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Improving your conversational Spanish

Improving your conversational Spanish
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In my last post, I want to learn Spanish, now what?, I explained what autodidacta is, as well as my idea of a foundation course and how I used them as a part of my learning process to teach myself Spanish.  If you haven’t read that post or don’t know what autodidacta is, click here.

At about the 2 year point in my learning Spanish journey, I had two short trips to Mexico under my belt. The first trip served to rekindle the desire I had to learn Spanish, and inadvertently started me down the path of autodidacta. The second trip taught me that while my foundation courses were really helping, they weren’t enough.

Learning Spanish Like Crazy Level 1Synergy Spanish and Rocket Spanish were getting me off to a great start.  I was able to get around town, order food and handle everyday touristy type tasks with relative ease.  However it quickly became apparent that social conversations (among other things) were another story.

I realized I had two problems I needed to resolve.  The first problem was finding someone to talk to.  The second problem was learning conversational/colloquial Spanish.

I eventually reached a point where I knew that if I wanted to be able to speak this language, I had to find someone to talk to.  Desperation was setting in.  I remember thinking aunque me muera (even if it kills me), I was going to learn this language.

The feeling of desperation and the desire to master this language forced me to get out there and find or create opportunities to speak Spanish.  Here’s what I came up with:

(1) I ate at a lot of Mexican restaurants.

I should have turned into a burrito by now, but Mexican restaurants are great places to practice your Spanish.   If you visit the same restaurant multiple times and gain the confidence of the wait staff, you’ll have a small army of people more than happy to help you with your Spanish.

The best part is you can study all of the Spanish you need in before you go.  Do your homework and learn how to order your food before you even get to the restaurant.  Jot down some notes and off you go.  You’ll even be able to prepare yourself for the responses you can expect to hear back.

I have to admit, I learned quite a bit of Spanish in Mexican (or Cuban, etc) restaurants.  Looking back on my experiences, it’s amazing how much Spanish you can learn just by trying to order a burrito.

(2) Several of the companies I’ve worked for had a Hispanic janitorial and/or cafeteria staff.

I used to look forward to lunch time because I got to chit-chat with a few Spanish speakers, even if it were only for 2-3 minutes a day.  I even looked forward to working a little late to talk with the janitorial staff.

Sometimes I had to be a bit persistent because they were shy or had some sort of reservation about speaking to me in Spanish, but with perseverance I eventually gained their confidence and conversation.

(3)  I started speaking Spanish with co-workers.

Admittedly, I didn’t have many Spanish speaking co-workers, but I worked up the courage to start speaking to them.  It actually worked out great.  I remember going to lunch with a Colombian co-worker and my knowledge of Spanish was sky-rocketing on a daily basis.  Not to mention he was taking me to a lot of great hidden spots to both eat and use my Spanish even more.

(4)  I discovered a website called MeetUp.com.

Go to the site and do a search for Spanish language groups in your area.  If you live in a respectable size city, there’s likely at least one group of Spanish lovers like you who meet on a regular basis to practice.   At the time there weren’t that many groups in my area, but I got lucky and found one that turned out to be great.  We met weekly and did nothing but talk for 1-2 hours every meeting.  At first it wasn’t easy, but I was learning a lot and getting the conversational practice I so desperately needed.

After I had attend the group for a while, I eventually discovered something even bigger than the group conversations…the power of friendships.  I started making Spanish speaking friends, and that’s when my Spanish really took off.  I started getting invited to social gatherings and meeting even more Spanish speakers.  I’ve even been to a few parties where I was almost the only English speaker there.  Talk about trial by fire!

(5)  Find a place where Spanish speakers hang out and join them.

I managed to find a nice restaurant/bar where Spanish speakers came to dance, play domino’s and just hang out.  I made some new friends and had some pretty good times.

And there you have it.  I went from a guy who thought he had no one to talk to, to a guy who learned how to turn over stones and find opportunities where it looked like none existed.  I hope I gave you some useful ideas on how you can find someone to speak to, even when it seems like there’s no one around.

So now we can talk about the other problem I had, increasing my knowledge of conversational/colloquial Spanish.

When I traveled and even at home, I was always hearing Spanish that I wasn’t learning from my study materials, and I wanted to be able to converse without sounding like a 5 year old.  Actually, 5 year old’s probably don’t stutter and grasp for words as much as I did back then.  So I turned to the one place I knew could help me.   Amazon.com.

There are many books and products out there, but very few of them offer the bang for your buck that you deserve if you’re going to spend your hard-earned cash.  Here are my suggestions on what products are truly deserving of not just your money, but your time and effort.

Let’s get started.

I wouldn’t hesitate to call  Breaking Out of Beginners Spanish the best book on the market for improving your Spanish.  If you could only buy one book, this is it.  You’ll increase your vocabulary and gain a deeper understanding of the language.  He discusses things like “YO-ISMO” (the overuse of the pronoun “yo”), tricksters (words commonly misused by English speakers) and he examines 64 verbs and tells you what they mean and how they’re really used in conversation as well as a ton of other things.

He also takes a practical look at the subjunctive that anybody can understand.  I don’t care what your level of Spanish is, if you’re serious about learning and/or improving your conversational Spanish, this book needs to be in your collection.


Spanish Among Amigos will take your conversational abilities to a new level.  It’s packed with tons of everyday vocabulary, speech and idioms that will have you sounding like a native in no time.  The material is presented through realistic dialogues that take place between 3 friends.   The book does use Spanish from Spain, but the author does a great job of pointing out regional differences and offering neutral alternatives.

The second edition features audio recordings of the dialogues.  That wasn’t available when I bought it, so it’s even better now.

The last book I’m going to suggest is Cassell’s Colloquial Spanish, A handbook of idiomatic usage.  In the format of a dictionary, this book gives you the most common colloquial usages of the word and corresponding examples, along side the dictionary definition.

It’s more of a reference book than something you read from cover-to-cover, but you’ll find yourself quickly amazed at the wealth of information this book has to offer.  This book will go a long way in helping you understand the difference between classroom Spanish and colloquial Spanish.

While books are great, audio is even better.  Here’s a great CD that Amazon offers that will also grow your conversational abilities.  Like everything I recommend, I own a copy and I found it to be worth every nickel.

Learn Conversational Spanish Now (Spanish Edition) 

This is a collection of 60 conversational dialogues that come with written transcripts so you can read along while listen to the conversations if you like.  A surprising feature about this CD is it offers a slower version of the dialogues in addition to the dialogues at regular speed.  The conversations are realistic and are true reflections of what you’ll hear in real life.

It’s time to wrap this post up.  I hope I’ve managed to help you in some form or fashion and keep working on that Spanish.

And remember, when the learning gets tough, ¡no te rindas! (don’t give up!)

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