10 Tips for Learning Spanish
by Louise Wisechild, Ph.D.
Learning Spanish can be a great asset for traveling in Latin America. Studying in Guatemala can open a door to the incredible cultural richness of Guatemala and to new Spanish-speaking friends. At the same time, learning Spanish can be daunting, especially in the beginning when you don’t know what to expect. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
1. A few people possess a genetic gift for learning languages. This does not mean that the rest of us are stupid. But it does mean we will likely be using flash cards and at times we’ll marvel at the patience and kindness of the native speakers.
2. Immersion learning allows more opportunities to hear and to practice Spanish but it does not magically insert the language into your brain, just as throwing a non-swimmer into deep water does not teach her how to swim. This is why language schools assign homework.
3. Spanish is composed of about 100,000 words—only about half the number of words that exist in English. Still, how many new words of any language do you routinely add to your vocabulary? Fortunately, some Spanish words resemble the English counterparts. Beyond this resemblance is the matter of the feminine and masculine articles, irregular verb forms in a multitude of tenses, greater flexibility of sentence structure and of course the actual sound of the words in Spanish. To stay optimistic, comfort yourself with the fact that you are getting a great brain workout.
4. Grammar is basic to learning language. Perhaps you were absent the week that indirect objects or past participles were being covered in grade school. In Spanish immersion school, the teachers will likely assume that you already know the parts of speech. Don’t be ashamed of scuttling off to the internet café and reviewing the basics of English grammar. Congratulate yourself on becoming more fluent in both Spanish and English.
5. The squiggles above the words are not optional, but are actually part of the word, e.g., mañana, tú.
6. While it is tempting to mumble the endings of the words instead of actually learning the slight but significant variations in their endings, which indicate tense and gender, this is a short-term solution that an adept Spanish teacher will not let pass. Practice saying the whole word distinctly.
7. Cramming many verbs and tenses into your mind in a short period of time will not help you become conversationally adept in Spanish. This is why immersion teachers have you play word games and engage you in conversation. This is also the reason some people with university degrees in Spanish cannot actually speak the language. 8. While a student can err in trying to learn too many verbs in a short time, it is also possible to become too firmly attached to your five favorite ones. When you notice you’re relying on the same words in your conversation, start adding synonyms and more specific words to your vocabulary.
9. Obviously, it is better to socialize with native Spanish speakers than English-speaking language students. But this involves risking conversation when you’re not very adept at it. Once, after speaking in what I thought was a pretty good Spanish, the Guatemalan I was talking with said, in perfect English, “This is why I love Americans. They just start talking in Spanish, whether they know how to speak it or not. We Guatemalans are too afraid of making a mistake to practice our English.” This gave me the perfect opportunity to invite him both to correct my Spanish and to recklessly practice his English with me.
10. At some point it will seem as if you can only speak Spanish on alternate days or that you careen from understanding entire conversations to not understanding the simplest question. This is normal and for this reason, immersion teachers will tell you poco a poco, little by little, and remain hopeful on your behalf, even after a bad day in class.
There are many excellent Spanish schools and private Spanish teachers in La Antigua Guatemala as well as in Quetzaltengo, San Pedro La Laguna, Panajachel and Flores. There are also a number of language schools in more rural areas. If you don’t like your teacher, there is no need to suffer more lessons with him or her, as there are many excellent and capable Spanish teachers in Guatemala. Just let the school know that you would like another teacher, and it will be happy to switch teachers. Or you may want to try another school instead. Many Spanish schools offer a wide range of activities and volunteer opportunities, which are also great places to practice and to perfect your Spanish.