¡Ayudame!: 10 Tips for Surviving Intro to Spanish

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If you’re like most people, Spanish in high school was probably a nightmare — two or three years of memorizing vocab and the only word you remember how to say is pantalones. I hate to break it to you, but the only way you’re passing your Spanish intro course in college is to actually learn some of the language. We get it; mastering a new tongue is hard, especially if you just want to earn your credits and run. But for those who genuinely want to speak more Spanish than Dora the Explorer, we’ve compiled ten exercises to help you through that first semester.

1. Forget what you know

There’s nothing more grating than an English-speaker drawling “Te quiero” in a sloppy gringo accent. Even if you can’t roll your r’s, or don’t fully understand the difference between the English /t/ and the softer Spanish one, don’t be the person who doesn’t even try. Acknowledge that Spanish has an entirely different set of phonemes from English — meaning that most of the letters are not pronounced identically. Distinguish the two alphabets in your mind from the get-go. The letters look the same, but they definitely aren’t spoken the same way. (FYI, it’s not tay-kee-air-oh.)

2. Read children’s books

Go ahead and browse through that picture book with 20 pages; there’s nothing to be ashamed of. The simplistic language of kids’ books is super-helpful when you’d like expand to your word bank and reading skills. I started reading Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal not too long ago, and while I don’t immediately recognize every word, the context clues and my familiarity with the story make it possible to get through the chapters, one slow sentence at a time.

3. Balance Your Skillset

Your language abilities are broken down into three areas: reading, writing and listening, and they all progress at different rates for different people. For most, listening skills will come in first and you’ll understand more Spanish than you can speak. To keep your knowledge balanced, don’t neglect one area of understanding — dabble in all three. In other words, don’t just follow one tip from this list. It takes a mixture of exercises to keep the cogs in your brain from getting rusty.

4. Absorb Spanish Media

Mastering the pronunciation of a new language is impossible if you don’t carefully listen to native speakers. Fortunately for you, every year the Spanish-language film industry pops out gems like Pan’s Labyrinth (if you’re into dark fantasy) and Contracorriente (a queer romance film that actually isn’t utter camp). If you’re not much of a movie buff, dive into the Spanish music scene to keep your ears fresh. Spanish pop and indie rock, for example, actually aren’t all that much different from their English counterparts.

5. Follow the news

Whether in English or Spanish, in print, on television or through the radio, the news is generally told in plain, easily digestible terms so that most people can comprehend it. More power to you if you’re already familiar with the news story — having an idea of what the piece is about will supplement your understanding as you try to parse through it. Even the most amateur of beginners can follow along with the News in Slow Spanish episodes.

6. Constant Vigilance

Don’t limit your practice time to the classroom; you should constantly and deliberately toy with Spanish words in your head. As you go about your daily routine, catalogue translations of the things you observe and interact with. You rode the bus to class today, but do you even know how to say “bus?” Or “seat?” Or even “classroom?” Take a mental note and file the word in your memory for later. Your internal narrator is used to thinking in English, and it’ll take some persuasion to get him to naturally switch over.

7. Make a friend

Sites like Live Mocha connect you with hispanohablantes from all over the world, so you won’t be stuck practicing with the imbecile jock who sits next to you in Spanish 001. It’s fine if you stutter or hesitate or misspeak while chatting; the entire point of social language sites is to learn from the community, whether it’s through forum posts or webcam conversations. If you’re more concerned about your writing, submit a few posts to Lang-8. Native speakers will correct your grammar and phrasing, and you can correct their English too.

8. Ask Siri

When you’re bored in your medieval literature lecture, whip out your phone and play a few rounds in one of the most popular language learning apps, Duolingo. It’s essentially a mini-game version of the Rosetta Stone program (except it’s free): you learn words by associating them with pictures shown, which helps cement the meaning in your memory. Download the Google translator app too; the translations aren’t always perfect, but it’s a lifesaver when you’re stuck on a word in conversation. Or if you keep your phone in your lap during class.

9. Seek Out Patterns

Finding the links that connect similar words helps construct a map of meaning in your mind. Because English and Spanish are derived from the same mother tongue, there’s a measure of overlap that’s most obvious in word pairs like “part” and “parte,” or “painter” and “pintor.” They’re called cognates, and they prove that often (but not always) you can more or less guess the meaning of a lot of Spanish words. Watch out for common prefixes and suffixes too, like “-mente.” Once you know it’s equivalent to “-ly” in English, whenever you read a word like “rápidamente,” you can immediately recognize its part of speech (adverb) and meaning (quickly).

10. Sometimes You Just Gotta Force It

If you really want to embrace the discomfort of reading in Spanish, change the language settings on devices you use every day, like your phone and laptop. You’ll be tempted to change them back, but forcing yourself to work through phrases you don’t understand can teach you useful vocabulary you might not otherwise have learned, like how to say “update” and “password.” Any means of learning vocabulary outside of flash cards gets a pass in my book, because the words are more likely to stick in your brain. I even played through an entire game of Pokemon en Español.

Student, writer, lover of all things weird, gross and scientific. Senior at Penn State studying English and Print Journalism.

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