How best to improve my written and spoken Spanish skills in 6 months?
February 6, 2013 3:40 PM   Subscribe

Ayudeme a decir a la gente que tienen alta presion arterial.

Last week, I took a test at NYU to enter into their medical Spanish interpretation program, which I desperately want to enroll in. I scored a 62/100 on the written exam, and 79/100 on the spoken portion of the exam. Written was vocabulary, translating sentences from Spanish to English and vice versa, paragraph interpretation, and choose-the-correct-word to complete the sentence. The oral was basically a conversation between the proctor and I alternating between Spanish and English.

It has been about 2 years since I spoke Spanish on a regular basis, and about 5 years since I would have considered myself immersed in it (speaking it for several hours per day). The test requires an average of 80% to pass, so I need to raise my overall score by 10 points in about 6 months, when I can re-take the exam. I figure it will be easier to raise my written than my oral score, and I mostly learned Spanish through immersion rather than in a classroom, so, for example, I have no idea where accent marks belong and I mix up 'el' and 'la' a lot.

What is the best way to raise my score up to passing? Workbooks? Flashcards? Podcasts? Volunteer helping Spanish-only speakers? A pen pal? A class? ( I would rather not spend more than $100 on this but am open). I especially need suggestions for the written portion but I would like to raise my oral score as well. I am in New York so New York-specific suggestions are great. Answers focused specifically on improving medical Spanish are extra appreciated.

posted by queens86 to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know any NYC-specific resources, but when my sister-in-law was in nursing school, she took a Spanish class for medical professionals. (She already had some knowledge of Spanish, but was not fluent.) Could you contact a nearby nursing school (or even a larger hospital) and ask what they do?
posted by SuperSquirrel at 4:05 PM on February 6, 2013

No New York specific suggestions but a few things come to mind:
- community college or distance learning Spanish courses are usually fairly inexpensive
- practicing with written Spanish exams (you can usually get these from university websites as many social science or humanities graduate programs require that you pass a foreign language competency test
- if you are allowed to use a dictionary on the written test, make sure you are using a good one -- usually not a pocket version
- (sort of an outlier but) Rosetta Stone helped me brush my "learned from school, mixed with real talk" Spanish up to a more professional, grammatically correct Spanish
posted by sm1tten at 4:20 PM on February 6, 2013

4 years ago I didn't speak a word of Spanish. Then I went traveling and met my wife who is from Spain and I have been living in madrid for almost 4 years now. My Spanish is now advanced to the point where I speak at work every day in meetings. This is the best advice you'll get about learning a language in my opinion... Speak speak speak and then speak some more. Find any way possible to give yourself a chance to have real conversations in real time with real people who are also willing to correct you. Of course books and classes help but I think you will find that speaking and practicing conversations will give you the most improvement in the shortest time. Have a look on craigslist, I'm sure you can find someone there who may be willing to. Also, though I've never tried this, I heard you can hire teachers in their native countries via Skype and have face to face video classes with them. The great thing about being in new York is that its full of Spanish speakers.. All you gotta do is find a way top break the ice with just one of them! ;) suerte! Y no te precupes, en 6 meses ya verás como puedes mejorar.. Es mucho tiempo. Que no tengas un infarto!
posted by postergeist at 4:21 PM on February 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

For brushing up on written/listening: Duolingo. It won't teach you the explicit rules, but it will correct your mistakes and you can test out of easier levels depending on how advanced you think you are. (And it's free!) If it's vocab you want, there are lots of medical Spanish textbooks.

Podcasts: Coffee Break Spanish (a course), RFI has a short (~5 mins), daily Spanish news podcast that I like about the Americas

For practicing spoken Spanish, lots of people like LiveMocha but I have no personal experience with it. (I speak Spanish and have used Duolingo for French and Portuguese).
posted by pitrified at 4:32 PM on February 6, 2013 [6 favorites]

I'd suspect that improving your written skill will improve your oral, or at least it works that way for me. I'd suggest spending most of your time with materials that force you to create sentences, rather than passively listening to or watching stuff.

I dimly remember seeing workbooks specifically for learning medical Spanish, so you might look for those.

This site has good grammar exercises, though there are some errors.

The Practice Makes Perfect series of books helped me a lot with grammar and, therefore, both written and spoken language. Don't buy the Kindle editions; the tables and such are too tiny to be legible.

I drill my new stuff with Flashcards Deluxe for the iPhone (I create my own flashcards).

Good luck!
posted by ceiba at 4:44 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Verbling offers live video language exchange, for free. A native English speaker learning Spanish is randomly paired with a native Spanish speaker learning English, to speak 5 minutes of each language.

Disclosure: I once worked there.
posted by gorillawarfare at 4:47 PM on February 6, 2013

The thing that really worked for me was doing the Pimsleur language tapes. The trick is that they have you recite a lot of simple sentences over and over again until you're bored to tears, but in the meantime you've become a lot more comfortable speaking Spanish out loud and you've acquired some "muscle memory" around composing sentences and conjugating verbs on the fly.

If you don't want to pay for the tapes, you could probably get a lot of the same benefit just from, for instance, listening to the news in Spanish a few sentences at a time and repeating what you've heard out loud.
posted by chrchr at 4:55 PM on February 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

Conversation partner! Find a native Spanish speaker who's trying to learn English. Bonus points if they've worked in the medical field, obviously.

My conversation partner during grad school was the wife of a student in my department. Her visa didn't allow her to work in the US so she decided to focus on learning English, and she had a different conversation partner for every day of the week. We'd spend half the time speaking Spanish and half the time speaking English. Sometimes she brought things she'd written or was trying to read and we'd talk through grammatical issues.

If you want a more one-sided, Spanish-focused relationship, I bet there are lots of native Spanish speakers in NYC who are well educated and either not allowed to work or unable to work in their profession, and you could always pay them under the table for tutoring...
posted by ecsh at 5:31 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Anki flashcards is helpful to me. Most of the basic decks you can find there are pretty basic. There is an enormous deck with conjugations of tons of irregular verbs and you can make your own specific to your needs. in my town has several Spanish language meetups. At least here, few of the speakers are native but its better than nothing.

I've been using some podcasts in the car. Its passive but its helped my comprehension and has been a great source of informal and colloquial spanish practice from Argentina. It looks there are a few options for medical podcasts out there.
posted by Che boludo! at 5:51 PM on February 6, 2013

It looks like Anki has several spanish flashcard decks
posted by Che boludo! at 5:54 PM on February 6, 2013

Newspapers. Read the health section. You'll learn all kinds of crazy idioms.

That said, the standard for passing might be pretty high because it's important to be very idiomatic (as in proper conversational usage, not idioms as in slang) when speaking about sensitive topics. My Spanish is very good, if I say so myself, but it's obvious that I learned from books. I can converse on any topic but I cannot hit the medical idioms right every time. I would probably have to spend time volunteering in a hospital abroad in order to do that. My point: don't be depressed if you can't pass.
posted by skbw at 7:01 PM on February 6, 2013

Here is one example--heart health for Mexicans.
posted by skbw at 7:06 PM on February 6, 2013

Best/fastest - make sure you find someone who's a native speaker to help you!

skbw is right; I'm a healthcare provider who speaks Spanish. example; I know multiple ways to say "swallow", technically, but all but one of those ways just earn me funny looks. Stupid dictionary.

I get health resources in Spanish, the CDC has tons of stuff, even if it's just reading the vaccine info pamphlet in Spanish. You can order pamphlets from the CDC for free in Spanish! it's cool!

Hanging out with a native speaker twice a week, getting coffee for an hour, my Spanish improved immensely in a short amount of time. When you're at a certain point, you really, really need the feedback that a native speaker can give [eg, a lot of my questions have to do with what might seem like synonyms but really aren't in terms of social register/associated meaning]. words for body parts are also problematic, eg, the most appropriate one to use and at different levels of health literacy. anyway, I could rant and grumble about that topic.

Reading/writing. I picked up Pablo Neruda's autobiography and read through it. The library is a great resource for this. Libraries also often have Spanish language events (there's a "reading to kids" thing that happens all the time in Spanish at the library here - ain't no shame hanging out with 5 year olds). Reading the news in Spanish and watching the associated videos on websites. I also changed my laptop OS to Spanish, and changed my phone's language to Spanish.

Find movies in Spanish that are *subtitled* in Spanish. Or TV in Spanish with Spanish subtitles.

I know that you said you don't want to spend more than $100, but if this is really what you want to do, this is an investment in your own professional development! Seriously.
posted by circle_b at 7:17 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I know you said you don't want to spend money on this, but would you spend money on a vacation? You can take intensive spanish lessons and stay with a local family at various places all over latin america. I did a program in Guatemala that cost me less than $200 a week for 4 hours of one-on-one lessons a day, and included a place to stay with a local family and 3 meals a day.

You'll learn a lot, very quickly, especially if you already know some spanish.

I can actually direct you to a volunteer group that organizes medical clinics in Guatemala if you're interested -- they work with the school that I took spanish classes at.
posted by empath at 7:24 PM on February 6, 2013

I am getting very good results at low costs using a Skype tutor via the service

there are other ways to access paid lessons but this is a big site and I trust being able to pay using paypal as well as the mechanism if anything goes wrong e.g. to get a refund or reschedule if the teacher isn't there one time you log on.

you can search for tutors in particular countries and see from their profiles what their average feedback score was (e.g. 4.9/ 5.0) and comments from other students. If you want a particular recommendation for a tutor I am delighted with mine so would share the link via me-mail if you wanted, but in general someone who has taught many lessons is better than someone just starting out and the better the average lesson feedback score the better.

I'm not an affiliate just a satisfied user. I have heard good things about for free intercambios but in my opinion people are way more likely to flake on you or not be so good at teaching you, or you can get lazy and talk in English more than Spanish. For me it's well worth springing $7 or $8 to be able to speak in Spanish 100% of the time with a proper tutor for 1 hour. In my city this is much cheaper than paying to see someone locally in person. I don't know what others do but I prefer to just chat with audio rather than use the video part of Skype I guess both options are available.
posted by AuroraSky at 7:38 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here's an example of what circle_b is talking about: estómago vs. barriga. Estómago is obviously the cognate of stomach and everybody will know what you're talking about. I learned it back in school (among Mexicans).

Barriga, on the other hand, is something like tummy but less cutesy. Maybe belly? A grown man would say it. I learned it from Dominicans. Never used it with a Mexican (to my knowledge). Now. As a translator you shouldn't give someone instructions about their barriga. But depending on your neighborhood you need to recognize it when someone says it. Or you will not make a good translator at all.

(By way of example of understandable but non-idiomatic Spanish...I would probably tell a client, "hay que tener cuidado con lo que entra en la barriga....come cosas sencillas, arroz, pan tostado, algo asi," which likely comes across as "Let no foreign thing pass over into your belly.") FOR THIS REASON, although a native speaker is obviously helpful, i really recommend the papers, too, so you can simply learn how to say "don't eat stuff that upsets your stomach" in just the same way a leaflet would. (Just as circle_b says about the vaccine flyer.)

The brochure and paper rec. is especially true if you're already comfortable talking to native speakers for a (mostly) indefinite length of time. Like, could you go on a date with a monolingual Spanish speaker? If so, perhaps find a Spanish-speaking health professional to talk to. If not, any native speaker will do until you get comfortable.
posted by skbw at 7:50 PM on February 6, 2013

Oh just wanted to add that to gain fluency the advice above to speak and speak some more is 100% right, it's one thing to recognise the word when you see it written down but another to remember and say it in conversation without the prompt and for that you need practice of speaking. Maybe a mix of some lessons together with free intercambios plus a book like "Teach Yourself Spanish" (make sure it's the Latin American one not the Castilian one) would be the best way to spend your $100. You could still overcome some limiting blocks in 10 sessions with a tutor and the extra free intercambios would make you sound more confident and fluid too.

Finally I know a Chilean nurse who wants to move to the UK if she can get a visa (her partner is Spanish) and she is studying a textbook for nurses learning English. I am sure there's one or more suitable specialist books that would help an English speaker wanting to pick up medical Spanish.

Buena suerte!
posted by AuroraSky at 7:55 PM on February 6, 2013

Just MeMailed you. Write me back if you want a penpal to get you writing in spanish daily.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 8:35 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I had to cram in a similar time frame to pass the foreign-language entrance exam for university in my husband's home country (Germany).

All the above suggestions are excellent. I'd like to add that focused studying for that specific entrance exam, along with daily use of Anki, did wonders for my German. As another poster mentioned, working hard on the written portion brought up my baseline skills quite a bit.

Do you have access to practice exams for this school? If not, perhaps take a look at C1-C2 Level university entrance language requirements in Spain and the equivalents in Central/South America.

The best part about these exams is the sheer amount of structured resources available - courses, books, exercises, forums, websites, etc. That paired with regular feedback from native speakers (best: native speaker teacher, to get knowledgable feedback!) should help you get those points you need. You could also get a book of medical vocab on the side.

Good luck and have fun!
posted by Pieprz at 12:54 AM on February 7, 2013

Duolingo is great, but it might be a bit low-level depending on how well you speak.

I've been using lang-8 to practice my writing. The idea is that you write short journal entries about whatever (could be a short story, or poems, or a diary, or an article) and native-speakers will correct it for you. You pay it forward by correcting other people's work. It's actually pretty fun!

News in Slow Spanish is a great podcast which discusses current events, grammar, and Spanish culture slowly and clearly. The podcast is free but you can pay to do activities and exercises on the website.

I also like to watch Spanish movies/shows with subtitles on my computer and pause/rewind certain parts, talking out loud along with the actors. You might feel like a dork when you do this but it really, really helped my pronunciation/word choice. For medical stuff, maybe you could get your hands on the DVDs of some sort of medical drama that's both dubbed and subtitled?

I had to learn technical Spanish as well, but not medical jargon. I read a lot of reports and papers in my field, translating key words as I went and putting them into a flashcard program on my iPhone. It helped a lot to lodge all the terminology in my brain.
posted by Paper rabies at 6:36 AM on February 7, 2013 [7 favorites]

I was trying to brush up on my Spanish a few years ago, so I tried to do as many things as I could en español. ATM? I picked the Spanish option. Listening to the radio in the morning? Spanish station. Ordering at the bagel place? Sésamo con queso crema por favor. (I decided to be brave after hearing the guy in front of me order in Spanish.) I watched Cristina instead of Oprah. I'm an atheist, but I went to a few Spanish-language church services, which helped a ton with idioms and less-literal translations. And when I really wanted to challenge myself, I tried to sing along in Spanish to English-language songs, which is basically impossible but is a really good way to practice interpreting. (And to learn to really be amazed by interpreters.) This all worked really, really well — it brought back everything I'd learned in classrooms over the years and added a ton of conversational fluency I don't know that I would have gotten any other way.
posted by Charity Garfein at 8:22 PM on February 7, 2013

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