So many of my foreign friends and acquaintances here in Spain desperately want to do something about improving their Spanish language skills. Some have tried quite hard, but get quickly frustrated. So what can foreign immigrants do to improve their Spanish enough to carry on meaningful conversations with the locals?
As a former languages teacher, teacher trainer and UK schools inspector I have seen first hand what works and what doesn’t. Not just in the UK, but in Australia, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain. So, here are my top 10 tips (13, actually!).
Enrol on a course - a free one, if possible - and attend the classes regularly. Did you know that the Junta de Andalucía provides funding to town halls for free Spanish lessons for foreigners? In Ronda, where I live, for example, my non-Spanish-speaking friends receive three mornings a week of free tuition.
Find a Spaniard who will give you conversation practice in exchange for reciprocal conversation in English (your average Spaniard is desperate to improve their English). That way it doesn’t cost you anything.
Buy a good course book which you can work through on your own.
Carry a little notebook with you at all times to jot down new words and phrases for learning later.
Get into the habit of learning new material every day, eg from the above mentioned notebook, or from the coursebook or homework from your teacher. That may sound like a chore, but, believe me, very few of us can just pick up a foreign language by osmosis, as it were, just because we happen to live in the country. Most of us have to make a lot of effort. Take my own case: a four-year university course which took me from zero knowledge to honours degree standard, followed by another 36 years of continual learning. Yes, I’m still learning. I live in Spain now and I reckon I learn something new about the Spanish language every single day.
Watch Spanish TV, especially the soaps and the news. Quiz shows are also good.
Listen to the radio too - the standard of spoken Spanish there, especially on RNE (Radio Nacional de España) is pure castellano and of the highest quality.
Read a newspaper regularly, though not El País, La Vanguardia, ABC or El Mundo, as they’re all rather turgid and dull. I like the style and language and content of Sur and Málaga Hoy better from a language-learning point of view.
Read children’s stories. Fairy tales, where the stories are familiar, are particularly suitable.
Play language-learning tapes and/or CDs in the car and hone your pronunciation. Practice out loud! Nobody can hear you!
If you have British TV, record and watch the BBC’s Spanish language-learning output, which has always been excellent.
Buy a decent dictionary, nothing smaller than the biggest Collins or Larousse you can find.
Take a Spanish lover, but check that it’s OK with your spouse or partner first!
But really, the secret, above anything else, is to “wallow in a bath of Spanish”, as I used to to tell my students. Listen actively and attentively to as much Spanish as you can, and then gradually begin to imitate and emulate what you hear. That’s, after all, how we learned our mother tongue. ¡Mucha suerte!
© don Pablo