I don't think the names of foodstuffs is going to cut it.
May 10, 2008 9:25 AM   Subscribe

What is the best way for me to learn Spanish in order to pass a reading test?

As part of the degree requirements for my particular graduate program, I need to demonstrate reading proficiency in two languages besides English. I have the first of the two covered, but I need to work on Spanish next.

To demonstrate proficiency, we can either take an intro-level university course or take a translation test (we are allowed a Spanish-English dictionary during the test). I am wondering if the latter might be the best bet for me, as I could do the work over the summer when I am less busy with my other work and get it out of the way.

That being the case, what would be the best way to go about learning the language, given that I won't need to demonstrate any speaking ability? Any recommendations for books, or websites? I've heard of Rosetta Stone, but would like to entertain cheaper options. I'm on a Mac, by the way, if there are other computer programs worth checking out.

I've looked through old AskMes on the topic, but most of them seem to be geared toward speaking as much as reading; I just need the reading. (Note that I realize the benefits of being able to speak another language, but I'm trying to be as practical as I can with an eye to finishing my degree on time, and I have very little contact with Spanish-speakers in this part of Canada.)
posted by synecdoche to Education (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Start watching Spanish television with the closed captioning turned on.
posted by HotPatatta at 10:10 AM on May 10, 2008

I recomend this spanish grammar. Then practice translating some well written spanish text.
posted by canoehead at 10:17 AM on May 10, 2008

I would read Spanish language newspapers online to help with reading comprehension. When I was in Mexico in an immersion class I would read the local and national dailies -- even articles I might not be interested in -- and use a dictioanary to look up words/idioms I didn't know.

Try El Pais in Spain and La Jordana, Excelsior and Universal in Mexico. Also BBCmundo.com.

If the test is a substitute for intro to Spanish it probably will be pretty light on some of the more complex tenses. But looking at the basic tenses will help. Also look for false cognates so you don't confuse stuff like ropa for rope or sopa for soap.
posted by birdherder at 10:50 AM on May 10, 2008

Best answer: I can recommend Spanish for Reading to help with reading and writing.
posted by Wet Spot at 11:14 AM on May 10, 2008

Best answer: Sounds to me like vocabulary is the number one issue. I'd recommend a combination of Anki and 501 Spanish Verbs.

Build the base with these two and then read/translate - a lot. Good luck!
posted by stuboo at 12:13 PM on May 10, 2008

Best answer: You can download the entire Foreign Service Institute (FSI) course for free.

You can also practice translation at your own pace by picking a few texts from Project Gutenberg that have both Spanish and English (I recommend something that was written in Spanish originally and has an English translation available). A few possibilities:

* Alarcón, Novelas Cortas (Spanish, English)
* Becquer, Legends, Tales and Poems (Spanish, English)
* Pérez Galdós, Doña Perfecta (Spanish, English)
* Tamayo y Baus, Más vale maña que fuerza (Spanish, English)

Also seconding stuboo on vocabularly and using flashcard software to drill it. (Lots of folks like Anki, but there are others out there in case you want to try a few options.) As you're learning, log new words (maybe even all new words, but if that gets overwhelming, pare down to a manageable number for a while). You should be able to find some journal articles in Spanish in your field; use those to build up the vocabulary that's relevant to your studies.

Buena suerte!
posted by kristi at 1:41 PM on May 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Web based Mango is worth a look. I've tried it a few times. Easy to use and free to play with till you know whether it's helpful for your situation.
posted by bbranden1 at 2:16 PM on May 10, 2008

Thanks, kristi for the link to the FSI classes. This has inspired me to learn some Spanish this summer.
posted by metahawk at 4:33 PM on May 10, 2008

Some contrary advice. I took a grad level foreign language exam at a university in the frozen north. My proficiency in the target language was reasonably good (I'd say intermediate) but the important thing was knowing how the language exam was structured. It turned out that at my school, they gave you a passage of something -- a historical or philosophical tract, for example -- and asked you to translate that. I looked at some sample exams and they were all impenetrable to me. What I did was buy the best/most expensive dictionary I could (the Harper-Collins Sansoni for Italian; the Spanish equivalent appears to be this) and translated word-for-word the passage they gave me for the exam. I was the first person out of the room, I received a high pass, and 10 minutes after the exam I couldn't have told you what the subject matter of the passage was. Even as I was translating, I didn't really understand the significance of anything; it was an almost purely mathematical exercise.
For me it really came down to investing in a good dictionary and then having a basic grasp of the grammar of the language. Since you can bring in a dictionary, I wouldn't concern myself with vocabulary very much.
posted by katemonster at 7:16 PM on May 10, 2008

Best answer: As a translator and a Spanish instructor, it pains me, but I have to agree with katemonster's approach if your test is anything similar to the one she took.

If not, try to familiarize yourself with basic Spanish grammar, especially verb tenses. 501 Spanish Verbs should have a good rundown of tenses in the beginning; if you can familiarize yourself with the various verb endings, that will go a long way in helping you to understand.

The Butt/Benjamin grammar linked earlier in the thread is a descriptive grammar, AFAIK, not an instructive one. It's probably too dense to be truly useful.

If you want to start reading, begin with children's books and work your way up from there.
posted by bijou at 11:54 PM on May 10, 2008

Just going to say that not going with Rosetta Stone is a good choice. You learn a few vocab words, but I definitely didn't find it as good as the commercials claim. You literally sit there and a sentence is read and you pick one of four crappy pictures that fits the sentence. You can also type in answers, or say them outloud, but it doesn't work that well.

The FSI test looks really good. You could also go online and buy some cheap old high school Spanish textbook and use it because it teaches you Spanish in English and has lists of basic vocab.

What is the first language you have covered? If it's one that has cognates with Spanish, and/or similar grammatical structure (more similar than English), that could be really useful to build on. I have many years of Spanish learnin' and was able to read Portuguese pretty effectively with a dictionary for the non-cognates until I eventually picked up those words.
posted by fructose at 9:17 AM on May 11, 2008

Best answer: Spanish instructor and (post) fellow grad slave here too.

One thing you didn't mention was what your other non-English language was; if it's another romance language and you're at all apt with language in general or an intuitive sort of person, then you're halfway there. I was in the same situation in grad school and had to pass a French translation exam. I had taken 1 year of college French just because; and with just that, a small dictionary, and my Spanish I could read French texts.

If you have this kind of romance language background, then the benefits of just sitting down a few nights a week (in your spare time, right, ha ha) to read Spanish academic texts (of the sort you might get in the exam, NOT newspapers which are a different level of discourse) cannot be understated. Ask a librarian to show you where you might find Spanish-language articles in the MLA journals, hopefully relating at least tangentially to your subject for added interest and recognition bonuses.

I would steer away from memorizing too much vocab - after all, if you're allowed a dictionary, you can look up whatever nouns and infinitive-form verbs you don't know.

I'd say what you need to know is verb tenses; that way a) you'll get a head start with context, which makes stringing together cogent sentences much easier, and b) you'll at least know how to break a conjugated verb down into its component parts so that if you don't recognize it, you can figure out how to look it up in the dictionary. With that in mind, I've heard good things about 501 Spanish Verbs.

I will oh-so-reluctantly admit that - while taking a course will prepare you best for life in general and is always to be applauded - it doesn't sound like the best thing for you right now. Unless it were a course specially designed for grad students, smarties, and those with previous language skills, like the three-semesters-in-one that is sometimes offered here at UMD. Then the question becomes just how much time you have for homework. -grin-
posted by GardenGal at 6:31 PM on May 11, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the tips. The second language was French. There was a specific course for grad students looking to meet their reading requirement and I took it; it focused almost exclusively on vocab (in that we would be given a long list of vocabulary, sent off, and then called back to do a test a couple of weeks later) which was effective for the course in that I did very well and met the requirement, but not as effective in terms of actual real world use value. I probably learned a lot but I don't feel as though I could go pick up a novel in French or anything. I could probably get by in, say, Montreal, but only because just about everyone there can speak English, too. Mind you, that's probably exactly what most people wanted-- you could just go and memorize the vocabulary and nearly ace the tests. There's no such course for Spanish, though, simply because while, this being a Canadian university, picking up the French requirement as a second language is almost a given, the third varies a great deal more.

At any rate, there's a lot of good advice here, and I appreciate it. I (and a few other students I have talked to, as well as some faculty members) are somewhat frustrated in that the way the language requirement is set up, it is basically little more than a hoop to jump through; there's precious little time or incentive to sit down and learn a language in any depth unless your work deals specifically with it, and mine does not. Maybe once I get through the hoop and the next hoop and the next one I can go back and build off the basics.
posted by synecdoche at 7:28 AM on May 12, 2008

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