It’s hard to believe, but I arrived in South America about 4.5 years ago to start my career break. One of the biggest things I wanted to accomplish was learn to speak Spanish fluently. While I still make plenty of mistakes, basically I consider myself fluent. Since 2007, I’ve had the benefit of rounding out my Spanish in most of Latin America and Spain. One of the things I’ve learned is that there is as much variety in Spanish from country to country as there is in English.
Truth be told, I don’t really speak Spanish or Español. It’s really something I call Jeff-pañol. I speak with a gringo accent (less than your typical gringo, but it’s still there). And, I mix in slang from a variety of countries (which sometimes gets me in trouble). I like to think of it as Pan-American Spanish. I’m sure most native speakers consider it something less enchanting.
Over time, I’ve learned a lot of lessons about becoming fluent in another language. It’s not only vocabulary and conjugation – that’s just the basic stuff. If you want to become really fluent, here are a few things you need to be able to contend with.
12 Lessons To Speak Spanish (Or Any Language) Fluently
1. Vocabulary: You need some basics to get around. And, the more words you know, the clearer you can make yourself so you can be understood and so you can understand others. Having written notes, especially for addresses, helps. And, it doesn’t hurt to know a few hand gestures just in case.
2. Conjugation: Spanish has a ton of verb tenses and trying to keep them all straight can give you a headache at first. But, after lots of practice and messups, it starts to come naturally.
3. Enunciation: When speaking, it’s not enough to say the words. You have to learn how the letters are spoken in Spanish versus English: consonants and vowels both. Until this happens, you are speaking with your accent making it difficult for others to understand. It’s funny to be in a room with new speakers from different countries. Everyone may be speaking Spanish, but they are doing so in their German, English, American or New Zealand accent.
4. Context: As you master the vocab and the conjugation, the next battle is to grasp the context of what you are reading or hearing. It still happens to me where I’ve understood perfectly the words someone speaks to me. Yet, I still had no clue what they were talking about because I didn’t understand the process or the way things worked in that country. It’s kind of like the feeling of reading a legal or academic brief. It’s all English, but…Unless you know the context of the conversation, they are still just words.
5. Ear training: Regardless of how many classes you take, until your ears become accustomed to hearing the foreign language, you won’t make much progress. Luckily, most Spanish speakers are very patient and will speak slowly and clearly with newbies. This serves well until your ears can get used to a new language and a new accent.
6. Diversity of language: Spanish, like English, has many variations. Spoken in dozens of countries, each one has their own twist on Spanish just as English differs slightly from the US, UK, Oz, New Zealand, etc. Sometimes the variances are subtle like differences in greeting someone. Sometimes, the slang varies greatly and is very colloquial. Finally, the accents vary greatly from Spain to Argentina to Chile to Colombia. Even within Colombia, you can tell where someone is from by their accent.
7. Expression of ideas: Sometimes the problem in communicating isn’t knowing the words, but knowing how people express themselves. Many times you can directly translate a sentence from one language to another without any problems. Other times, it has no meaning the same way in the other language. My best example is when I tried to translate to a friend “Enjoy yourself” in Spanish in the same way we use it in English, like when we wish someone well on a trip or a night out on the town. Unfortunately, the literal translation (Disfrútate!) meant to tell him to go enjoy himself…by masturbating. Whoops!
8. Groups, TV and movies: There are some situations in which understanding what’s going on is really tough. The first is conversing in groups. When the banter gets going, it can be hard to follow the conversation. Add in people talking over each other, speaking quickly and using local slang – your head will explode trying to keep up. And, god help you if the conversation point lands in your lap. Next are TV and movies. Following a plot can be difficult especially when you don’t have the context. I continue to try to understand the shows, news, movies, etc. But, it can be difficult. Funnily enough, watching cartoons is surprisingly easier.
9. Humor: I admit I have a dry sense of humor that can go awry in English. But, I used to be almost useless in Spanish. Luckily I’m getting better all the time. Most of the time when I make a joking remark in Spanish, it comes across as me not understanding what’s going on and whoever I’m talking to feels the need to explain everything to me. I then explain that it was a joke. And, if you have to explain the joke, it’s not funny.
10. Real-life experience, Perseverance and Failing: Class time is great to get the basics, the theory and some practice. But, until you’ve been out, having people not understand you, correct you or give up and start speaking English to you, you’ll never perfect your new language. Over time, you start to get the hang of it. Completely messing up can painful. But, it’s a necessary evil to perfect your abilities. You’ve gotta keep on keepin’ on!
11. Names. Anytime I meet someone and they ask for my name to fill out a form, I know it’s going to be a long discussion. Jeff just isn’t close to any name Spanish speakers are used to. And, my last name, Jung (pronounced young), just sends them over the top. A few friends have their nicknames for me like Jeff-ito, Jefficito. But, for the vast majority, even spelling my name is a challenge. Of course, there are plenty of names I’ve encountered in Colombia alone that I’ve never heard before.
12. Patience. You gotta have patience. It comes, but it takes time to build those synapses in your brain. Luckily for you, most people I’ve met traveling will have an abundance of patience with you. As long as you’re trying, they’ll muddle through with you. I’ve noticed that there seems to be an inverse relationship between how common a language is on the global scene and the amount of patience the locals will be with you. English speakers, less patient. Turks, very patient.
Tags: travel advice