Tips From a Spanish Tutor
A Brief Guide to Improving Your Skills as a Language Learner
In my experiences teaching Spanish, and in my years as a Spanish student, I have encountered a number of challenges that most foreign language learners seem to have in common. Based upon these, I've come up with five major recommendations for students encountering a new language.
1) MAKE WORD ASSOCIATIONS
When studying vocabulary, you may find it helpful to try to mentally connect a word to an idea or image that is related to that word. For example, in Spanish, el pan translates to bread. When you read el pan and think to yourself “bread is baked in a pan,” you’ve made your very own word association!
When you make associations like this, you create a mental map from the word to its meaning, helping yourself to retrace your steps whenever you read or hear it. You don't have to use the example above if it doesn't work for you—feel free to come up with your own!
2) MAKE PICTURE CARDS INSTEAD OF FLASHCARDS
Most Spanish students make flashcards for their new vocabulary the way they would for any other subject: Spanish word on one side, English word on the other. That may work well enough for vocabulary quizzes, but it isn't quite as beneficial for spoken Spanish. I recommend that you replace the “English” side of your flashcards with images of the word. This helps you to begin thinking in Spanish, eliminating the “translation” step when you are trying to come up with the word that you want.
3) CIRCLE THE SUBJECT
When reading and writing sentences or when completing a fill-in-the-blank section on a test or quiz, it is common to misidentify the subject of a sentence. If this happens to you, you may be reading too fast, or you may never have seen the verb before, or you may be confused by a compound subject. Try taking a moment to slow down and figure out what the subject actually is (ask yourself, “Who is doing the action here?”), and then circle it. It may seem silly, but deconstructing the sentence this way and creating a visual reminder for yourself will actually help you to understand what is going on.
4) LEARN TO 'TALK AROUND' WORDS
Sometimes, whether it's while writing an essay or having a conversation, you stumble upon a word you want to use that you just don't know in Spanish. You can't look it up, and chances are your teacher probably won't give you credit for using the English word. This is where it helps to “talk around” a word—describe it without using the word itself. For example, if you don't know what to call an engineer (ingeniero), you might refer to the person who constructed a building or bridge. If you don't know how to say ladle (cucharón), you might say a spoon for serving soup.
If this seems very intuitive, that's because it is! But it can be easy to freeze up under circumstances that make us uncomfortable. With a little practice, you'll be able to confidently avoid vocabulary you don't know—just remember to look it up later!
5) RECORD YOURSELF SPEAKING
This one is probably the hardest for my students. If you are like many Spanish learners, you will find that while reading and writing their new language is one thing, speaking it is entirely another. It can be challenging to improve your pronunciation in Spanish. Try recording yourself reading simple phrases in Spanish. Then play them back and listen. You can do this easily on your smart phone if you have one, or you can purchase an inexpensive pocket voice recorder. This might be a little uncomfortable when you first start out, but by listening carefully to your own accent, you will gradually be able to refine your pronunciation and improve your fluency.
These are all techniques I have found to work for my students, but you can put your own spin on them! Get creative. Figure out what works for you. Also, don't forget—these tips work for other languages too!
Written by Paige, Language and Literature Tutor at Tutor Associates