I’ve met many students that tell me their main goal is to become conversational. There are many reasons to make this your primary goal: living in an area with Spanish speakers, the possibility of making friends from Spanish speaking countries, traveling and easily finding your way around with locals, even getting in touch with distant relatives.
However, to many people this goal appears daunting and unreachable. But why?
In my years as a Spanish teacher, I have accompanied many through their journey towards Spanish fluency. I have found that most students make the same mistakes while studying in the hopes of being able to converse in Spanish. Today, I am sharing what I’ve learned plus a method that has helped many.
MISTAKE #1: Making endless lists with new words
You know you’ve been there. I know I have!
When studying a new language, you are bound to find new words everywhere, and boosted by the thrill of learning, you go and write them all on flashcards. By the end of the first week your list looks like this:
- 3+ pages of unrelated words
- A mix of nouns, verbs and every other grammar category (and it’s difficult to tell which is which)
- Quite frankly, some useless words (at least for you at this stage)
- Words out of context whose meanings are ambiguous
- Words you added and you have no idea why
Next time you are thrilled because you found the word to say perennial in Spanish, make sure you don’t add it to your list unless you can actually use it in conversation at your level. It is far more important to learn common words you can use in any conversation.
MISTAKE #2: Drilling through endless lists
Whether you study your vocabulary 10 minutes or 2 hours a day, if you simply read through the list, it will be hard to make any progress.
When you do that, you are training your brain to follow a sequence rather than teaching it how to remember new words. SRS such as Anki and the like are effective and helpful as long as you make sure you are studying words by using them in context. We’ll talk more about it in the next mistake.
MISTAKE #3: Not categorizing vocabulary (and therefore not using words properly)
As mentioned in #1, it is important to know which words on your list are verbs, nouns, descriptive words or expressions. This is crucial for beginners because it is the only way to know how to use the word in a sentence and whether it needs to change or not (conjugations, feminine or masculine, singular or plural, etc.) It might seem like some extra work at the beginning, but once you’ve used the word a couple of times, you won’t need to remember the grammar category as it will come natural to you.
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to study words by putting them in context. Make sure you don’t just learn the word, but that you are able to make a sentence using it.
MISTAKE #4 Not speaking
It’s a fact: you can learn all the grammar and vocabulary you like, but if you do not speak you will not make progress.
One thing is learning new vocabulary and a completely different one is recalling it in real time while talking to someone. The more you use and hear words in conversation, the faster this process will sink in.
Once your brain sees itself in need of communicating, it creates the necessary connections that allow you to remember and use new words and concepts.
HOW TO STUDY VOCABULARY
Now, let me share with you the method I’ve used to teach Spanish and to learn other languages.
- Choose a topic. It is easier to practice vocabulary when discussing only one topic. This way, you can use the same words more than once in conversation and you are likely to hear the other person use the same words you studied. Make a list of the conversation topics you’d like to master and go one by one until you feel comfortable speaking about it.
- Create something visual. Use colors and images.
- Try to translate as little as possible. Write a definition or include examples. (Instead of writing supermercado=supermarket, write supermercado= Walmart)
- Your first column should contain verbs that are related to the topic. The rest of the columns should include other nouns, adjectives and adverbs that you can use with that particular verb.
- Have the chart near you when you practice conversation with a teacher or language exchange partner.
If you did it correctly, it will be so much easier to mix and match the columns to create correct sentences.
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