As of this writing, I am on a family trip to Spain—a trip that unexpectedly got extended for me after I caught COVID-19. Catching a disease during a vacation is an awful experience that I wouldn’t wish upon anyone, but there is a silver lining. My parents were already going to stay in Spain longer than me and my sister, which means I am staying for a few more days and get extra time to practice speaking Spanish in a place where it’s the language of the majority. (Actually, my trip has been in the Catalan-speaking part of Spain, but Spanish is just as common in the major cities like Barcelona.)
Note that the tips in this blog post don’t just apply to learning Spanish. They apply to learning any language! Also note that I will use the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) a few times in this post: the sound represented by a letter surrounded by slashes means what you probably think it does, unless otherwise stated.
My Prior Impression of Spanish
I’m no stranger to learning foreign languages. For one thing, English isn’t the only language I learned since I was a baby. German is my mother tongue in a literal sense: it’s my mother’s native language, and while my German vocabulary isn’t as fluent as in English, I’d say my skills in it are still pretty good. I also learned French extensively in school, and though my French skills could use some work these days, I spoke it a few times during my trip because some strangers I encountered didn’t know English but could speak French. I even took Chinese classes during high school for a while, but I don’t remember much of the language aside from a few words and phrases, so I don’t count it. Learning languages runs in my family too: my parents met in a Russian college class, and my grandfather on my mom’s side was a French teacher, for a few examples.
Because of all this prior experience, I had often viewed Spanish as a boring language; the one that you learn if you need a foreign language credit at school and want a quick A. I imagined Spanish wouldn’t need any real effort to pick up, especially because in the United States, some signs are in both English and Spanish. But once I learned of this trip last month, I decided to take some time to learn the basics of the language in earnest, and I got much deeper into it than I would have thought. It’s also a much more fascinating language than I expected, and I’ll soon go over that.
Tip #1: Use multiple sources to learn a language.
A large portion of my experience in learning Spanish comes from using Duolingo—it’s a language-learning website I had heard about before that doesn’t cost money, and I figured I’d use that as a starting point. But I know that learning from one website on a computer, no matter how much that website likes to toot its own horn, does not give you the full experience of learning a language. As such, I’ve also read other articles online listing vocabulary words and grammar tips, watched videos from various YouTube channels about the Spanish language and its many dialects, and practiced vocabulary and sentences some with my family (mostly my mother). For my trip, I even bought an English-Spanish visual dictionary which does something incredibly useful for my purposes: it tells you when a word is different between Mexican and European Spanish.
The more widespread a language is, the more useful it is to learn it from multiple sources. This especially holds true for languages that are spoken on multiple continents: the vocabulary, pronunciation, and even grammar can differ substantially, and it’s useful to know at least a little about the differences between its dialects. This brings me to the next section, the one on pronunciation.
Tip #2: Practice pronunciation, and practice it hard.
For the most part, Spanish is a fairly easy language to pronounce, but I still read aloud sentences and words regularly. Sometimes on my trip, I’ve stopped to read Spanish text on signs aloud for further practice. One time, I read a Spanish paragraph aloud on a sign in Catalan, Spanish, and English, and I hid the English text with my hand until I was done reading so I could see how close I was to understanding. I think I wasn’t too bad!
Spanish pronunciation is certainly the most straightforward of any language I’ve learned—certainly more than French with its wacky nasal vowels and silent letters—but it still has its quirks. For one thing, I still can’t get over the fact that the letters “b” and “v” are pronounced exactly the same: /b/ at the start of words and after most consonants, and /β/ (like /v/ but pronounced between the lips) after vowels. This especially throws me off because Spanish has so many words in common with French with these letters, but that’s why I’ve been heavily practicing pronunciation.
Most of the sounds in Spanish are commonalities with English, and the few that aren’t I find easy to say. The only tough one for me is the rolled “rr” sound. When I encounter a word with that sound, I tend to pronounce it multiple times, and I’m slowly getting used to it. When practicing Spanish, I have been pronouncing words generally as they are in Spain, which means two things above all: saying “z” and sometimes “c” as /θ/ (like th in English “thin”), and pronouncing “j” and sometimes “g” as /x/ (like ch in German “Bach”).
Tip #3: Pick up on commonalities with other languages.
This tip mostly applies to those who already know at least two languages. In my experience learning Spanish, I unsurprisingly noticed a lot of common words with French. Some obvious (“triste” for “sad”, “dormir” for “to sleep”), and some less obvious that took a while for me to recognize (“camisa” and “chemise” for “shirt”, “jefe/jefa” and “chef” for “boss”). But as closely related as French and Spanish are, when looking at the grammar of Spanish, I’ve also noticed some similarities with English and German. I’ll give one example similarity for both languages.
To say that you have to do something in Spanish, you can use the verb “necesitar” (to need) to express it, but you can also use a phrase that’s surprisingly similar to an English phrase. “Tiener” is a verb meaning “to have”, and you can use the phrase “(yo) tengo que” to mean “I have to”. Or “(tú) tienes que” to mean “you have to”, or “(él) tiene que” to mean “he has to” for a few examples. If you think about it, having something and having to do something aren’t the same concept at all, so it surprised me to learn that English and Spanish both let you express that using equivalent words.
One part of Spanish that tends to confuse early learners is expressing that you like something: the verb “gustar” doesn’t mean to like, but to please, meaning that the subject and object are inverted in sentences, creating confusion on what words to put around the verb and how to conjugate it. The verb “gustar” is conjugated based on who or what is being liked, not who is liking. “Me gusta tocar el piano” (I like to play piano) is short for “A mí me gusta tocar el piano”, which more literally means “It pleases me to play piano”. My mother helpfully pointed out a similarity to a phrase in German: “Es gefällt mir, Klavier zu spielen” is one way to say “I like to play piano” in German, but it again means “It pleases me to play piano”. This made the Spanish way to express liking something seem less foreign to me, but I still had to watch a video about it to really get it. (Note that in German, you can also simply use “Ich mag…” to mean “I like…”, but with activities, using the adverb “gern” is more common.)
Also on the topic of language commonalities, I’ve picked up bits and pieces of Catalan through reading the language in signs alongside Spanish, or in smaller towns all by itself. It’s a close relative of Spanish, but still undeniably a separate language, and it sounds a lot like French. While I’ve heard that Spanish speakers can often understand some Catalan, there’s also going to be a little confusion, and I’d be able to better appreciate the languages’ differences as I improve my Spanish skills. Given my current understanding of Spanish, I’d say Catalan is about as hard for me to read as Spanish was before I started properly learning it.
A similar phenomenon occurs for me with Dutch, which I read and heard quite a bit of when I transferred flights in Amsterdam. The language sounds a lot like German but with more throat sounds, and it reads almost like a variant of German where all the words are spelled weird. When trying to read Dutch, I can guess what about half the words mean typically through German, and while hearing it I can guess maybe 10% of the words. The Netherlands is a country I’d love to visit in earnest, partly because I know several people who live there, partly because it just sounds like a nice place in general. Maybe next time I go to Europe? I’m getting off topic, so let’s move on.
Tip #4: Make your own sentences in the language.
When learning a language, don’t just read existing sentences and translate ones handed to you to the language you’re learning. You should also try coming up with sentences that describe scenarios in your life, making the most out of whatever words and grammar you know! While learning new words in Spanish, I’ve often stopped to try using them to describe my family and friends, other aspects of my daily life, and this is going to sound silly, but also scenarios in King of the Hill. I think King of the Hill is a good choice for a show to describe in a foreign language because the show focuses on day-to-day realistic scenarios involving a bunch of guys in Texas, not zombie penguin aliens fighting each other in spaceships or something wacky like that. Here are some examples of sentences I’ve devised (grammar might not be perfect):
- Hank siempre cocina con propano. (Hank always cooks with propane.)
- Hank cree que Kahn es chino o japonés. (Hank thinks Kahn is Chinese or Japanese.)
- Unas personas creen que Bill es el padre de Bobby. (Some people think Bill is Bobby’s father.)
- Entender Boomhauer es difícil porque habla muy rápido. (Understanding Boomhauer is difficult because he talks very fast.)
- Buscar zapatos es difícil para Peggy porque sus pies son muy grandes. (Searching for shoes is difficult for Peggy because her feet are very big.)
- Cotton no tiene espinillas, pero puede caminar. (Cotton doesn’t have shins, but he can walk.)
Maybe you think this strategy is silly, but it’s helped me memorize words and put some humor into my language learning. I highly recommend you try describing things in your life or in a work of media you enjoy in whatever language you’re learning; it especially helps vocabulary words stick. And you thought flash cards were great, didn’t you? (Well, they definitely don’t hurt, but as I said, you can’t learn a language just through one source.)
Tip #5 (final tip): The motivation has to come from you.
To learn just about any skill, there’s one factor that comes above all: being motivated to do so. You can take classes in a topic taught by the most professional experts, but it falls into your own hands to want to learn those skills. This is something I have come to realize looking back on the skills I have built up and improved in life, especially those involving music, and on the various random interests I had that fizzled out because I wasn’t that interested in them. I’ve found my ways to make learning Spanish enjoyable, and I definitely plan to continue after this trip is over.
I hope you enjoyed reading this post! I’m still extremely early in learning Spanish, and only time will tell how far I get and if I’ll have more stories about it to tell. I think Spanish is an accessible and practical choice for a language to learn, especially if you’re American, as long as you’re motivated to dive into it and aren’t just getting a language credit out of the way. But if you’re interested in learning some weird exotic language spoken in a random corner of the world no one’s heard of, then by all means do so!