In my last article, I discussed how I wanted to make one last push with Spanish, with the hopes of meeting my goal of conversational fluency by November.
I had estimated my level as being 1+/A2. Well, thanks to a tip from Stephanie on Twitter–who is making great progress with Spanish herself–I took an online Spanish exam from the Instituto Cervantes and placed at a B1 level, a little higher. The exam didn’t test my speaking, which I’m sure isn’t as good as my listening and reading. And this is surely just a rough estimate. But at least my skills are in the ballpark of where I thought they were.
(If you want to take the test yourself, it is available here.)
At the very least, the test has given me encouragement to keep going forward.
In my last post, I said my plan of attack would be:
- Studying a course
- Listening to news stories
- Talking to myself
I wish I could tell you I was following some super-organized, perfectly planned curriculum. But I’m not. I’ve never learned well that way. I’ve always learned best when there was a little chaos.
I’ve read interviews with top bodybuilders who say that they have a general idea of how they’re going to work out. For example, they know they’ll rotate through workouts for their shoulders, biceps, triceps, legs, and so on. But when they get to the gym, they train instinctively. They do whichever exercises they feel like, and mix up the sets and reps. Then they work out until they feel they’ve had enough. But the whole time they’re concentrating on their body and really feeling what’s happening in the workout.
Are their workouts perfect?
Probably not. Some days they might work out too hard, and some days they might not work out hard enough. But by keeping their schedule loose, they work with their body, not against it. And they get all the benefits of truly experiencing their exercise.
I’m kind of like that with my studying. I have a general idea of the materials and activities I want to use, but I mix things up. Sometimes I might really push and learn 20 to 30 new vocabulary words. Other times I might review old words and concentrate on learning how to put them together. Other times still I might want to sit back and “cruise” and just watch the news or a television program.
I know from experience that if I plan things out too rigidly, I take away the mystery of what I’ll be doing from day to day. And once that mystery is gone, I’m bored out of my skull. A big draw in all of this is the exploratory learning. That’s a large part of what makes this so addicting for me.
As long as I’m making sufficient, steady progress, I do not impose arbitrary limits on how I study.
Again, though, I do have a general idea of what I need to do to get better:
1. Studying developed-courses
I’m going through three programs that have been designed by language educators. These contain well-thought-out, organized material that will give me some academic knowledge of Spanish.
The first program is Berlitz Advanced Spanish (link to Amazon, but not an affiliate link). This consists of:
- A book, with lessons, dialogues, and instruction
- A set of CDs with audio files of the dialogues
I bought this on a whim a few months ago, so now I’ll work through it. So far it’s pretty decent, except the Spanish seems to be Spanish from Spain, and I’ve been learning Latin American Spanish.
The second program is Vox Spanish Vocabulary flashcards (same deal with the link). The name is kind of a misnomer. I bought this box because I thought it would help me drill vocabulary words without having to go out and find them and write them down. That didn’t work out, though. The cards are more like mini-lessons. I was disappointed at first, but then I realized I basically have an inexpensive textbook that’s been chopped up into bite-sized pieces.
The third program is GLOSS, published by the US military’s Defense Language Institute. The GLOSS modules are hit and miss, but more hit than miss.
I’m basically just mixing these three programs up in a blender. One day I’ll go through the flashcards, the next through the Berlitz course, the next through GLOSS. Some days if I have time, I’ll study all three.
(I plan on reviewing the Berlitz and Vox materials when I’m finished with them.)
2. Listening to news stories
Since beginning my Spanish studies, I’ve been watching and listening to so much “fun” stuff that I’ve completely ignored the news. So now it’s time to get caught up.
Listening to the news has some benefits:
- An announcer’s job is to speak clearly and read from a tight script, so you don’t have to worry about someone mumbling, rambling, or going off topic.
- You get used to certain phrases and grammatical constructions, which are used over and over by journalists.
- You hear a variety of vocabulary, ranging from politics to crime to economics to entertainment.
- Even when the vocabulary becomes higher-level, grammar and sentence complexity stays relatively straightforward. Unlike politicians or some academic scholars, journalists try to communicate clearly, using plain language when possible.
Right now I’m just listening to news stories passively and trying to follow along. Since listening only rarely teaches me vocabulary in and of itself, I’ll also be using other techniques to build my news vocab.
One of these techniques? I’m following Spanish news stations on Twitter. Those profiles often Tweet their news headlines. When they use a word or phrase I don’t know in a Tweet, I’ll look it up, record it, and study it.
Man, I am in love with People en Español, the Spanish-language version of People magazine. It has a broad mix of topics: entertainment, fashion, fitness, cooking, psychology and self-help, and human-interest stories.
It’s a little light on the hard news, but I’m getting plenty of that already. This is a good, “mindless” way to take in more Spanish while I’m relaxing. The writing style is breezy, and reading it is something I can do on the couch while my son is watching TV.
4. Talking to Myself
As I mentioned in the last post, I don’t get a lot of opportunities to speak Spanish with people. I know that I can do language exchanges with people online or work with a tutor, but I’m slammed at work and I have to spend time with my family when I’m at home. I use the time before work, during my commute, and after my son has gone to sleep to do my studying. With these limits, it’s just too difficult to coordinate schedules with someone else.
But I’m not going to use that as an excuse to give up altogether. I’m going to improve my speaking by speaking to myself.
First, I’m going to read Spanish texts aloud. This will help me get used to pronouncing Spanish words and developing a “flow.”
Second, I’m going to have chats with myself when I can. The other day I said to my wife in English, “Where did you put it?” I thought to myself, How would you say that in Spanish? So I looked it up and one way is: ¿Dónde lo pusiste?
So I go around thinking of stuff to say to myself. Then I say it. If I don’t know how to say it, I look it up. Then I practice it.
No, I don’t get any feedback with this. But if I use a little common sense, I’m able to figure out if what I’m saying is more or less correct and would be comprehensible to a Spanish speaker.
I was glad to take the online Spanish proficiency test, and I’ll probably take it again at the end of my project to keep me accountable and to gauge my progress.
But I don’t want to tailor my efforts toward passing that test. I got this far by engaging with the language and taking every day on its own terms. I’m just going to keep doing that.
With this language project, I’ve set a goal, which is good for keeping me on track. I won’t forget, though, that my ultimate goal isn’t a proficiency level or passing a test.
It’s learning the language and being able to communicate with people.