How I’m Improving My Spanish, and How I Learned It in the First Place

After all this Dutch talk, I should talk about my other languages. Spanish is my second adult-acquired language, and my methods differed from my French studies quite a bit. With French, because I was free to do French and only French, I kept up a very rigorous immersion environment for some time, and I was religious with my SRS usage for about two years, I think. I amassed 2000 French cards. I had tons of French music playing all of the time. All of this was supplemented with my French classes at university. Although the classes certainly didn’t provide the bulk of my language acquisition, I did learn far more everyday and specialized vocabulary in my classes than through books and radio.

Now, with Spanish, I had only taken four years of high school classes (ending in 2007), and I didn’t come back to it seriously until 2013. That’s quite the break, and considering how ineffective high school classes are, I think it’s fair to say I started nearly from scratch. However, I had French grammar patterns and vocabulary similarities to fall back on. I studied Spanish at first through extensive reading (because of those vocabulary similarities, it was a comfortable way to start) and lots of listening. I did SRS for several months (with some breaks in between), but I stopped at about 1500 cards.

I think if you use SRS, you really start to have a breakthrough, at least with Western European languages, at about 1000 cards. It’s really cool to finally have the language start to make sense! But SRS was becoming incredibly boring for me, and sentence mining just didn’t have the novelty it had during my intensive French phase, so I went off it. I started using only extensive reading, listening, and some paper flashcards to fill vocab holes.

I think things are going very well! I can understand virtually everything on radio and on the news. I have a little more trouble with television, particularly telenovelas, but it’s coming along, and my comprehension is certainly very high. I’ve read more novels in Spanish than I have in French– it’s helpful that Spanish is a popular language here in the U.S. and particularly in California, where I’m currently living. The Barnes and Noble has an enormous Spanish section! I still fill vocabulary holes as needed, but my Spanish is very strong. And all this was thanks to input!

However, it still doesn’t feel as intuitive as my French does. Even after long periods of not using French, I still feel comfortable if faced with the prospect of speaking it. Of course, I’ve known French longer, and I had a long-term French conversation partner. With Spanish, I still really haven’t had the opportunity to speak it. Finding conversation partners is difficult, because so many people on the conversation-partner-finding websites are not serious about practicing languages. Additionally, I would prefer to speak with a female, because I am a female, and there are far fewer women on those sites than men (for some reason…). This makes things more complicated. I’ve had the opportunity to chat with a couple of Spanish and Latin American folks, but only through text, and it’s never gotten to the point that we’ve been able to coordinate our schedules to talk. IRL I don’t really wanna walk up to people who look like hispanohablantes and just start talking. Also… it’s worth pointing out that I’m hardly super motivated to find a speaking partner so…. yeah!

Even without a conversation partner, it’s worth noting that input really does have an effect on how “ready” you feel to speak the language. Obviously, I do have a lot of Spanish knowledge, but when I listen to a lot of radio or watch TV, it certainly feels more at the tip of my tongue. Writing also helps– probably because it’s also output, and it forces me to come up with my own words and sentences. Still, I know input-based learning can be controversial, but I have to say that sticking with it does improve expressive ability. (Because I can talk to myself and test these sorts of things a little bit).

Anyhoo, currently I’m reading about a chapter a day of the Spanish translation of the 6th Harry Potter book. I also read at least two articles from El País each morning. I’m listening to the Voice of America (Voz de America) podcast each day, which is about a half hour. While half an hour really isn’t a lot, the consistency of that habit has made my listening comprehension much higher.

Interestingly, Spanish is the language I feel most “attached” to, almost in a cultural way, even though my French is stronger. When I write notes, I choose Spanish most of the time. I’ve tried my hand at writing [bad] poetry in Spanish, too. So, yeah, that’s cool.

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