How to Improve Your (Already Pretty Good) Spanish


When I first went to Spain in the spring of 2008, my Spanish wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good either. I got there and realized all the Spanish I knew wasn’t useful when trying to explain to the school why I needed to change rooms and how the shower head wouldn’t emit a normal stream of water. I struggled to understand the cashiers at the local grocery store when they told me how much the total was: “Cinco con dos.” Wait, what? Five with two? Does that mean seven?

I came back having improved, but not that much. I was determined to return and, while there, get better. I did so, thanks to a number of things that I would like to share with you all.

I used to think pisar meant “to piss.” Point taken.

But first, let me explain. This list is for people whose Spanish is already past the AP test and who don’t need me to explain how to conjugate the past subjunctive. If you do need that, I suggest other methods. However, undertaking mine won’t hurt you!

Even Barbie listens to me!

Practice, practice, practice. I make this mistake with Mario a lot – I revert back to English whenever there’s something I don’t know how to say (i.e., I’m too lazy to get my butt to WordReference and look it up). In college, one of my professors espoused the idea of circumlocution. If you don’t know how to say, for example, door knob, say something like “the thing that you use to open the door” or “the round thing you use to turn.” And so on. But suck it up and forget about if you’re going to make a mistake asking the lady on the street corner how to get to the train station. She’s probably heard much worse.

This is your brain on Spanish. 


Read. I enjoy reading the Spanish newspaper, especially certain sections like the editorials where the language tends to be a bit richer. Just yesterday I read part of an editorial that used three words/phrases I didn’t understand in one sentence (ouch!): desmemoriado, irse de rositas, estropicio. Luckily, I complained to Mario and he told me all the meanings. Great for me, right? I know, it’s annoying that I can just be lazy and ask him, but I also spend a lot of time on WordReference. The forums are a godsend!

Write. I’ve just noticed this in the past few weeks. As a part of my job, I translate a newsletter for one of the teachers. Then I ask my handy dandy personal assistant to edit it for me, just to make sure my errors aren’t too egregious. When I first received them, the red marks (thanks Microsoft Word!) were a lot more frequent. Now there aren’t so many of them. As I drove home yesterday, I began to realize just what great practice this is, translating a similarly formatted document with different wording again and again. I recommend it, even if you don’t have a Mario. There are websites out there where you can write and have native speakers correct you (LiveMocha, for one).


Listen. If you’re a newbie, try the TV, where you’ll be able to see the people’s lips move (unless it’s dubbed, not an uncommon practice in Spain). Try the 3 o’clock news if you’re actually in Spain, too. If that’s way too easy (who are you and how can I hit you in the face?) try the radio. If you’re like, “Psh, girl,” then try a soccer game. If you can understand a soccer game, you have arrived. I congratulate and perhaps even bow at your feet. I hope they do not smell.


 Notice errors. Spanish people do this thing called leísmo, meaning they use the “le” pronoun instead of “lo” in certain circumstances. For instance, they might say “Le veo,” when it should be “Lo veo.” Another common error is when they use hubiera twice instead of habría + hubiera. For example, “Hubiera ido si me hubieras dicho.” Wrong. It should be “Habría ido si me hubieras dicho.” It’s an error that sounds okay to Spanish ears (kind of like mixing up lay/lie/laid), but I pick up on it, and ask Mario if they’re wrong. I like understanding errors and how to avoid them. Mario, like any good Spaniard, does employ leísmo from time to time, and I’ll admit, it’s rubbed off on me somewhat. Having spent so much time in Castilla León, it just rounds right to me.

So does this. Right on!

Eat at restaurants. If you want a challenge, try to learn the names of all the meats, cuts, fishes, cooking methods, and so on. I assure you, learning what morro is may ensure that you will never, ever eat it. I haven’t—and I promise you I don’t regret it.

Pick up a book. I read the Millennium series in Spanish. It felt like the best of both worlds. I was constantly immersed in dialogue in Spanish and I learned how to say things like, “La cocina daba al comedor,” that I probably wouldn’t have known otherwise. Also, I don’t think the Millennium series was especially rich in English and in Spanish it was much the same. However, I didn’t notice it in a foreign language.

Get mad. Try using a foreign language if you’re angry. I assure you, it will be difficult to continue speaking the language of Cervantes when there’s steam pouring out of your ears. Nonetheless, you will definitely learn something. You may want to pick up a few swear words here and there. Cat recently wrote a post that I found particularly amusing. I endorse it fully. A few of Mario’s friends seem to have lots of experience in swearing. Thus, their lexicon is quite impressive. (Note: Mario is far from this.)

After all, swearing mitigates pain. What more do you need?

I Love Podcasts

And I’m not afraid to say it.

What is a podcast, you ask? Well, according to Mr. Google, a podcast is “a multimedia digital file made available on the Internet for downloading to a portable media player, computer, etc.” Basically, you listen to someone blather on about something for a period of time. It can be specifically designed to be a podcast. It can also be radio programs made into podcasts. This is why I listen to lots and lots of NPR. (Nerd alert!)


But I don’t care because podcasts are awesome. (Yes, I did just say that in a surfer dude type way. Why do you ask?!) They are so entertaining and, honestly, I get bored easily. You want to know how to make a dull task more fun? Listen to a podcast! I listen to them constantly: while cleaning house, while running, while lifting weights, while walking to work, while riding the bus…you get the picture. And I’m constantly ready to hear new ones. So I love posts that talk about my favorite bloggers’ favorite podcasts. (Ahem, my nerdiness is on full blast today.) So, that’s what I’m going to do. Without further ado, here they are:

My number one is always gonna be Ira, beloved host of This American Life. It was my first, you know? Often the most popular podcast in the country, it is a true gem. As Ira repeats every episode, they choose a theme, and then bring us a variety of stories on that theme. For example, this last one was about infidelity, stories of cheaters, cheating, and the cheated. There were four “acts,” or stories, each one from a different person with a different perspective. It’s as though that person is sitting next to you, relating the theme to you in a very personal way. It’s great; trust me. And download it.

Next comes RadioLab. I really got into RadioLab during my senior year of college, the year I decided to always walk to class instead of taking the bus. Walking requires entertainment, at least for me, and searching for new ways to entertain myself, I stumbled upon RadioLab. RadioLab incorporates fascinating science into your everyday life. One episode titled Memory and Forgetting took “a look behind how the curtain of how memories are made…and forgetten .Remembering is an unstable and profoundly unreliable process–it’s easy come, easy go as we learn how true memories can be obliterated,  and false ones added. And Oliver Sacks joins us to tell the story of an amnesiac whose love for his wife and music transcend his 7-second memory.” It’s beautiful in the way only science can be.

I’ve never really understand economics, to be honest with you. That’s the boyfriend’s job. (He spends his free time reading The Economist, poor chap.) Planet Money is for people like me. As they say, “We think a lot of people feel overwhelmed by the global economy. They know it’s affecting their lives. But they don’t know how to dive in, and they don’t find most stories in most media outlets helpful.” Truth. And they believe the show should be “economically smart, but not economically dull.” For a show about economics, it’s definitely not dull.

Along those same lines, there’s Freakonomics, a podcasts that comes from a book that comes from a newspaper article. Complicated much? There’s these two guys, Stephen Dubner (a journalist) and Steven Levitt (an economist) who met when Stephen was writing this article about Steven. The article was good and drew attention, so they wrote a book, named, surprisingly, Freakonomics. It’s all about how everyday things relate to economics, things like how backyard swimming pools might just be more dangerous than guns. (Read the book to figure that one out.) The podcast is along similar lines, relating soccer or baby names or rewarding kids with money for good grades. I never believed it before, but economics truly is fascinating.

This is where it gets truly nerdy. I have a feeling Terry Gross (who is indeed a woman and not a man despite the y in her name), the host of Fresh Air, is like me in many ways, but I’ll never admit it. Aloud, that is. Terry, or one of her coworkers, interviews subjects about a wide variety of topics: music, art, sports, actors, politicians, scientists…you name it, she’s done it. It’s a more nuanced interview than you’ll get anywhere else. Sometimes I skip over the music interviews, as they’re not my favorites, but I love hearing Rainn Wilson asked in depth about his Ba’hai faith or listening to a food scientist describe how food is the hidden driver of global politics. Yes, I know it won’t appeal to all or even most, but it’s something I truly enjoy.

So, what about you, dear readers? Do you listen to podcasts? Or do you prefer silence or even, gasp, music on your iPod?

La Brújula

It’s 8 o’clock. How do I know? Well, besides the fact that I’m on my computer and it has a clock. I know because I hear a characteristic beeping sound coming from the bedroom. It’s the…brújula! What is the brújula, you ask? Literally, brújula means compass. It’s a news program and Mario almost never misses an episode when he’s home. The present, Carlos Alsina Álvarez (oooh they share a last name!) always begins the program the same way, “Les voy a decir una cosa…” (I’m going to tell you one thing…”) I suppose for nerds like Mario this is infinitely exciting and not boring in the least. I could make fun of him for this, but I’d be a hypocrite.

You see, I’m just as big of a nerd as he is. I’ll admit it, I listen to NPR podcasts as I run. I read while walking and, no, I do not bump into things. A book is a great companion for my commute. So, I keep my mouth shut. Except when I write snarky blog posts that he reads 5 minutes later from his email.