Help me set a realistic language learning goal
February 12, 2015 3:54 PM   Subscribe

I work with many (Latin American) Spanish speaking families. I would like to be able to communicate with them, even a little. Help me figure out a realistic plan to acquire more language skills this summer.

I have approximately 2 months off this summer in which to work on my language skills. However, I can not realistically commit to 40 hours a week (or even 20 hours a week) of practice due to other obligations and skills I need to work on. A reasonable goal is to spend maybe 10 hours a week working on my Spanish. I could also spend 2-3 weeks doing an immersion course.

I have extensive French experience, so can actually sight-read Spanish decently. My oral comprehension is essentially nil (I catch random nouns here and there), and I can't speak in any complete sentences that do not involve a present tense verb. I have never formally studied Spanish, but have completed about half of the Duolingo tree and try to read & listen at work as much as I can.

What are my best, realistic options for improving my skills in 2 months, 10 hours a week this summer? Self study, find a tutor (how?), community college class, etc.?

Would a 2-3 week immersion stay in Mexico or elsewhere help at all, or is that short of a time period just a waste of time & money at my skill level? Any solid suggestions?

Finally, based on your recommendations above, is it reasonable to hope that by August I could have a simple conversation with a native Spanish speaker about every-day topics?
posted by raspberrE to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Find native speakers in your area (preferably from Latin America and not Spain) and spend as much time conversing with them in Spanish as you can. You'll probably have to pay/bribe them since at the beginning it'll be pretty frustrating, especially if they aren't teachers.

Don't worry about mastering the past tenses (although the "future" is pretty simple in Latin American Spanish, basically identical to how we do it in English)... 80 hours is plenty of time (if you spend it actually speaking Spanish) to learn how to use the Spanish you do know to talk around the Spanish you don't.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 4:26 PM on February 12, 2015

I got about halfway through the Duolingo spanish tree, too, and one thing that really helped me start to speak in Spanish rather than just read/write it was the Michel Thomas audio course. It really forced me to develop quicker recall, pronunciation, and easy sentence formation.

But really, the best way to learn how to have conversations with native Spanish speakers in a short amount of time is to start having conversations with native Spanish speakers. You can use Skype to chat with natives, especially since you have a little bit of vocabulary. This method was popularized by Benny the Irish Polyglot (unfortunately he moved a lot of his free advice to his Language Hacking Guide, which I haven't read yet). You can find native speakers on exchanges like italki, or on language learning forums. You don't go in to the conversation completely blind - Benny usually writes out a little script with questions/answers, including helpful stuff like how to say "again?" or "spell that?"
posted by muddgirl at 4:27 PM on February 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

I have the French too. Spent three weeks in Nicaragua a few years ago, didn't have the chance to do immersion school, but found myself picking it up very quickly. I think you should do the immersion if you can, just make sure it's really immersion. And do a couple of hours a day of some language program, whatever people here recommend, and watch movies or tv in Spanish whenever you can.

See if there is a language exchange program near you. I went to one once when I was living in South Carolina, was matched with a couple of Hispanic women, they taught me a little Spanish, I taught them a little English. Maybe someone here knows what I'm talking about. My work schedule changed so I never could go back, but it was fun.
posted by mareli at 4:30 PM on February 12, 2015

I was going to say what muddgirl said. Michel Thomas, Fluent in 3 months (Benny's site) and italki. And those three weeks in Mexico will be totally worth it, for practice and for the experience of going to a very different place. Avoid speaking English during your trip, even if you run into people that can speak it.

Be aware that Spanish changes a lot in some parts of Latinamerica. From which countries are the people you interact with?

¡La mejor de las suertes!
posted by Promethea at 4:36 PM on February 12, 2015

I have been reading my news in Spanish (Univision app) and it has helped enormously. I know the general outline of the big stories so I can pick up a lot of words from context, and my vocabulary has expanded enormously (I've also gotten a lot better at past and future tense -- "the man was shot" "the president will announce" etc). Most stories take less than five minutes to read, so it's not a huge time commitment to finishing a "lesson," and it's material pitched at adults that's relevant to my life ... not random exercises. I don't know if this is common to Spanish-language news in general, but Univision uses the same sort of "register" (phrasing, structure, etc.) as English-language American news outlets do, which also helps; I sort-of know what's coming. (My vocab is tending a bit towards "true crime" and "DC bureaucracy" words but that's okay.) You could also try watching a nightly news show in Spanish, or getting hooked on a telenovela, to help with the listening.

Spanish-language radio or podcasts in the car!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:37 PM on February 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Before you get to your intensive period of study this summer, watch movies in spoken Spanish with English subtitles. I have a degree in French and this helped me prime myself before taking courses to pick up Romanian, of all things (and I still lean on Lumea lui Garp when I'm trying to recall a Romanian idiom). It's very helpful to be able to get lost in the current of a language's acoustic properties in native contexts where you're an outside observer. Nailing those phonemes before you even begin dedicated study can really be done this way--passively, through exposure--which is sorta why we can learn to perfectly imitate foreign language song lyrics without knowing a lick of meaning.

Bonus points for playing with the subtitle arrangements: spoken English with Spanish subtitles, spoken Spanish with Spanish subtitles. Play it like it's a game before you have to commit to it like it's a job.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 4:57 PM on February 12, 2015

You can definitely be talking everyday Spanish by August. Four thoughts -- from someone who learned to speak Spanish with a private tutor:

Work through at least the beginning of the free public domain FSI Spanish course. It explains the Spanish sound and stress system in an elegant way and has very ample audio drills to allow you to start speaking and getting the sounds of the sentences in your head. Do these drills! Although it is said that Spanish is written exactly like it is spoken, this isn't so. For instance, like French, Spanish has liaisons of a sort between words, but they don't appear in the spelling system at all. Getting clear on this with FSI will help bridge the written to oral gap early on and make working with written materials much easier.

Find a tutor! They are often to be found on under 'classes', and can be very inexpensive. If you don't find anyone there, perhaps inquire at local universities for graduate student native speakers who do tutoring, although that may be more expensive. You can also find tutors who teach long distance through skype. (memail me for a recommendation for a skype tutor.) For you, the point of the tutor will not be to teach you grammar at this stage -- because French and Spanish are, many subtleties aside, really very close -- but to give you speaking practice. I'd look for someone who has a tailored 'conversational' approach. This means each lesson is structured as 1) a conversation in Spanish followed by 2) review of whatever grammar points came up as problematic in the conversation. This will allow you to not waste time with basic grammar that will be clear to you from the French.

Watch TV. A great way to accustom oneself to conversational Spanish is to listen to lots and lots of oonversational Spanish, which is what TV in general and soap operas in particular supply. For starters there is a freely available old PBS educational soap-opera for Spanish learners called Destinos. Then move on to a real soap opera. My favorite was Amar en Tiempos Revueltos. (It is in Iberian Spanish. RTVE offers a lot of great free online TV programming.)

(Also, you probably will want a grammar book. Advanced Spanish Grammar is pretty good; has lots of exercises with answers. For more systematic coverage of the basics, I used The Ultimate Spanish Review and Practice.)

The indispensable thing is to just be speaking the language. A private tutor is a good solution.

¡Que tengas buena suerte!
posted by bertran at 5:09 PM on February 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

Oh, I also just noticed this free MOOC in beginning Spanish. Might be fun and useful.
posted by bertran at 5:18 PM on February 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

However, I can not realistically commit to 40 hours a week (or even 20 hours a week) of practice due to other obligations and skills I need to work on.

That's ok! 40 hours a week would be counter-productive. 10 hours a week, as you say, will e much more effective. You could do an hour in the morning and then in the afternoon. By the way, all my advice will be for self-study because I think that is the way to go.

If you can't test out of the Duolingo tree and can only use the past tense, I will go against the advice that you find conversation partners. It would not be very productive because you don't have very much to say and you won't understand very much of what is said back to you. To use a language well, we need a lot of words. Focus on learning core vocabulary and grammar. I highly recommend this Memrise course of the 5,000 most common Spanish words for learning vocabulary (you don't need to learn all 5k in two months, of course). Memrise is fun like Duolingo. Keep doing Duolingo. It's more of a translation game than anything else but people find it fun and it doesn't take that much time.

I am also a big fan of the Assimil courses and would recommend the Spanish with Ease course. Assimil is designed to do a lesson a day for about 30 minutes and you actually get a decent basis after the book is complete. I also agree with bertran's recommendation of the FSI course - some people find the drills dry but I think they are very effective. Whatever course(s) you use, make flashcards of the new vocabulary with Anki or Memrise.

I don't recommend consuming Spanish media intended for native speakers. At your level, it will just sound like fast noise. For listening practice, listen to the audio that comes with the courses you are using, such as the FSI or Assimil courses i.e. comprehensible content.

I am not a fan of Benny. He has never demonstrated the ability to become fluent in three months - those languages he speaks well, he spent a lot more than three months on)

To answer your last question, I think it is a reasonable goal to have a Spanish conversation about general topics so long as you are consistent in your studies. Good luck!
posted by Tanizaki at 5:22 PM on February 12, 2015

so can actually sight-read Spanish decently. My oral comprehension is essentially nil (I catch random nouns here and there

You need to develop an ear for it. Nth-ing suggestions like TV, movies, immersion. Another possibility: Sleep with headphones on that pipe in conversational Spanish.

My mother is German. I have an ear for German. I can do conversational German, in spite of no formal study and only a little self study and a limited vocabulary. In contrast, I have formally studied French, but I have no ear for French. I can read and write it a little. Conversation is nightmarishly hard.

You need to develop an ear for it, above all else.
posted by Michele in California at 5:31 PM on February 12, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks for all the suggestions so far.

To answer one question above: most of the people I work with are from Mexico, with other significant populations from Honduras and Cuba.

It sounds like immersion is a good idea - anyone have a specific city/school to recommend? Group classes, one on one, home stay?

In the meantime, I'm going to start watching subtitled TV asap!
posted by raspberrE at 5:39 PM on February 12, 2015

Find a couple of Novellas to watch during the summer. No subtitles with a dictionary. I got totally addicted to Quinceañera, and, then by watching commercials for other shows, Luis Miguel (which I also recommend.)

Some more modern Novellas are Sin Tetas no Hay Paraiso. Or Yo Soy Betty, La Fea, (Ugly Betty.)

Novellas are great because you can get a LOT from context. Here's a preview of ones to watch this year. They can last for 13 or 26 weeks and they're on every weeknight. Another fun thing to do is to watch Sabado Gigante. I dare not elaborate, but it's amazing.

Go to the parts of your town where you can interact with Spanish speakers. Then do that.

That's how I learned Spanish.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:42 PM on February 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you want to immerse in the language, go to Miami.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:44 PM on February 12, 2015

Two more thoughts: The glory of Spanish grammar is its elaborate and very precise verb system. There are lots of tenses and irregular verb forms to learn, similarly with French, only different and more. I practiced with a software verb-form drill that I found very helpful. Sort of like a duolingo just for the verbs. Which one it was I no longer remember; you could search for 'verb conjugation drill app' or the like to find something of this kind.

And: there is a dialectic with listening and speaking. You won't start out speaking correctly or understanding all that you hear, but as you listen and speak anyway, you'll understand and be able to say more and more. It's in itself a cool process, where you are at hazards when you start, but the mind eventually makes sense of things. In your case, it's the sound system that's right now the biggest obstacle, so, again, active and receptive exposure is the answer.
posted by bertran at 5:53 PM on February 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have been teaching myself Irish using the Fluent Forever system, and it's a good way to rapidly acquire vocabulary, but for the first three or four months does almost nothing to teach you how to actually use that vocabulary. I can confidentially say that in the past two months I have learned about 400 Irish words, which is about what a four-year-old knows. I also couldn't use them as well as a four-year-old. This is fine for me, as I don't really have anyone to speak Irish too, and I probably won't until I get around to taking an immersion program.

I think the Fluent in Three Months system is better for actually having conversations with people. Benny really encourages you to immediately start using whatever you have. Both recommend making use of Skype -- you can fairly easily find someone in your target language and trade them a half-hour of their language conversation for a half-hour of English conversation. Unless you're studying Irish, in which case everybody already speaks English and gains nothing from the trade.
posted by maxsparber at 6:16 PM on February 12, 2015

I've taught Spanish on the high school level and Portuguese for Spanish Speakers at a university, and when I decided to start working on French, I used Pimsleur audio lessons. I was really surprised at how fast they get you up and running.

Of course, actually finding opportunities to speak with heritage speakers is by far the best, but in the in-between times, I think Pimsleur's methods are sound.

I'm a little sheepish at how much I sound like an ad just now, but there you go.
posted by umbú at 9:02 PM on February 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Pimsleur, Anki, a grammar book and watching TV in spanish with English subtitles on. After about a month, start seeking out native speakers to talk to. Even better, find a native speaker who is willing to correct your language. It's hard on the ego, but you'll reduce the amount of bad habits if someone corrects them for you from the start.
posted by kjs4 at 9:08 PM on February 12, 2015

I enjoy memorizing short poems, stories, and songs, after figuring out what they mean using a dictionary, Google Translate, and previosly Lang-8. Wordreference is a great dictionary, and they tell you how to set up browser shortcuts.
posted by gray17 at 4:54 AM on February 13, 2015

RaspberrE, Cuban and Mexican accents and lingos are very different, but at least they have the same grammar, so with practice you will get both. I'm not sure, but I think Honduras is one of the countries in central America where they use voseo, a different form of the casual second person in singular. You may want to read about that, although they will most likely just address you as usted (the more formal way, which is strandard), unless you become really close to them.

I have used Benny's approach (using only free materials) and became fluid (not perfect, but able to maintain conversations without stopping) in Portuguese in about three months, traveling through regions in Brazil with very different accents. For full disclosure I had done a few lessons on duolingo, but much less than half of the tree. While I think fluent in 3 months is an exaggeration for marketing, fluent in 4 months or fluent in six months is totally possible and much much better than fluent in six years like most language schools promise.

Oh, about immersion, instead of an immersion program, just travel, meet people, maybe get a job where you interact with the public for those three weeks. Get yourself actually immersed. That's what worked for me.
posted by Promethea at 5:23 AM on February 13, 2015

Try a online App, talk to real people instead of preset courses.
This works for me, improved a lot
posted by ida88cd at 3:08 AM on April 8, 2015

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