My first experience with Spanish was after I enrolled in language classes at my university. By the end of semester three I assumed that my Spanish was OK. I could hold a conversation with my professor, who had lived in Chile for six years, therefore I must have been approaching an advanced level, no?
I arrived in Madrid for a semester abroad, and 10 minutes into my first course, Historia Moderna de Europa, I underwent a harsh awakening. I could barely understand a thing!
Fast forward ten years - after some time living in Latin America, and traveling throughout the region, I am now much closer to being an advanced speaker. However, I also have a much better understanding of what it means to be fluent in a language and una apasionada of Latin American and Spanish culture:
Here are some tips and resources I have used in my language journey:
1. Get out Your Headphones Listen to pop legends such as Juanes and Shakira, as well as classics including Violeta Parra and The Buena Vista Social Club on repeat follow along with the lyrics on YouTube. If you’d like to subsequently learn about political issues and social topics, check out Reggaeton artist Calle 13 or Afro Colombian group Chocquibtown.
2. Flip on the Tellie (or your laptop) Watch Latin American and Spanish films, including Almodovar films such as Volver, and Latin American classics such as Como Agua Para Chocolate, The Motorcycle Diaries or something more risque such as, Y Tu Mamá También (on Netflix). Here is IMDB’s list of Top 100 Latin American Films.
Make sure to include subtitles in Spanish in or, if you’re a beginner, English subtitles until you become comfortable. However, even if you are new to the language, I would advocate for full immersion, as this is the best way to learn, and you can still understand most of a movie without understanding all of the dialogue.
3. Listen to podcasts The top rated podcasts on Itunes are in English, however in recent years I have seen more and more U.S. and Latin American based podcasts in Spanish. NPR hosts Radio Ambulante. Each episode features a first-hand story with speakers from throughout the Americas, which provides the opportunity to hear a different accent in each episode. Spain’s national public radio also produces some great podcasts, including the documentary podcast, Documentos RNE, and Nómadas, a weekly travel podcast. If you’re a news junkie, check out News in Slow Spanish.
4. Meet Spanish-speaking friends During my first escapade to a Spanish speaking country, I dated a Colombian who knew little to no English. It was the best language-learning decision I ever made! Of course you don’t need to date a foreigner, making friends with anyone that knows the language will do. In order to make friends, I often utilized Couch Surfing, which is a platform similar to AirBnB, however most cities also have a language exchange group. Similar platforms such as Meetup and Facebook Events often have language exchange meetups as well.
You do not need to be living abroad to meet other Spanish speakers. It’s more than likely that at least one of your acquaintances speaks intermediate Spanish or above. They will most likely be happy, if not flattered, to speak Spanish with you. The key is to be persistent. It is so easy to fall back into the language that is most comfortable.
5. Take a class. I, for one, get bored with traditional learning - in a class, from a textbook, etc. However, when living in Perú a few years ago, I started taking private lessons, and it moved me to the next level. Having an expert on the grammatical ins and outs of the language allowed for a much deeper understanding. For in-person classes and tutors, I recommend The Language & Music School in the Chicago area, which offers our readers a 15% discount. In NYC, I suggest Spanish Millenium. You can also check out your local community college for classes.
6. Immerse Yourself. While not the ONLY way to become fluent, immersion is perhaps the quickest path to fluency. Book a flight somewhere, for the weekend, a week, a month… Every day you spend struggling through the language will help you improve. Can’t take time time off work? Programs like Venture with Impact make it possible to spend one month or more abroad while working remotely for your job back at home and volunteering with a local non-profit (another great way to improve your spanish).