Language Learning Advice from 5 folks fluent in Spanish

Language Learning Advice from 5 Folks Fluent in Spanish

Over 572 million people speak Spanish, and that number is expected to grow to 754 million by 2050. To join the ranks of Spanish speakers, there are a number of ways to kick-off your Spanish language learning. To give you some ideas and inspire you to get started, here are stories from five Spanish speakers on what motivated them to learn, and the many benefits of  fluency.

Maggie Unzueta | Owner of Mama Maggie’s Kitchen

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My history with Spanish

Even though I was born in the US, I grew up speaking Spanish and I didn’t learn English until around age seven. My parents are from Durango, Mexico, so we spoke Spanish at home, but growing up in the US, English was everywhere. I spoke English at school, with my friends, and shopping at stores. I became fluent in English around age nine, and when I went away to college, English eventually became my dominant language, and I lost my Spanish fluency.

Regaining my fluency

I was inspired to become fluent in Spanish again because of my son. When he was born, I realized that my culture and my family would die if I didn’t teach him Spanish. You learn culture and traditions, stories of love and grief, and family history through language. I didn’t want to lose who we are and who we were, so since birth, I have spoken to my son in Spanish. I pushed myself to regain my fluency in Spanish for him to know who he is and where he comes from. 

How I did it

I grew up watching telenovelas with my grandmother. We were big time noveleras (Noveleras are women who like to watch telenovelas). One day, I decided to rewatch an old novela from the 90s. I became hooked and found another novela to watch. Soon, I realized it was helping improve my Spanish. 

I just felt like the lightswitch had been turned on. Something clicked. Hearing how certain words were pronounced again, when they are used, remembering words that I had not used in many years. This method also reminded me of good times with my grandmother. Plus, you can get really into the stories and the lives of the people in the novelas. 

For anyone looking to improve their Spanish language learning by watching telenovelas, my favorite is called “Corazón Salvaje,” and my second and third favorites are “Rubi” and “Soñadoras.”

Maintaining my fluency

Being fluent in Spanish again has been wonderful. I feel more connected to my culture, my people, and I’ve been able to preserve my family history. Because we live near the US/ Mexico border and can visit Mexico regularly, I’m able to speak to my Spanish-speaking friends and family all day long. That and the novelas have really helped me maintain my fluency.

Now, I consider myself a dominant English and dominant Spanish speaker. Mexicans are often surprised when I start speaking English and Americans are often surprised when I start speaking Spanish. And you should see the looks I get when I speak Spanish with my ginger-haired son!

James Brady | TikTok Creator @BradyBoyTikTok

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My History with Spanish

While studying abroad in Italy, I met many multilingual people and became fascinated by how they all could fully communicate in languages other than their native one. I began to see language learning as a door to different worlds, so I decided to commit myself to truly studying and learning another language. 

I picked Spanish and decided that teaching English abroad would be a great way to immerse myself in another country’s culture and learn the language while contributing to the local community, so I applied to the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Program in Mexico. I chose Mexico because:

  1. Mexico and Mexican culture play important roles in the United States. 
  2. Mexico is a huge country with so many unique regions—the jungles in Chiapas, the coast of Oaxaca, the vibrant and colorful urban oasis of Guanajuato, and so many more! 
  3. Mexico has rich cultural traditions and a world-renowned cuisine. 

Receiving that acceptance letter from Fulbright changed my life! 

How I learned

Outside of taking classes, I used DuoLingo a lot in the beginning. But as I became more advanced, I realized that apps like DuoLingo weren’t enough to keep me challenged, so I found other ways to practice, including using a website called WeSpeke to find native Spanish-speakers who would let me practice their Spanish with them in exchange for help with their English. 

I also made sure to consume Spanish-language media almost every day—news and magazine articles, TV shows, movies, podcasts, and music. I think that the only way to master a language is to make it part of your life. You need to start doing things in the target language that you normally would just do in your native language. For example, instead of checking the news in English, why not read it all in Spanish? Of course it might not be as easy as reading it all in English and you might have to look some words up, but this will really accelerate the learning process. I even had my phone settings in Spanish for a while. 

When I returned from Mexico, I hired tutors online to make sure I was continuing to practice, and I still regularly meet with an online tutor. I like to think of language learning like going to the gym. Once you reach your fitness goal, you still need to continue working out! You can’t just stop and expect the results to stay! 

TikTok

After starting a TikTok during quarantine, I came up with an idea: Why not make funny videos about my experiences learning Spanish and living in Mexico? The first video I made on this topic got millions of views within a few days, and I realized I had found my niche! So I continued doing comedic re-enactments of funny mistakes and misunderstandings and the situations they caused.

For example, one of the most embarrassing mistakes I ever made was when I meant to say the word “vegetable” but accidentally said something very inappropriate. There were also several times when people were speaking too fast, so I didn’t understand 100 percent of what was said. But I didn’t want to admit that, so I just said a bunch of things that I thought might be good responses and hoped for the best. 

One reason why I never wanted to admit that I didn’t understand something was that I was afraid the person would just switch to speaking English and then I’d lose the opportunity to practice my Spanish. I also think I just wanted to believe I was more advanced than I really was! 

Benefits of fluency

I have friends around the world who I only speak Spanish with, and I never would have had these friendships if I had not learned the language! It’s also great that I’m able to travel through Spanish-speaking countries without having to stay in touristy-areas or heavily depend on others for help. This independence has made my travel experiences in places such as Mexico, Colombia, and Spain even more fulfilling.

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Kristin Miller, MD | Family Practice Physician in Oklahoma

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My history with Spanish

I grew up in Cincinnati and didn’t have any Hispanic influence in my life. When I was in kindergarten, I took my first Spanish class and was immediately drawn to the language, the culture, the food, and the people. I also always knew I wanted to travel the world, and when I fell in love with Spanish, I realized that speaking the language would be a great way to make more friends and experience more things. But I never had any idea I would one day be a bilingual doctor.

How I learned

When I learned Spanish in school, I would often make flashcards to help me remember words. I also tried to read books in Spanish, mostly children’s books at first, and eventually Don Quixote. I also listened to music in Spanish and would make up some songs with Spanish words so I could easily remember them. 

I even helped make a short parody film of Men In Black in Spanish. We basically did a five minute summary of the movie, and the thing that I remember most was chasing after someone dressed like an alien and yelling “¡Paranse Malvadas!” (“Stop, evil-doers!”). I will never forget that. 

However, there was no substitution for actually living in Spanish speaking countries and completely immersing myself in the language, which I did while studying abroad in Spain and completing part of my medical training in Puerto Rico.

Benefits of fluency

When I first started college I wanted to be a missionary so I could help people in Spanish-speaking countries. When I went to medical school, I knew that my mission had changed. Becoming a bilingual doctor has allowed me to help many people in my community who often tell me that none of their doctors ever understood their concerns because of the language barrier. By learning Spanish, I could finally provide the care they have always hoped for. 

Even though there is a physician shortage in this country, as a doctor, sometimes it can feel as though you’re not as important or needed as you had originally thought when joining this profession. However, every time I see a Spanish-speaking patient and find new ways to help them, I feel a whole new sense of satisfaction and fulfillment knowing that I am doing exactly what I was always meant to do. And it’s because I speak their language.

Patricia Palacios | Co-Founder of España Guide

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Our history with Spanish

I’m a 35 year-old native Spanish speaker who was born and raised in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain. I met my husband, who is American, over a decade ago in a German language school in Cologne, where we were both students. Like many Americans, he took Spanish classes in high school, but couldn’t say much more than “Mi nombre es…” and “¿Dónde está la biblioteca?”

After we got married, he wanted to be able to speak with my family and his Spanish-speaking friends. 

As soon as he knew enough to put a couple of sentences together, he would use them with my family. None of them really speak English, so they really appreciate his efforts (especially my mom) and are always happy to help him practice and learn new words and expressions.

How he learned

Since we’ve been together, my husband has learned Spanish using a large variety of methods: Standard in-person group classes, private classes, audio systems such as Pimsleur, and immersive experiences with my family and friends.

Having a wife who speaks fluent Spanish was also helpful, but the truth is, I could have done more to help him! Once in a while, we would set up a goal to only talk in Spanish, or to do it for a couple of hours everyday, but unfortunately that never lasted long. In everyday interactions, it was just always difficult for me to have the patience. 

However, he says that hearing me speak with friends and family has helped him a lot. He has been able to memorize everyday expressions and sayings and get a very good feel for the language. Of course, I am always there for any question he might have. And I am always happy to watch Spanish movies or listen to Spanish music with him. 

Funny mistakes

Some years ago, we were visiting my family in Spain and went to meet a good friend of mine. However, she called to cancel because she was “constipada” and didn’t want to get us sick. My husband didn’t understand how “constipation” could be passed from one person to another. This is because “constipado” is a false cognate! This means that the words sound similar but have a totally different meaning. “Constipado” in Spanish means to have a cold, not to have difficulties going to the bathroom! We had a good laugh about it though.

What I learned

Something I’ve learned from my husband, as well as from my personal experience learning English and German, is that it’s important to start listening and speaking from the very beginning. Most people often focus more on learning grammatical rules first and are too shy to speak. I think that is a big mistake. As my husband says: “If you don’t speak, you don’t make mistakes. And if you don’t make mistakes, you don’t learn.”

Linn Haglund | Founder & Content Creator of Brainy Backpackers

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My history with Spanish

Ever since I was a kid I was fascinated by the Spanish language. It’s hard to say what triggered it, but having parents that had backpacked South America before I was born, I grew up hearing all these stories from Spanish-speaking countries, and being part Italian made the latin language a natural part of me. As soon as my school gave students the option to learn Spanish, I jumped on the opportunity. I even remember buying books that taught you the differences in vocabulary between Spain and South America. 

How I learned

I moved to Seville for my studies and completely fell in love with the city and the people, so after I graduated, I moved there and did something really spontaneous. We had driven past a bar for rent on the way back from a skydiving center, and were joking about renting it in the car. A few miles later, we did a u-turn, and a week later we had the keys in our hands. 

Living in a small village and running a local bar gave me no option other than to speak Spanish, and interacting with friends, clients, and providers who only spoke Spanish helped the language really sink in.

The biggest language barrier for me was talking to the suppliers on the phone. They speak a tremendous accent in the “pueblos” and at first, I had to ask them to come over and make the orders face-to-face so that I could understand them. I guess that was one of the pros of being in a small village. After a short while, I didn’t have problems understanding them over the phone, but they had problems understanding me as my village accent became stronger—always with my heavy Norwegian accent on top. Or maybe they just liked hanging out with me and used it as an excuse.

It also took a few weeks to get the hang of their way of saying the different drinks, especially when drunk, but with super helpful regulars—and even the guys from our neighboring bar—I got into it pretty quickly.

Understanding jokes

There was a point where I could have one-on-one conversations in Spanish without any problem, but when I was in larger groups of people, it was impossible for my brain to take in all the sounds at once. My brain wasn’t used to sorting out the language yet and it got overwhelming. It took time, but I slowly became better and better at communicating, and I could measure those improvements with how well I was able to pick up on the jokes.

I believe that you fully master a language once you can both understand and crack jokes (and when you can have an argument) in that language. Understanding jokes means you understand a lot of the underlying meanings in a saying. And this doesn’t come from University studies or language apps. This comes from spending time with locals, listening to the language in your day-to-day, and using it. And asking questions whenever you’re unsure about the meaning of something. Ask, ask, ask!

Hang in there!

Speaking of getting overwhelmed in groups, I think it’s important to note that it’s completely normal to feel out of your depth in those kinds of situations. And yet it’s the biggest reason I see people who move here trying to learn Spanish give up. It’s tiring to concente that much while still feeling that you don’t understand anything. But you just have to hang in there and keep listening and keep trying, and one day it will just fall into place.

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Inspired to learn Spanish? Wyzant has hundreds of Spanish tutors to choose from. Whether you’re looking for online or in-person sessions, you’re bound to find a tutor who will fit your needs and jump-start your journey to Spanish fluency.

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