Tips/strategies/advice to improve my intermediate Spanish?
September 10, 2013 12:23 PM   Subscribe

Do you have suggestions for the best ways to improve my intermediate-level Spanish, take advantage of immersion here in Argentina for the next few months, and ease up on anxiety/overthinking when speaking so I can be more fluid and fluent? My top priority for improvement is listening comprehension, followed by clarity, speed/fluidity, and confidence in speaking.

I am in the middle of four months in Argentina, and although my Spanish is improving slowly, it's not where I hoped it'd be by now. 

My listening comprehension has definitely been getting better, but still causes somewhere between slight to moderate difficulty for me in most conversations of any length. At this point, I'm fairly solid at understanding speech at an average or somewhat above average naturally spoken pace (rather than just that of newscasters, Spanish teachers, or others who intentionally try to speak slowly and clearly), although often when people are excited or enthusiastic (or naturally fast talkers) they speak at a pace that I have a hard time keeping up with. I also definitely have a hard time when there's too much background noise or crosstalk. And particularly when there's little/no context to help me fill in the blanks (ie sudden change of topic in conversation) I get tripped up by things like idioms, slang, unfamiliar words, words that have a lot of different meanings, and/or needing to actively puzzle out pronouns or a few less distinctive verb conjugations that I sometimes get mixed up. This can then cause cascading problems where my brain gets "stuck" trying to figure out what is meant and then I also miss subsequent words/phrases because I'm distracted. I also tend to panic a bit when people are asking me questions and overfocus on trying to actively translate every word rather than relaxing and letting the meaning come to me.  (In general, I'm not sure how much I'm translating directly Spanish-to-meaning in my head versus Spanish-to-English-to-meaning, even though I know the former is better... I'm pretty sure I do a mix of both, but I've gotten fast enough at the latter that it's hard to be sure which I'm doing at any given time, if that makes sense?)

And then when it comes to speaking, I'm my own worst enemy. If I'm just talking to myself (I try to keep a running monologue in Spanish for practice, either in my head or aloud when I'm alone) or in low pressure situations especially when there's alcohol involved (ie short language exchange activities or similar where I'll probably never see them again) I'm way more fluid than in the kinds of conversations that are most important to me when I feel even a little pressure. I get particularly caught up when I've forgotten or am unsure of something relatively easy that I think I should know... if it's more complicated I'm still a bit flustered about not having the word or grammatical structure I want but I can usually plunge ahead without too terrible a pause with a guess or an alternative, but if it's something I ought to know I just freeze up wracking my brain for it and telling myself "this is easy, you should know this!" and/or mentally checking and double-checking... just generally overthinking rather than letting the words flow.

I'd really love your best advice on how best to move forward!  Either generally speaking, or here are some specific questions:

- What are good drills/activities/exercises to spend my time on?  Ways to set up flash cards/things to cover? I've seen recommendations to watch/listen to clips of things (like movies/YouTube videos/etc) and then replay them over and over to improve listening comprehension, advice to try to match sound to transcripts and speak the words at the same time you hear them, to memorize and internalize songs/poems/dialogues, etc... experience with these or other techniques? Are there any formal courses/materials I should purchase that would be helpful at my level to reach my goals?
- How much time per day/week should I be aiming to spend on the boring drilling/exercises/flashcards stuff? I feel like I haven't been doing enough-- I've set up some vocab and verb conjugation flashcards on Anki but I've been bad/inconsistent about adding more, so I spend maybe an hour or so per week on average on this-- because I'd just rather watch TV or read in Spanish and I tell myself that's almost as good. So I think I need to set some specific goals for active study time, but don't really know what makes sense. (For reference, I spend about 4-5 hours a week in one-on-one Spanish class, and maybe 1-1.5 on homework; 5-15 hours, depending on the week, volunteering in Spanish but in a non-talking-heavy capacity, maybe a quarter of the volunteer time is spent in conversation although much of the rest still involves listening to others talk; and maybe 3-5 hours a week in a language exchange or some less structured social activity in Spanish. I have the TV on probably 30 hours a week (!), although I'm only actually focusing actively and intently on trying to understand the Spanish maybe half of that time.)
- Also, any tips/techniques on getting the most out of all the TV I'm watching in Spanish? (I try to stick mostly to stuff in the original Spanish or dubbed in Spanish, but do I do let myself watch some subtitled English stuff, so advice about how to better use both types for language learning is appreciated.)  And am I just fooling myself that this is a version of "fun" studying that's almost as good as exercises/drilling? I mean, obviously it helps some, but is it anywhere in the same ballpark as far as effectiveness per hour spent?
- How can I try to ease up on this anxiety in speaking and convince myself to just plunge ahead and let the words flow without thinking so much about what to say/whether I'm saying things right?
- How should I make the most of my private lessons? I have a teacher I spend a few hours a week with one-on-one, and thus far I've mostly been deferring to her plans for what to cover (which is mostly focusing in on and really nailing down grammar points that I've learned but have been shaky/inconsistent on, like preterite/imperfect, use of pronouns, subjunctive)... any suggestions for the most helpful use of time with a teacher?  In the abstract being grammatically correct or sounding more natural/native isn't that high of a priority for me right now, although of course to the extent that it helps my listening comprehension and speaking confidence it's really important... my top priority right now is listening comprehension (although I feel like class time probably has a pretty limited role to play in that, right?) and secondarily clarity, speed/fluidity, and confidence in speaking. Also, if you'd suggest I should try to schedule more hours of one-on-one class let me know, or if there's any reason to go back to the group classes I was taking for mostly social reasons.
- Should I be trying harder to minimize/eliminate English in my daily life?  I don't speak in English (other than Skyping with family a couple times a week, which is pretty nonnegotiable) and I try to keep my internal monologue going in Spanish, so English basically comes from spending a couple hours a day of downtime with English websites and/or watching English-language TV with Spanish subtitles.  Would I really be significantly better off dropping those things? (And if so, any recommendations for good websites in Spanish to fill the MeFi/AskMe hole in the "let's relax and read interesting stuff online" part of my day?)

Thanks so much!
posted by EmilyClimbs to Writing & Language (6 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
This isn't very comprehensive, but as far as the drills and activities go, I've never seen anything cooler than Duolingo. There's also a MeFi friend list expansion thread, here.
posted by oceanjesse at 1:05 PM on September 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I spent about 4 months in Buenos Aires 6 months ago, so I have recent familiarity.

Porteno spanish can be challenging. TV probably isn't helping as much as you'd like because unless you're watching local news or something, the accent you're hearing is vastly different from the accent of the people around you.

If you want to learn spanish, you must get out of the house and go speak more spanish. Buenos Aires is absolutely packed with neat stuff to do, and every thing you do outside the house will help your spanish much more than sitting in your house (30 hours a week sitting inside watching TV? That's a LOT, nearly 20% of your waking hours).

The biggest tip I have about getting over that anxiety about speaking is that cultivating an attitude of humor is very helpful. You WILL make mistakes, and they will be baffling to both parties, and it really is funny if you let it be. Chatting with people isn't life or death, any mistakes you make or any things you misunderstand really aren't that important. You can try again or change topics or give up and go talk to somebody else. Another minor tip is to not be afraid to ask what stuff is. Repeat it back to the asker to make sure you have it. Best way to learn names of foods in particular.

Specific suggestions:

Buy a "Guia T" from a bookseller if you haven't already and learn the bus system so you can get around without having to spend piles of money. There's a website, too, but I found the paper guide easier to handle. Get a sube card, too, so you don't have to deal with change. If you've been sticking to taxis or the subte, you're missing out on the easiest and cheapest way to get around, and the buses go 24/7 unlike the subte.

Go talk to people in your local park. The parks in Buenos Aires are totally full of people who are usually just hanging out and willing to chat with foreigners. The dog walkers in the park in particular are usually bored and happy to chat, and they tend to be native portenos.

Hit up some of the street markets and chat with the vendors. If you go to the Recoleta cemetery market, go to the mall in Recoleta afterward which is like a block away and talk to the vendors. If you're in San Telmo, the street market there on Saturday is fun and has lots of neat/weird stuff and some really good art.

Sounds weird, but chat with non-native speakers whenever you get the chance. They tend to have a lot of patience for foreign language learners which can be very helpful. The local corner stores ("Chinos") tend to be run by asian immigrants who speak spanish as a second language. Talking to them was sometimes easier than talking to natives because they understood very well how hard it was to communicate in a foreign language.

If you need a break from all this, there is a great Friday evening expat English speaking group that meets at various bars around Microcentro/San Telmo. You can find them on, or memail me if you would like access to the facebook group.

It's really worth remembering that it's *interesting* to talk to foreigners for a lot of people, and Buenos Aires is far enough south that people don't have a ton of chance to converse with USians. You aren't bothering people to chat with them, it's usually a fun experience for both parties.

Also, memail me if you need anything or have more questions.
posted by zug at 2:04 PM on September 10, 2013

Best answer: Breaking Out of Beginner's Spanish, if you can get a copy, is written for people in roughly your situation. It's a great read -- really informal and friendly -- and really practical. Everything from specific verb issues (what to use when) to false cognates (like embarazada) to proper swearing (with specific levels of intent -- is this something to say when you stub your toe on a church pew or when someone just shot your mother and kidnapped your dog). It's more Mexican than porteno, but it does generally recognize that fact.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 8:04 PM on September 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I live in Buenos Aires and have been here for nearly 5 years, speak Spanish every day and I still struggle with big groups and the local accent. When in a group people talk over each other which makes following one track very tricky and even if I'm following I tend not to contribute as much as I would in my own language as I tend to trip over words much more than I would on an individual basis.

This will only come with practice and watching TV is not the way to do it. Firstly it means you have to actually have to watch Argentine TV which I wouldn't wish on anyone and secondly it's one-sided. It might improve your listening but not your speaking.

Events like Pecha Kucha are great places to listen and then talk to others. The Argentina subreddit is a pretty active place and they occasionally have meetups. Never been myself but would be a good way to meet more people. Spanglish organises evenings where you talk half in Spanish, half in English and would be one more way of getting out there and practicing.

Feel free to memail if you need anything.
posted by jontyjago at 5:41 AM on September 11, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! A reasonably large share of my TV-watching actually is Argentinian, but I know that I've got to do more other stuff too.

I'm pretty introverted and shy/anxious so it's hard for me to just make conversation with people in English let alone in Spanish, but I'm trying to do language exchanges regularly with Spanglish and Mundo Lingo, and I'll try to find other situations for conversation.

(If anyone's still reading, I'd love any further suggestions on specific drills/practice methods/exercises/techniques.)
posted by EmilyClimbs at 4:27 PM on September 18, 2013

I mean this in the friendliest way possible: you can't learn to speak a language if you don't speak.

It makes me sad to think of you having this wonderful opportunity to see a beautiful city in a beautiful part of the world and instead of exploring it, just sitting in your apartment out of fear. You can talk to people in spanish on the internet from the US, but you'll probably never again have a chance to experience Argentina as a person living there.

Forget about your spanish. Just go do stuff. Head to Tigre. Hop the border to Uruguay for a day and go horseback riding. Try to spot parrots in the park. Hop on a bus and go see Foz do Iguacu. Visit the bird park and go shopping in Ciudad del Este while you're there. Go wine tasting. Check out the Recoleta cemetary.

Hit up the hostels or the expat meetup groups and talk to people in English if you have to. I can't help but feel you're missing the forest for the trees. Knowing spanish in and of itself doesn't do anything, the power in learning another language is that it's a gateway to being able to explore a different culture.

So go explore!
posted by zug at 11:25 AM on September 23, 2013

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