I started to write this post and it reminded me of a recent magazine article I read on School of Rock about teaching children how to play musical instruments (article here). My horrendous elementary school experiences with the violin and recorder popped into my head as I read the article. Maybe with an opportunity like School of Rock I could be an over-the-hill, rich, retired and little-respected, but much-loved rock star by now.
And then it occurred to me that the same could be said of my early Spanish exposure in school. If only…
Often while teaching a language too much time is devoted to the rules instead of becoming functional in the language. The result is boredom for the student, frustration and giving up. Worse, after this first bad experience, many people believe they don’t have the “ear” for languages, and abandon the idea of multilingualism for the remainder of their lives.
I expect arguments about these points (which is great, I love the debate), and some people will write this post off (if not the whole blog) as trash. However, anyone that is serious about becoming FUNCTIONAL (that’s a key word) in Spanish, quicker, should study these 5 points. If your immediate goal is to have an educated, college-level or higher understanding of Spanish, this post isn’t for you. But if you want to start using your Spanish quickly, these tips will speed up the process.
This is worth repeating. These 5 suggestions below apply to becoming FUNC-TIO-NAL in Spanish quicker than you would without them. Believe me. Don’t believe me. But just because this isn’t conventional teaching does not mean it is wrong.
Become Fluent Faster By Ignoring These 5 Spanish Fundamentals
1. The importance of masculine and feminine articles el and la:
Most teachers harp on using the correct article with each noun. While mixing these two up sounds uneducated to the fluent ear, most of the time it does not change the message. People will still understand you. Many people (me included) become too hung up on the details of speaking. Does agua go with el or la? Is it los aguas or las aguas? Don’t pay attention to that; you need to just let the conversation flow, errors included. It doesn’t change the message if you say la agua or el fuente. I even have a small secret to share. Even native speakers sometimes mix up el and la.
So forget learning El and La with each word, for now. As your Spanish becomes more fluid, you will absorb this automatically.
2. The difference between personal pronouns tu and usted:
Which to use, when? The truth here is most nobody cares. While there are some guidelines to help with this, they are also rife with exceptions.
One commonly quoted rule is that close friends will be tu because it is considered informal. While this is most often correct, it is not always true. It turns out that in Colombia, usted is used for some of your most intimate friends.
Another guideline is that if the person is older than you then usted is probably better to denote respect and formality. This too depends so much on the situation, it is often not true.
So again, my advice is ignore the tu versus usted. It will only be a hang-up that slows you down early on. If in doubt, use usted. If tu turns out to be the better option, there’s no harm and more often than not the other person will correct you.
To pronounce words properly is important. To pronounce them perfectly is not. I stretched this point a bit to fit the post title. Teachers won’t require you to pronounce perfectly. All you really need to do is to pronounce clearly enough to get your idea across.
I obsessed about this for years. I simply could not accept speaking Spanish with a foreign accent. I even had a doctoral candidate teach me the phonetic alphabet so I would pronounce better. It worked. But I also wasted time that I could have used to become fluent quicker or even learn another language.
Don’t waste your time achieving perfection. Your goal here should be to pronounce well enough that people understand what you are saying. Nothing more.
4. Subjunctive verb conjugations:
This is not worth a detailed description since subjunctive is an advanced topic for any Spanish student. Suffice it to say, it takes a long time to learn it correctly. Better to use your time elsewhere. With enough exposure to the language you will learn it naturally.
Often what you give up by not using the subjunctive is only a subtle difference, if any, in your idea. The difference between Quiero una casa que tenga vista al mar and Quiero una casa con vista al mar is minimal to none.
5. Accents marks on vowels:
Spanish has these weird lines over the top of some letters. Portuguese too. In fact, numerous languages do. Just not English. So why does that matter? It means that if you are a native English speaker, with little or no exposure to foreign languages, you have no idea what those lines do.
Do I say aguila or aguila (pronunciation emphasis on the underlined letter in each word)?
The good news is (and here’s the part your Spanish teacher doesn’t mention) those accents are not as important as they used to be. With the growth of computer communication, where it may be cumbersome to add accents, they are used less and less.
They do have a purpose. You should learn them. But at this point they are not fundamental to becoming fluent in Spanish. So spend your time elsewhere.
Learning a language should be about achieving proficiency in the language, not perfection. The above tips will help you achieve that goal quicker. At some point, after your speech flows, and you are ready to advance your level, you will need to develop these 5 Spanish fundamentals further. Just not right now.
Check out these other articles about How to Speak Spanish.