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In theory speaking any language seems pretty simple.
You learn new words, then use them in a sentence. What could go wrong?
The truth is... a lot of things.
How to start speaking Spanish and get unstuck
You see-- Most people learning a language (like Spanish) get STUCK. There's just so much to learn, and in the heat of a conversation all the grammar, conjugations, and vocabulary go out the window.
From absolute beginners to 2-3 year students everyone struggles with making the jump from studying to real life speech.
It feels like there is always a gap between what you know and what you say.
Because of this gap most Spanish learners tell themselves, "I'm not ready, I just need to study a little more before I can speak...".
A week goes by, a month, then a year...
Even with hours of memorizing, verb drills, and sentence writing they still can't have a basic conversation.
And like we said before, they feel stuck.
..........So how do you make your Spanish stick? That is, how do you learn it in a way that you can use it in real life conversations?
How do you take the leap and get unstuck?
Cheating your way through Spanish
Here's a language learning hack I picked up from Benny Lewis the Irish Polyglot and his approach to language hacking; and what's great is that it can be used for learning any language not just Spanish!
And get this...it works even if you haven't studied Spanish before.
This way of "cheating" is best used during a one on one practice session with a native speaker, either in person or online via language lessons or exchanges.
That being said, let's dive in and start cheating our way through Spanish!
The Tools & The Method
To survive your next Spanish conversation you will need three tools: a couple personal phrase lists, an online translator, and a Spanish-English dictionary.
Some of these tools seems like a no brainer, but it is the method you use along with the combination of all three that really produces results.
The 3 Essential Tools for Cheating Your Way Through Any Conversation
1) Phrase lists
2) Online translator
3) Spanish-English Dictionary
Your own personal cheat sheet to use during a conversation.
For when your language partner says something you don't understand.
For when you don't know or can't remember a specific word.
1) Build a list of key phrases
The first step is to make two lists of key phrases to help guide you through your first Spanish conversation. You can write them on paper or in a word processor on your computer.
Conversation specific list
The first list will be one that is specific to the conversation you want to have.
If you are preparing for your first ever conversation in Spanish then expressions like "Hello, nice to meet you, what's your name, and where are you from?" are great places to start.
Basic Spanish Phrases
What is your name?
My name is..
How are you?
Where are you from?
Where do you live?
I live in...
How old are you?
I am .... years old
I am a (occupation)
¿Cómo te llamas?
¿De dónde eres?
¿Cuántos años tienes?
Tengo ... años
If you already have the basic phrases down then you can try making a list of questions or sentences that center around a specific aspect of Spanish that you need to practice such as speaking the past tense or talking about your job.
The idea is that you can use this list as a sort of conversation "script" while you are speaking so you don't get stuck. Think of the list as your "Spanish training wheels".
The second list should contain some troubleshooting phrases for when the other person says something you don't understand.
Things like "Could you repeat that?, speak slower please, and can you write it?" are great to have for when the need arises.
Phrases for Troubleshooting
I don't understand
Could you please repeat that?
Could you please speak more slowly?
Could you please write it down?
How do you write...?
How do you say...?
What is the meaning of...?
Please explain it
No lo entiendo
¿Puedes repetirlo por favor?
¿Puedes hablar más despacio por favor?
¿Puedes escribirlo por favor?
¿Cómo se escribe..?
¿Cómo se dice...?
¿Cuál es el significado de...?
Por favor, expliquelo
Using your lists
While it is definitely a good idea to go over your lists a few times before your first conversation, it is important to remember that you don't have to memorize the list (Remember this is a guide for cheating)
You only need to familiarize yourself with them. Remember, you will be able to refer to them during your conversation.
2) A web based translator
The next tool you will need will be an online translator.
You will use the translator when the other person says something you don't understand and can't figure out.
Simply ask them it type it out, then you can put it in the translator and figure out the gist of what they are saying.
Online translators are notorious for not always translating things 100% accurately. But for our purposes they will do just fine. The fact that their translations are usually off a bit can actually help in the learning process.
The figuring out part is what can help you remember the context and use of an unfamiliar word.
Going through the experience of having to solve the puzzle of what someone else is saying will make it much easier to remember the new word or phrase in the future.
Which translator to use
There are quite a few online translators out there and none of them are perfect. I usually use Google translate.
3) A Spanish to English dictionary
The third and final tool you will need will be a Spanish to English dictionary.
You can either use an actual physical book or open an online one in a new tab. I typically use SpanishDict.
You will use the dictionary when you are speaking to the other person and you either can't remember a specific word or don't know it at all.
A good dictionary will give you definitions and some example uses of a word, whereas a translator will have less contextual information.
You can also use Spanishdict as a translator, it just works a little slower than Google translate.
The combination of these three tools will help you keep a conversation flowing in Spanish, even if you are brand new to the language.
You never have to worry about getting "stuck" because you will have the answers, or at least some really good hints, right there in front of you.
As you meet new people in language exchanges you will notice that most of the phrases and words you used with one person will be used again with another.
After practicing with a native speaker 2-3 times a basic conversation will begin to feel very predictable, and you will find yourself saying the same thing over and over, which is great!
You will be surprised at how quickly you will be able to hold a basic Spanish conversation for 10-15 minutes if you use this method.
Pretty soon you won't need a cheat sheet anymore and it will feel more natural.
You can then use the same technique to talk a little longer and add some new phrases to your cheat sheet.
From there you can rinse and repeat, changing your cheat sheet by adding words you're uncomfortable with and taking out the ones you know well.
You might amaze yourself at how fast you can start speaking Spanish!
See it in action
As I said before these tips are largely borrowed from Benny Lewis and his approach to language learning.
Here's a video he made of himself using these principles for his first try at speaking Polish after only an hour of studying.
Note that Polish is a language that is usually much harder for English speakers to learn than Spanish.
Now Benny does have some distinct advantages over us average language learners.
He's already learned over 10 languages and some of them share similar grammar or phonetics. Your average English speaker wouldn't have this edge.
But the same principle applies whether you're an expert or a newbie, and it's a great example of how you can use basic words and speech to start communicating in Spanish right away.
Still not convinced? Thousands of people have used Benny's approach which focuses on speaking right away, to learn languages.
There's thousands of learners who have become "unstuck" and taken the jump into clumsy speech (you gotta start somewhere).
One cool thing Benny does is ask new language learners to record a video of themselves speaking some basic phrases in their target language and then upload the video to Youtube to get feedback.
If they can do it then so can you.
So it doesn't matter your age or whether you can already speak multiple languages. You can use these tips to start speaking Spanish right away!