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How to learn Spanish faster

You’ve enrolled in one of the Guatemalan Spanish schools, go to class every day and diligently do your homework. Still, when you hear someone speak Spanish, all you hear is gobbledygook. If this sounds familiar, don’t despair: every Spanish student has been there. The truth is that not even the best Spanish teacher can get you from zero to fluent with two weeks of classes only. You need to put in some extra effort if you want to get the best out of your Spanish course. So how can you learn Spanish faster? Here are seven tips for improving your Spanish outside of the classroom.



1. Practice, practice, practice

There’s no point in learning Spanish if you never actually speak it. You need to practice as much as you can. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes: it’s part of the learning process. You may even end up having a host of funny stories, like that time you wanted to put an eye – ojo – in your soup instead of garlic – ajo. So, go out and speak Spanish wherever you go: at the market, in the store, in the bars and restaurants.

A very useful phrase to know when you’re starting out in Spanish is Como se llama …, which means “What is it called?” You’ll also get a lot of mileage out of la cosa – “the thing”. When you use a combination of these phrases, roundabout explanations like La cosa para comer una sopa – the thing for eating soup – and plenty of mime, you’ll make yourself understood and learn new words along the way. And as you learn new words, you can use them to better express yourself and learn even more new words.



2. Consider a home-stay

The quickest route to becoming fluent in a new language is through total immersion. This means that you’re surrounded by people who speak only that language. When you don’t have an opportunity to revert back to a language that you’re more fluent in, like English, you’ll be forced to find ways to express yourself in Spanish. So, you’re basically forced to practice.

One way to do this is to move to a remote village where you won’t see another foreigner for weeks on end. But let’s be practical: if you’re traveling in Guatemala, you’re inevitably going to visit places along the tourist routes, where you’ll hear everything from English and French to Hebrew. So, consider a home-stay while you’re studying Spanish. Reputable schools like San Pedro Spanish School offer home-stays where you can live with a local family. This way you not only get to speak Spanish more often but you’ll also learn about local culture and make lifelong friends. As a bonus, you don’t have to worry about looking for accommodation.



3. Listen to Spanish music

Listening to Spanish music will help you get used to the sounds of Spanish and improve your vocabulary. You don’t have to listen to “Despacito” over and over again either. The Spanish-speaking world has a rich musical tradition, with something for every taste. Look for slower songs at first, so you can more easily follow the lyrics. Mexican folk songs and rancheras by singers like Lila Downs and Chavela Vargas are great for this, as are the Cuban ballads of the Buena Vista Social Club. You can’t go wrong with Jesse & Joy from Mexico or Guatemalan superstar Ricardo Arjona either. Then there’s Manu Chao, who’ll soon have you singing along, “Me gusta Guatemala, me gustas tú.”



4. Watch Spanish movies and TV shows

On those nights when you just want to stay in and binge-watch Netflix, go for something in Spanish rather than the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Like Spanish music, Spanish movies and TV shows will help train your ears for the sounds of Spanish. Watch them with subtitles in English or another language you’re more comfortable with, so you can follow the plot. However, make an effort to listen as well, trying to identify words and phrases and paying attention to their pronunciation. Over time, you’ll be able to pick up more and more words and phrases without having to peek at the subtitles.

At first, try movies and shows from Central America and Mexico, since the accents in this part of the world tend to be clearer and easier to understand. You can then gradually work your way up to the more difficult accents, like those from Spain and Argentina.



5. Read Spanish

Often, a sentence or phrase in Spanish will make much more sense once you see it written down. Reading Spanish will help you learn vocabulary and get used to the language’s particular – and, to English speakers, somewhat unusual – sentence structure.

You may find it easier to start with short, simple texts: children’s books, for example, or the horoscopes in the newspaper. When there’s a word or phrase you don’t understand, first see if you can deduct its meaning from the context before reaching for the dictionary. If you stop to look up every word, you’ll just get frustrated.



6. Try a language app

Language apps aren’t the best way to learn Spanish because they don’t always take into account that there are different ways to say the same thing. However, they’re great for learning pronunciation and for practicing what you know.



7. Keep speaking Spanish

Once you leave Latin America, you’ll forget much of the Spanish you’ve learned if you don’t keep practicing. So, when you’re back home, seek out opportunities to keep speaking Spanish. There are more Spanish speakers in the United States than there are in Spain. You’ll also find sizable Spanish-speaking communities in some parts of the United Kingdom and Canada. Sometimes you’ll run into Spanish speakers in the most surprising places: a Salvadoran bartender in Melbourne or a Cuban doctor in rural South Africa, for example. They’ll most likely appreciate the chance to speak their own language so far from home while you get to hone your Spanish skills. It’s a win–win for everyone!

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© 2017 Study Spanish in Guatemala. 

Photography by Rene de Carufel / additional images by Martin Gray

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