After taking several years of high school or college Spanish courses, most students expect to be able to say more than an embarrassed Hola. And yet that seems to be more than most can muster after mastering considerable chunks of grammar. Where does this reticence and regret come from? And what does it take to become "conversational," even "fluent," in a language?
By the time I graduated from high school, and after hours of passionately poring over all things Spanish, I was fluent. There are, of course, dozens of shades of fluency, and you never stop learning. But I should first tell you about another not-so-successful endeavor during high school. I started taking piano lessons in the third grade and continued for nine years. I remember excitedly playing Yankee Doodle and learning how to read music. But somewhere along the way, my skills and enthusiasm just flatlined. I even passed several Certificate of Merit exams. Later on in college, I met dozens of people who could not only play but also arrange songs and compose their own. To top it off, they weren't even piano or art majors. I was awed but also felt I'd squandered by years of lessons ... and I regretted it. The good thing is, as with Spanish, it's never too late to start again -- with the right approach. So what was lacking in my approach toward piano?
First and foremost, passion. In contrast, anything remotely Spanish would brighten my eyes, and I could look up words for hours on end and not get tired. But what if your passions lie somewhere else, and Spanish just isn't your thing?
That leads me to the second missing ingredient: a vision of what I could actually do with all that piano. A sense of purpose. As a mediocre player, I knew I'd never professionally do anything piano-related. If only I'd realized that, DUH, I could actually play for friends to sing along, to make my own music, and actually use the art in my daily life. Like a wise person once said, without a purpose, it's like spinning one's wheels in midair and getting nowhere. If you're in California, I won't even comment on how you can apply Spanish in your daily life. I can promise you though, that you can make countless friends and make great self discoveries.
Third, I needed a much more solid foundation. Remember, bad habits die hard. I did learn my scales well, but I never really grasped rhythm, dynamics, posture, etcetera. You have to lay the solid "cimientos" of your Spanish learning. By foundation, I mean taking the pronunciation of your ABCs very seriously from the very beginning (you don't want to sound like a gringo, do you?); getting a very good dictionary and always looking up and writing down new words you don't know; not being sloppy with matching your adjectives and nouns; knowing the difference between ser and estar ("Soy en Berkeley" sounds pretty awful). Grammar is an important part of this foundation, inseparable in some ways from your speaking abilities. My ability to absorb new words grew exponentially after this initial painstaking (yet fun) process.
Finally, I should've actively sought out honest assessment and encouragement from my teachers and peers. It helps to have a teacher point out exactly what your weaknesses and strengths are, at least as they see it, and always take stock of your progress or lack thereof. At the same time, don't mind any ridicule from your family and friends. They have no idea how much you'll blossom. When I was in Spanish 1, a hotshot Spanish 2 friend said my Spanish sounded funny, but I knew deep down that not only was I good at it, I loved it. Your skills will take time to manifest, just keep believing. I recently reminded myself this after taking Brazilian Portuguese courses at UC Berkeley (I love Portuguese, but that's for another post). I can tell you that native and non-native speakers alike tend to be skeptical of your speaking ability. It can suddenly make your mouth dry and make you speak awkwardly, just as they imagined. I can also remember that first big encouraging moment. I was into my third year of Spanish when I started working at a pizzeria with all Mexican coworkers. My Oaxacan friends were delighted when I said my first "Hola." They never laughed at me, and I never looked back from then on. There's nothing like encouragement to make you soar.
The way we see ourselves (e.g. as a mediocre speaker) and the reasons we take on something have a powerful impact on the results we get. More concretely, here are some mid-term steps you can take to build your Spanish speaking skills...
* Immerse yourself ... or at least get your feet wet, regularly
If you can visit a Spanish-speaking country, great. If you can go study abroad there, even better. But if these aren't realistic options for you in any near future, find you opportunities right where you are. Do you have a friend, a friend's friend or family member, or a coworkers who speaks Spanish? Can you think of anybody at your favorite restaurant, cafe, or food stand? Make it a point to speak with them (let them know you're practicing Spanish, if you think they might get offended).
Get even better, more sustained practice by joining a local Spanish language group. Look up awesome resources like Meetup.com (I joined a Brazilian Portuguese one). Take initiative if a group doesn't already exist nearby--form your own with like-minded seeking learners.
Don't forget that immersion isn't just verbal. Keep up with Latin American news online and gain slightly more technical vocabulary. It's free! You can check out major national newspapers like Mexico's La Jornada or Argentina's Clarín. If you're more advanced, start reading short stories. I've always kept a notebook to write down words, expressions, and constructions that I like or don't know. Then I go ahead and use them in my own writing. Reading, writing, listening, and speaking all reinforce each other, so don't neglect one. The key is sustained, regular speaking opportunities.
* Gather your thoughts, and speak slowly but correctly
Don't hesitate to speak because you're worried about making mistakes. That said, we should summon forth our greatest concentration and make consistent and conscientious efforts to choose the right verbs and tenses and make adjectives and nouns match. Every single time. Carelessness leads to building bad habits.
Don't underestimate the power of visualization and overall mental preparation. Just before you speak, take a moment to mentally get in position, ready to spring into action, much like an athlete would. You can't improve your performance by just going with the flow. ¡Despabílate!
* Build a wide range of vocabulary, including colloquial speech
A lot of times, it's hard to follow a conversation because of the unfamiliar cultural references as well as unfamiliar colloquial expressions/idioms. These expressions obviously differ from country to country. Once again, write them down.
Your speaking will improve vastly if you can speak "naturally" and not like a textbook, even if you speak very slowly. You've probably already been told not to do word-for-word English-Spanish translations. How are you supposed to know what's "natural" (in a given country or subgroup) if you're still a beginner? That's why you have high quality, wonderful forums like wordreference.com (I've also gone on tomísimo.org) to ask for how to say xyz in a colloquial way. What's even better, someone has probably already asked the same question, so you just need to find the thread.
In the longer term, find out about different countries' histories, geography, politics, and famous people. You can also "prepare" for future conversations by building up your vocabulary on topics you like talking about.
* Imitate sound and writing:
As I mentioned earlier, work on your pronunciation by imitating as closely as possible, over and over, a native speaker's accent. Anyone can parrot. Everyone has their preference, and no accent is better than another. Go on Youtube, listen to and repeat after clips from interviews, movies, whatever, so long as you can develop an ear for the cadences and sounds. Learn the abcs and their pronunciation -- don't read Spanish like you read English. The confidence you gradually build about the way you sound will boost your speaking skills overall. For those who dismiss imitation, Mason Cooley said,"Art begins in imitation and ends in innovation."
* It's not you. Talking on the phone is very challenging, so don't be discouraged. So is catching what the radio announcer or soccer commentator is saying. Just keep repeating, ¿Cómo? (or ¿Mande? if they're Mexican) until they hang up on you =)
Try actively employing all of these longer-term strategies in addition to going to class. Your progress depends on your outside work. This is an ongoing experiment, so I hope to keep you updated on concrete lessons and methods that turn out successful. What has helped you as a student to speak Spanish better and with greater confidence? What has helped you as a teacher or tutor to help others do so?