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June 17, 2008 5:42 PM   Subscribe

9 years of Spanish have proven worthless. How do I become a conversationalist?

After moving to Los Angeles, I'm realizing that out of the 9 years of Spanish I took in middle/high school, the only skills I have left are knowing the first verse/chorus of Guantanamera (Yo soy un hombre sincero...) and conjugating regular present tense verbs. I still have quite a bit of vocabulary down, so I think my skills are above a Beginning Spanish course but below Intermediate.

Given that I live in LA and that the Yankee Peso will only allow foreign travel to Central/South America, should I start over and slog through the mundane details of the vocab and grammar, or, get in over my head with the Intermediate? How should I even start? I'm already watching Telemundo, but that just confuses me even more.
posted by hwyengr to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Can you take a learning holiday? Full immersion in a country that has your chosen language as its primary form of communication is always your best bet. Even a weekend would help. I used this to great effect with both French and Arabic - but the key is, when you get back, take every opportunity to keep using those skills.
posted by Liosliath at 6:00 PM on June 17, 2008

You could, I expect get immersion experiences in LA... restaurants, churches, etc. where only Spanish is spoken.
posted by Jahaza at 6:16 PM on June 17, 2008

Here in Montreal there are often people looking for a conversation buddy to exchange languages with. You can meet up once a week for a couple of hours and speak English one hour and French the other. I'm sure there are Spanish-speaking people in LA looking to learn English -- check Craigslist or university/language-school bulletin boards.

That is, if that kind of thing appeals to you socially. I must admit I find the prospect of meeting a stranger and embarrassing myself for an hour is horrifying, but I do know people who've done it and said it helped them a lot.
posted by loiseau at 6:18 PM on June 17, 2008

I agree that talking to people and at least some immersion should help you get over that hump. I am in Portland, not LA, but I remember seeing postings on Craigslist from a non-profit looking for English speakers who were learning Spanish in order to be conversationalists with recent immigrants. For the first hour you'd speak in English with them to help them get comfortable with conversation, and the next hour it would go in reverse. Perhaps look at volunteer opportunities that might offer something similar.

I'm a native Spanish speaker, if you'd like some help with your written Spanish, feel free to contact me thru Mefi mail!
posted by DrGirlfriend at 6:38 PM on June 17, 2008

When you learn a language formally, it's all about doing it right and getting good marks, rather than being about communicating. But in the real world, the goal is communication - it doesn't matter if you sound like a native speaker or not. Just give it a go - get out there and speak to people (loiseau's suggestion of conversation buddies sounds good if you don't have any spanish speaking friends). Don't worry about getting the grammar right - if someone whose first language isn't English stops you in the street and asks you for directions, you understand what they're asking even if their grammar is all wrong. And don't worry about vocab - you can work around it - if you don't know the word for something, use the words that you do know to describe it.

So forget the classes, let go of the inhibitions, and get out there and talk Spanish!

(I was in the same situation as you a few years ago with French - many years of study but couldn't hold a conversation in the real world, but making the effort to speak french whenever I could with french friends was what got me to where I am now, where I'm pretty much fluent.)
posted by finding.perdita at 6:41 PM on June 17, 2008

The key is to use as many different types of learning materials you can possibly get your hands on, and of course practice, practice, practice every opportunity you find. Fortunately Spanish is just about everywhere in the US, so that shouldn’t be too hard to do. Self-study grammar books and tapes are useful to get a grasp of basic structures, but they'll never get you to the point where you're "conversational," and you'll certainly have a lot of problems with comprehension.

Try to sneak in exposure to the language in little things you already do in your daily life. Watch as many Spanish language films with English subtitles as possible, and try to match up the words you're hearing in Spanish with the English in the subtitles. Alternatively, turn on the Spanish subtitles if you're watching an English language DVD (most movies have them). Watching Spanish language TV is great for working on comprehension, but it might be a little advanced at this point. Listening to music can be really helpful too. Find a few artists that you like, and print out the lyrics to a few songs. See if you can figure out what they're talking about without using a dictionary, then look up words if necessary. Pick out a few words and phrases that might be useful in real life. Then listen to the song over and over to solidify them in your mind. Pick up a Spanish language newspaper and find a short article. Don't overuse the dictionary, just get the gist. It'll get a little bit easier each article you read. Keep a little notebook of phrases that you want to remember, and flip through it while you wait in line or at the doctor's office or whenever you have a few minutes to spare. Podcasts are good too, especially for killing time in the car if you commute. There are all kinds of them out there for beginning Spanish learners.

Try to get a little bit of exposure every day, and keep it fun and interesting. You haven’t really learned it until you’ve used it, so put it to work by spending some time in a Spanish speaking country, doing volunteer work in the immigrant community, making some (patient) Spanish speaking friends, etc.
posted by c lion at 7:01 PM on June 17, 2008

Nthing the others who suggest face to face conversation with a native Spanish speaker.

In addition (or instead, if that won't work for you), check out Destinos and Nuevos Destinos. You can watch them streaming over the net, or try checking them out from your library. The important thing, though, is this: when they pause for you to repeat a phrase or answer a question, BE SURE YOU ACTUALLY PRACTICE, OUT LOUD. Watch the lessons at a time when you're by yourself, and actually talk back to your computer or TV.

As another supplementary activity, you might find a Spanish-speaking penpal or two. Nothing substitutes for live, spoken conversation, but some back-and-forth IM can give you some additional practice in parsing incoming sentences and putting together some responses of your own.
posted by kristi at 8:13 PM on June 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I always say that my "secret weapon" when learning a language is to go and live in a country where the people speak it (worked so far for Costa Rican Spanish and Chinese!). A great method if you can do it. I can attest that when I had daily exposure to a new language, there was a "listening period" in which my mind was just taking it all in, not seeming to produce much. Then, after some fixed amount of time, it really does "click" and you just understand it from the inside, thinking to some extent in the language itself. Not that it means you're "fluent", which I think is an overused word, but you certainly come to a point where things just start to make sense.

(With Spanish, the listening period was about three months for me. With Chinese, about a year.)

I used to tell my ESL students that just as the three rules of real estate are location, location, location, the three rules of language learning are contact, contact, contact. The more "real", the better. Watch some Latin American soap operas and comedy shows (I recommend "Betty La Fea" and "El Chapulin Colorado", though they're a bit old now). Find a favorite taco stand where they barely speak English and get to know them. If half of the Wal-Marts here in Virginia are full of Latinos, I can only imagine how it is in L.A.

Of course, the best of all is a diccionario de alcoba. You'll just have to ask the taco vendor about that one.
posted by mjklin at 8:21 PM on June 17, 2008

Response by poster: If the "diccionario de alcoba" is anything like the "Hot Spanish for Guys and Girls" dictionary, I'm already set. I always knew I'd get by minimally in Spanish speaking countries by knowing how to say "Shit, you're a sex machine."

Thanks for the tips, all. There should be plenty of immersion opportunities in LA, and I'll just start looking.
posted by hwyengr at 9:49 PM on June 17, 2008

I always say that my "secret weapon" when learning a language is to go and live in a country where the people speak it (worked so far for Costa Rican Spanish and Chinese!).

So true. If you would really like to become a fluent Spanish speaker, meet and move in with a unilingual Spanish speaking girlfriend.
posted by Meatbomb at 3:27 AM on June 18, 2008

Talk, talk, talk. Forget about books and listening to the radio. Find a conversation partner and meet with him/her as often as possible. STICK TO THE RULES - no cheating and resorting to English. If you don't know the word, figure out a way to say it that you do know.

I find the best is a native speaker who wants to practice English. S/he talks to you in broken English, you reply in broken Spanish. That way, both of you/neither of you are embarrassed and you all have a good laugh.
posted by walla at 8:46 AM on June 18, 2008

If immersion isn't practical for you right now, or your skills are too deficient to make much use of an immersion-light approach, consider enrolling in a good college foreign language program as an extension or non-matriculated student.

A program like that should have at least five hours of classroom time and several hours of required language lab time a week. Unlike the total joke that it is the standard secondary school / high school foreign language instruction (which seems to have been your lot), rigorous college programs are actually quite effective at producing a baseline proficiency that doesn't sacrifice progress on a good accent and grammar, which you don't want to sacrifice if you can avoid it. For Spanish four semesters can put you pretty far down the curve.
posted by MattD at 9:16 AM on June 18, 2008

Don't feel bad, high school Spanish is a joke. (speaking as a university Spanish instructor here).

It sounds like you would be ready for an accelerated-level course at your local seat of higher learning. You have some of the basic knowledge already, but a refresher would be great, so try one of the 2-semesters-in-one programs.

If for some reason an accelerated program is not available, don't skip the first semester. These days - at least where I've taught - conversation is emphasized just as much as grammar, and I can't stress how important a good foundation is to the rest of your learning.

We used Destinos everywhere I've taught. They're ok and you'll learn some stuff, but a) they're truly hokey, and b) they still don't address the conversation problem on your end. Reading doesn't either, for that matter, but both would be good to increase your general understanding before taking the plunge.

If you really can't find a conversation partner (which would truly be the best thing), find a book that's close to your level, that you can read somewhat. Look up the words you don't know in advance. Read a few pages aloud into a recorder, trying to understand as you go along. Then play it back and listen and try to understand again. Sounds silly, but it might help your brain start to work on aural processing as well as ocular.
posted by GardenGal at 5:05 PM on June 18, 2008

Immersion, immersion, immersion. Stop speaking English, speak only Spanish. That's it! Seriously. The details are up to you. You're in a largely Spanish-speaking city, but only halfway or so. If you can, take a month or longer vacation anywhere Spanish is solely spoken.

Again, to reiterate: stop speaking English. For that matter, stop reading English. Stop listening to English.
posted by zardoz at 8:30 PM on June 18, 2008

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