something.

Basically, I'm in college Spanish, and I'm not doing so well. I do the exercises, and the assigned work, but it's not enough. My conversational skill, vocabulary, and conjugating-on-my-feet (as well as remembering the right conjugations) are not up to par with my class (it's designed to be the third class in the sequence, though this is the first semester I've taken here and my placement may be incorrect as well, though I don't really think it is).

I've tried different things, typical flashcards for vocab, making charts/study sheets and tacking them on my wall, etc., but I'd like to know the most effective techniques I could use to study and enrich my learning, (preferably not terribly time-consuming ones - between long-term projects and daily work, that's already my most demanding class) or techniques I could use while completing classwork, I would really appreciate it! It's frustrating, and stressful.

While I'm worried about my grade, language learning is my first priority - this is something that I'd like to become proficient in, I'd like to study abroad in Central America, etc.

(Bonus question: any easyish-to-understand shows in Spanish that are aimed at teenagers or so? They don't need to be ridiculously easy, but I suspect the fast-speaking nature of reality shows and the like would be out of my league. And I suspect I'd enjoy watching trashy shows where I didn't need to understand everything would be better than really involved shows.)
posted by R a c h e l to Computers & Internet (20 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I failed German four times.

No classes ever worked for me. I always felt like it wasn't "clicking" for me, and I despaired as I watched my classmates obviously getting it.

I even went so far as to put labels on everything in my apartment, and trying to narrate my daily actions in German.

None of it worked.

What I think would have worked would have been (1) reading children's literature in the target language, and (2) having multi-modal partial translations. By that, I mean having transitional forms of text that either change the sentence structure, or change words, or some combination of both.

So to answer your question, if you can, find children's books or adolescent books, in yourtarget language, and work up from there.

Language instruction sucks.

Good luck.
posted by yesster at 2:02 PM on October 5, 2011

When I did this, a Spanish-speaking friend was taking French (which I could speak a little but could effectively read and write) and a mutual friend of ours spoke damn near everything (as in, seriously multi-lingual). So my French-taking friend would speak to us in French; I'd use the Spanish; our friend spoke whatever; and we'd help each other out. After about a year of this, I could speak Spanish better than I ever could French notwithstanding having spent several classroom years with it (the French). The key, I think, is having someone to talk to in a real colloquial context.

Is there anyone in the class who appears to be effectively fluent, say, a native speaker who is taking the class for an easy grade, with whom you could have coffee dates for Spanish chat? When someone I worked with was brushing up on his Spanish for a sabbatical trip to South America, he hired someone to speak with him several times a week; as I recall, he found her through the Spanish department of a local university. If you don't know anyone who speaks Spanish who would be willing and able to be a conversation partner, you could ask your professor if he / she might know someone or help you find someone.

There are also CD programs like Rosetta Stone that some people find helpful. I've used them to help develop my ear, but nothing beats chatting up someone live.
posted by cool breeze at 2:05 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Watch some telenovelas, especially with Spanish subtitles on. You might find it easier to follow the visual words more than the audible ones sometimes, and vice versa. Either way, you're making those connections.

Do you have a "conversation table" or other opportunity to chat with native speakers? That should be better than the usual classroom conversations. ("Me llamo Marta." "Mucho gusto. Me llamo Hector.") You might also try looking for this stuff in a place where native speakers of Spanish are hoping to learn English better, so you could help each other.
posted by Madamina at 2:07 PM on October 5, 2011

If you can't find a native speaking partner on campus, you can try the website People there are used to speaking to people at different levels and they can help you figure out what you need to work on.
posted by chaiminda at 2:12 PM on October 5, 2011

The Annenberg Foundation produced Destinos. That site lets you watch the series online, I think? And has a bunch of links under "resources".
posted by XMLicious at 2:15 PM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Go to Mexico. Or anywhere else that's south of the Rio Grande and isn't Brazil or Belize. Live with locals, shop with locals, deal with local everyday all day. I think immersion is the only way to learn a language, at least for an adult to get from "Donde is la bano, por favor", to really speaking it. Then you have to use it all the time (like read a Spanish paper every week and talk once and a while) to retain it.

(You can learn Spanish in Spain too of course but, if you get any good at it, most of the Spanish speakers in the world will make fun of your accent.)
posted by Webnym at 2:32 PM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

A tip from an old french teacher of mine:
You are rarely in a situation where you conjugate in order. I go to the pool? Do you go to the pool? They go to the pool on Wednesdays. We all go on Saturdays. You all go on Fridays. They (all) never go to the pool.

It's not just natural. There is much more of "I do this activity. Oh yes, I like that too. I will try it. Do you do that. Do you know anyone who does?"

You are likely to conjugate in two forms at once (and most often with "I") so concentrate on that. on many verbs but in the same person and number. Throw in asking a question phrase.

Also, learning phrases can really help move things along. It's nice to just be able to pull out. "Yes, I really love that X" or "What is your favorite X?"

Best of luck!
posted by raccoon409 at 3:41 PM on October 5, 2011

I used to teach languages. Always use as much of whatever you know as you can. Even if you suck. Most of my students who did great were the ones who were confident enough to produce. Producing your own sentences, ideas and dialogues (even if they are not perfect) will help you "recycle" the knowledge you've acquired in class. It seriously works.

My brother in law is a slovak, and he learnt Spanish really well by making mistake after mistake, not caring and simply trying to communicate with my sister, who is a Spanish speaker. Don't be embarrassed, ever!
posted by Tarumba at 3:47 PM on October 5, 2011

I think you have to immerse yourself in a language to truly pick it up. I would second watching a couple of hours of spanish tv. The news and telenovella's are usually pretty good because you can usually pretty easily tell what they are talking about.

Also the other thing that I did last time I took college level spanish was I went to use the language lab a lot. They had a video series called Destinos I think that really was excellent. I would complete the whole destinos series.

If your college doesn't have it somewhere you could try to find it online somewhere for sale.

Last time I checked - a few years ago the whole series was very expensive like hundreds of dollars. I think there may be portions of it available on youtube now as well
posted by Twinedog at 4:32 PM on October 5, 2011

Talk to yourself all the time in Spanish, narrate everything you are doing. This will help you identify which words you do know, and which words you don't know.

Listen to Spanish music, and read along with the lyrics. Something poppy and pretty straightforward like Shakira or La Oreja de Van Gogh... this will help you get used to how sentences are constructed, as well as increasing your vocabulary.

Time and money will probably make this unlikely, but if you can, head south and do an intensive course for a couple of weeks at a place like this: . Living with a local family and speaking Spanish 24/7 will put you miles ahead.

Bonus answer: Aventuras Vascas. Not sure where you'll find it though.

¬°Buena suerte!
posted by peppermintfreddo at 4:34 PM on October 5, 2011

While immersion is undoubtedly the best answer, it isn't cheap and isn't practical during the semester. Finding native speakers to practice with is also a great suggestion. Classrooms suck because the teacher usually speaks a fair portion of the time, and then the remainder of the time is divided between however many students there are in class. The best way to learn to speak is to speak, and you need to find whatever way to spend time doing that, beyond the 5 minutes that might be "your turn" in an hour-long class.

That said, regarding your bonus question: Telenovelas are indeed trashy, and I agree with the above suggestion to use subtitles as training wheels. If telenovelas are above your speed (and I suspect if you're struggling in Spanish 3, they may be), I found watching the news in Spanish to be a good first step. The news has two advantages:

1. The newsreaders speak in a somewhat formal manner, with little slang, and with an emphasis on clear enunciation. This is not how normal people talk, but it's easier to pick up if you're a beginner with classroom Spanish as your only foundation.

2: The news is dreadfully predictable. You probably know what the top stories of the day are anyway because you saw the headlines on an English-language newspaper or website. And if not, if they are showing footage of a town suffering a flood, you can maybe at least pick out the word for "water" and piece it together with the adjacent words.

This will not teach you to understand spoken Spanish the way normal people speak Spanish. But once you can get the gist from a news report, you can move on to Sabado Gigante or telenovelas or whatever.
posted by Pseudonaut at 7:04 PM on October 5, 2011

nthing the turning your TV on to Spanish language news or sports. Get yourself a study group who only speaks Spanish to each other for an hour whenever you meet. Seconding that you should start composing sentences in your head, the saying them out loud. Si lo haces, lo vas a apprender. (if you do it, you're going to learn it).
posted by Gilbert at 9:35 PM on October 5, 2011

Languages are like math. you might just not have the type of brain for it.

i'm excellent at languages, myself, but I can't figure out chemistry or baseball to save my life. sometimes it's just the type of brian you have.

having said that, i'd see this is a great excuse to watch some telenovelas. Also -- if you can get your hands on kid's books in spanish? it may seem silly, but reading See Spot Run in Spanish might help you. When my French was rusty and I was trying to relearn it, I read a lot of fairy tales and Babysitter's Club books in French. you'd be surprised how captivating such silly stories can be when you're trying to grasp the language, and it's kind of fun!
posted by custard heart at 10:03 PM on October 5, 2011

Languages are like math. you might just not have the type of brain for it.

As a former math teacher, I have to point out that the actual frequency of the condition dyscalculia is very low - many more people become convinced that they "just can't get math" as a sort of meme than actually have that problem. (Quite possibly due to poor teaching or uninteresting presentation of math as much as anything else.)

I think you're taking the right approach, OP. For one reason or another, it might be more difficult for you - perhaps for as simple a reason as, maybe it's less interesting for you than others, or maybe for some other reason - but don't be too quick to give up.
posted by XMLicious at 10:31 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sounds like you're probably above and beyond this point, but Mi Vida Loca is a great resource for beginners.

RTVE is great for watching TV shows from Spain online.

Obviously the best way to learn is immersion. Before I was actually able to go live in Spain, I did my best to simulate immersion at home with conversation classes with native speakers and living in the Spanish house at my college.

Suerte y √°nimo!
posted by maca at 10:50 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ask your teacher about conversation exchange or language partners. My Japanese speaking ability really improved only after actively seeking out a language partner for myself and meeting with him every week, and speaking in English and Japanese with him.
posted by that girl at 12:44 AM on October 6, 2011

I'll throw out two old suggestions : either date a Spanish speaking person or get a job in a stereotypical job like kitchen work or construction or yard work.
posted by CathyG at 8:43 AM on October 6, 2011

Find spanish-speakers to converse with. Instruct them that they are to ignore all knowledge of english, so you can't just fall back to get your point across. Then have conversations. If you don't understand, ask them to repeat it. Explain it like they were talking to a 2-3 year old. You will make tons of mistakes. You will look silly as you wave your arms around to try patch holes in your vocabulary. Make animal noises, etc. Watch Spanish language TV. Pick out the words you recognize. Pick some words that you don't - look them up! Learning a language is not a part-time activity.

Conjugating verbs is useless IMHO - little kids don't go around conjugating the damn things by rote, they learn the language dynamically, by making mistakes, being corrected, and imitating their elders. Learn to communicate, and proper verb conjugation can come later.
posted by defcom1 at 10:11 AM on October 6, 2011

For vocabulary, use Anki. This is a far better replacement than flashcards. It will remind you of the words you are about to forget using a spaced-learning algorithm. Far better use of your time and they will actually stick.

If you'd like, I can share my Spanish Anki deck with you, or there's a bunch of free ones on Anki Online. Send me a message if you'd like a copy of my deck or want some more depth about how I learned Spanish.

I did about 1 year of Spanish on my own with things like Pimsleur and Michele Thomas, and then 2 years at community college. I'm now studying Spanish in Barcelona and placed into the advanced classes.
posted by Nerro at 6:16 PM on October 6, 2011

Find catchy Spanish music that you like, that will make you want to learn what it means. Selena has some nice stuff.

Are there any Spanish meetup groups in your area (if you live in a large-ish city, is a good place to find them)? Or Spanish clubs? Exchange students from Mexico and Spain?

When I was learning German, I paid a German exchange student to speak with me in German for an hour or two a week. Force yourself to start speaking the language regularly in some way, even if it's only to yourself. I kept a journal of daily life and made myself write it only in German. You start to notice which words you're missing and common constructions that you want to know how to say, and then you can notice them appearing in class. It's really true... if you don't use it, you lose it.
posted by iadacanavon at 8:32 PM on October 6, 2011

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