You’re trying to learn how to speak Spanish. You diligently review new Spanish words every day via that magic app everyone’s talking about, you took two college-level courses, and you listen to Spanish news and podcasts. You’ve invested hundreds of dollars and hours of your time.
Then someone asks you a question in Spanish.
You freeze…you can’t think of what to say…you start to panic…
You’re certainly not alone. Speaking is the number one thing that most language learners struggle with. And if you’re getting frustrated with how long it takes to learn Spanish, speaking is also the fastest way to improve.
The typical advice you’ll hear is: “Just get out there and SPEAK!”
But if you’re an introverted language learner, or you don’t have much confidence in your speaking ability, it’s not that simple. If it were, then wouldn’t we all be doing it?
Why speaking is so hard
There is a part of the human brain whose sole function is to ensure our survival. It’s commonly called the “lizard” brain because it hasn’t changed in over 100 million years, since the time of the dinosaurs.
The lizard brain pumps you full of fear whenever you get out of your comfort zone. It does this to protect you from predators, the elements, or even embarrassment.
Back in the Paleolithic age, social embarrassment had pretty serious consequences. Humans lived in small tribes of only 20-25 members. Saying something wrong could mean having your head smashed in, or being shunned by all of the available mating partners in the tribe, effectively removing you from the gene pool.
Although there are virtually no such consequences in today’s society, your brain is still wired the same way.
So no wonder it can be scary to speak a new language. After all, it’s an activity where you are bound to make mistakes and probably look a little foolish in the process.
However, here are 8 super effective tricks that you can use to your advantage:
Write it down
One of the first things you should do when learning how to speak Spanish is to take a notebook and write down the essential phrases that you’ll be using a lot. As an alternative, you could also write them down in the form of flash cards.
Start off with basic information like who you are, where you are from, and what your job or hobbies are.
Next, move on to more specific phrases. Everyone has different reasons for learning how to speak Spanish, so it makes perfect sense to focus on the Spanish words and phrases that are most relevant to you.
For example, a traveler who wants to speak Spanish during their trip will need to know:
- “¿A qué hora llega el tren?” (When does the train arrive?)
- “¿Me puedes sacar una foto por favor?” (Could you please take a photo of me?)
On the other hand, a nurse who needs to speak Spanish with her patients will want to know:
- “¿Usted podría arremangarse por favor?” (Could you please roll up your sleeve?)
- “No te preocupes, esto solo dolerá un poco.” (Don’t worry, this will only hurt a bit.)
So whether its travel phrases or medical terminology, tracking them in your own notebook will help you remember what to say, and will ease the nerves of saying them in Spanish.
You could also go ahead and buy a phrasebook, but chances are that it will include many words and phrases that you will never use.
Creating your own phrasebook is a much better option because the process of writing things down yourself will help you commit them to memory.
Rehearse with yourself
If you know that you might have to speak Spanish on a particular day, you can prepare ahead of time.
Let’s say you’re headed to your favourite Mexican restaurant. On the way, you can visualize what a conversation with the owner might be like.
Try talking to yourself as if you are really standing in front of him. By the time you get there, you should have a few well-rehearsed lines that you can use. For example:
- You: “¿Hola José, cómo estás?” (Hey Jose, how are you?)
- Jose: “¿Muy bien, y tú?” (Very well, and you?)
- You: “Estoy bien.” (I’m good.)
Ok, that was easy. But what now?
You need to take control of the conversation and steer it in a direction where you’ve already prepared a response.
- You: “¿Hoy hace mucho calor, no?” (It’s hot today isn’t it?)
- Jose: “Sí, pero no es nada comparado con México” (Yeah, but it’s nothing compared to Mexico)
- You: “Oh, me derretiría allí” (Oh, I would melt over there)
Maybe you had to look up the Spanish verb for “melt” in Google Translate ahead of time, but that’s OK. At the end of the day, there’s only so many ways that a conversation about the weather is going to go, and you can pretty easily come up with a few canned phrases that you can use.
It’s certainly not possible to create a script for an entire conversation since so much of it depends on what the other person says.
Of course, you could continue to take the initiative and move the conversation towards topics that you’re more comfortable talking about. But even if the conversation eventually goes off into uncharted territory where you find yourself struggling a bit, overall it can be considered a success.
Having rehearsed the first few sentences of an interaction can be a huge confidence booster. Generally, the hardest part of speaking Spanish is simply getting started. Once you’ve begun a conversation, it’s much easier to keep it going.
And don’t worry…just because you talk to yourself, it doesn’t mean you’re crazy.
The 5-second rule
No, this has nothing to do with dropping a slice of pizza on the floor.
Let’s say you’re at a coffee shop and at another table are a few women speaking in Spanish. You overhear that they need to go meet their friends but they aren’t sure where the nearest metro station is.
Isn’t this the PERFECT moment to step in, help them out and practice speaking Spanish at the same time?
“Oh, Hell No!” says your lizard brain.
- “What if you misunderstood what they want?”
- “What if your pronunciation is so bad that they can’t understand you?”
- “What if they can tell you’re not fluent and switch to ENGLISH?”
By the time you’ve contemplated all of these “What Ifs”, they’ve already gotten up and left. The moment has passed you by.
People who learn Spanish quickly are those who routinely embrace these opportunities to practice. But many of us would hesitate in these situations due to shyness or a lack of confidence in our abilities.
That’s where the 5-second rule comes in.
In her bestselling book on this subject, author Mel Robbins writes:
“Anytime there’s something you know you should do, but you feel uncertain, afraid, or overwhelmed…just take control by counting backwards 5- 4- 3- 2- 1. That’ll quiet your mind. Then, move when you get to 1.”
When you hesitate, you are triggering a mental process that’s designed to stop you. So the simple solution here is to take action before your brain has a chance to talk you out of it.
It’ll probably take some time to train yourself to use this rule, but once you get used to it, it can really help you come out of your shell and make learning how to speak Spanish easier.
Use conversational crutches
In English, we use a lot of filler words every day, because ummm…well, ya know…it’s like, how people talk. We’ve always been taught that filler words are bad and that overusing them can make us sound like a valley girl, but some research shows that the occasional filler word can make people seem more conscientious.
In Spanish, filler words are known as “muletillas” (little crutches), and there are two main ways that using them can actually improve how you speak Spanish.
First of all, they make you sound more natural. When you listen to native Spanish speakers, you’ll notice that they use filler words A LOT. Learning these words will allow you to speak more fluidly, but they’ll also help you understand native speakers more easily.
Secondly, they can buy you an extra second or two to think of what to say. As a beginner, it’s sometimes nerve-wracking to have to pause for a second and frantically try to come up with the right words during an awkward silence.
In order to fill a gap between sentences, you could use a long, drawn-out filler word (welllllll…) that allows your brain to play catch-up.
- Pues / Bueno (Well…)
- A ver (Let’s see…)
- Creo que (I think that…)
- Entonces / Asi que (So…)
- Es que (It’s just that…)
- ¿Sabes? (You know?)
- O sea (I mean…)
- Es como (It’s like…)
Remember these words, and use them as you would the English equivalent. Soon enough you’ll be saying them without even thinking about it!
Make recordings of yourself
A lot of people are very self-conscious about their accent when learning how to speak Spanish. But the problem is, they don’t even know how they really sound!
Normally when you’re speaking Spanish, you’re busy trying to think of the right thing to say, and paying close attention to the other person requires a lot of concentration.
With all of this going on at the same time, it’s not really possible to monitor how well you are pronouncing your words. People are generally horrible multitaskers.
So without knowing for sure how you really sound, your mind may automatically assume the worst.
“Oh god, my accent is terrible.”
“I must sound like a drunken sailor.”
These thoughts can compound your insecurities and make it even harder to speak Spanish.
That’s why it can be extremely helpful to record yourself with your phone or on your computer (try Vocaroo), and then listen back to the recording.
See if you can spot any glaring errors, compare it to recordings of native speakers on Forvo, and if you’re working with a Spanish teacher, send the recording to them to get their feedback.
Sometimes, we are our own biggest critic and cringe at the idea of listening to ourselves. But if you can get used to this, it can drastically improve your pronunciation and you may find it a whole lot less scary to speak in front of other people.
Sing like a bird
How real Spanish is spoken may sound quite different from the Spanish that you learn from resources dedicated to beginners (ex. audio courses).
That’s because native Spanish speakers tend to blend words together, cut them short, and change the pitch according to the natural rhythm of the language.
All of this is captured perfectly in music.
When learning how to speak Spanish, you should listen to Spanish songs, and follow along with the lyrics while trying to sing and mimic what you hear.
By belting out the lyrics to a song when nobody is around, it helps you:
- Get used to the idea of speaking / singing out loud
- Loosen up your tongue and lips so you can produce sounds “like a native”
- Recognize sound patterns and frequently used expressions
The key here is that you MUST sing out loud. You may be tempted to just sit there and listen, but you won’t get any of the benefits if you’re not actively singing.
Singing can help build your confidence so that you’ll have an easier time speaking, but note that this is by NO MEANS a replacement for conversational practice with real people.
It can be pretty overwhelming to speak Spanish in a group of people, especially if they’re native speakers whose words come out like machinegun fire. In this situation you hardly have any time to process what is being said, much less come up with a half-decent response.
For someone who’s just starting to learn how to speak Spanish, it’s much better to practice one-on-one with a conversation partner.
This could be someone you know, someone you find on a language exchange, or a Spanish teacher.
Ideally, the person that you practice with should:
- Be patient and supportive
- Encourage you to speak by asking questions
- Correct your mistakes
- Explain the differences between English and Spanish grammar
A Spanish teacher checks all of these boxes. When you practice with a teacher, you no longer feel like you are being judged. You won’t feel guilty for burdening them with your slow responses and questionable pronunciation. As a result, you’ll be more at ease and be more willing to speak in Spanish.
At Verbalicity, our teachers are used to dealing with shy students, and will gently guide you through conversations to build your confidence and speaking skills.
Another tip is to stick with the same speaking partner for at least a few months. The better you get to know someone, the more comfortable you are speaking with them. You’ll get to talk about a variety of topics, as opposed to constantly meeting new people and going through the same introductions and questions over and over again.
You could even become good friends with your conversation partner or teacher, and that in itself becomes another source of motivation to continue learning Spanish.
The biggest part of learning how to speak Spanish is to actually go out there and speak.
Many people can’t bring themselves to do this because:
- They are afraid of making embarrassing mistakes; or
- They are perfectionists who associate mistakes with failure
But do you know what happens when you make a mistake?
The person you’re talking to will point it out to you, you’ll remember not to say it again, and you might even laugh about it together.
Nobody will laugh AT you (if they do then they’re scumbags that aren’t worth your time). People know that what you’re doing takes courage. They respect and appreciate the fact that you’re trying.
Mistakes are only embarrassing if you yourself make them out to be a big deal. Don’t freak out, just smile and move forward.
Some people don’t realize that trying to speak slowly and perfectly is holding them back. Making mistakes is a sign of progress. From an early age we’re taught that making mistakes means that you’re failing, but when it comes to speaking Spanish or any other language, it’s the exact opposite.
Embrace making mistakes, because that’s how you’re going to become fluent.
If you want to learn how to speak Spanish effortlessly, follow these tips and tricks:
Write it down – Keep a notebook of phrases that are relevant to you, review them to commit them to memory.
Rehearse with yourself – Visualize potential conversations ahead of time and prepare some responses to help ease your nerves.
The 5-second rule – When faced with an opportunity to speak, take action before your brain talks you out of it.
Use conversational crutches – Take advantage of filler words that make you sound more fluent and buys you more time to think.
Make recordings of yourself – Listen to yourself speak in order to improve your pronunciation so that you’ll stop feeling self-conscious about it.
Sing like a bird – Follow along to music and sing out loud to gain confidence and get used to the natural rhythm of Spanish.
Practice one-on-one – Speak with a Spanish teacher or conversation partner to build your confidence.
Accept mistakes – Recognize that mistakes aren’t a big deal, and making them is the only way to improve.