"What level do you want to achieve with your Spanish?"
When Spanish students are asked this question, almost invariably the response is "to become fluent" (or something similar). Our own website (Get Fluent Spanish) even bears this name to identify ourselves with that greatly sought after denomination of proficiency in a language. It seems to just sort of summarize the "end goal" of all the hard work of learning a language.
But what does "fluency" even mean?
Definitions of fluency vary, but the one that we most identify with is focused on 3 primary attributes:
What this basically means is that you can speak naturally with native speakers about pretty much anything without the language getting in the way at all. It's that coveted quality of effortless coolness of finally being able to just connect with people in their own language without relying on yours at all!
This definition of fluency represents an ambitious goal for language learners, and you're not going to get there without a lot of time and hard work! It is, however, very important to remember that fluency is more of a process than a definite end-goal. The journey towards fluency itself is very rewarding, and down below we've given you 10 tips to help you in your own quest!
How do you even say "to become fluent" in Spanish?
Finding a proper translation for this expression is actually a common difficulty for Spanish students! Many people will try very literal translations like "convertirse en fluido", but the most natural way to say this in Spanish is "adquirir fluidez" or "obtener fluidez". "Convertirse en fluido" is definitely not correct ;).
Some sounds in Spanish differ from their equivalents in English, take the letters “d” and “r” as examples. Practicing all these difficult sounds constantly will help you transition between syllables and words faster and efficiently.
Take into account that Spanish is considered to be the second fastest spoken language in the world, so it’s necessary that you challenge yourself as much as possible by doing exercises where you have to link words through their vowel sounds just as we do so you won’t get stuck or sound like a robot while speaking.
A routine for learning or improving at a language has a lot in common with working out to get stronger, and proper pronunciation is literally a muscular process, so practicing this every day will pay dividends in the development of your accent and fluidity.
Check out our post How to improve your Spanish listening comprehension where we talk a bit about how to work on your speaking speed, and how it relates to listening.
Memorizing words can be challenging, but there are several ways to accelerate this process. One of them is by using the new vocabulary in sentences providing some context, preferably a context you are interested in so you won’t forget it.
Another way, also very important, is using your new vocabulary as soon as possible. Keep a word or an expression in mind so as to use it as soon as you get a chance, if possible, the same day you learned it. We remember one of our students who used to write down the new vocabulary he learned in class on his forearm so he’d make sure to use it during the day. We’re not saying you have to walk around with your arm full of Spanish sentences, this is just an example, the important thing is not to wait too long before you add new words to your conversations.
Most students complain about being able to speak fluently about two or three topics but being unable to do the same with more specific subjects. If you feel this way, we can give some suggestions to start identifying and filling up those gaps.
First, set one topic you know is hard for you and try to talk about it in private or in front of your Spanish tutor. This will allow you to identify the phrases or words your missing to be able to speak about this particular topic fluently.
You can also think about ordinary life situations that might occur to you, such as having a flat tire: how do you say that in Spanish? If you go to the hair salon how would you say you need your hair trimmed? How do you talk with the people at the bank? Thinking about these situations regularly will help you find more conceptual gaps.
You can also try to talk about a movie with a complex plot to see how much you’re able to say fluently. The first time you try this you'll be surprised how much vocabulary you're missing!
After you’ve identified those concepts, phrases, or vocabulary you don’t know, look them up in a dictionary or ask your Spanish tutor or a Spanish speaking friend about them, and start filling up the gaps. After you’ve learned your new vocabulary, try to repeat your story again. You’ll see how much easier it’d be for you to speak about every topic you want to improve.
If you don’t know how to say something, try to explain it directly in Spanish, not with English translations. Try to imagine the person you’re talking to doesn’t understand a word in your language and find the words to make them understand. We know it’s hard, but it’s good training for your fluency.
You can train yourself at home by choosing any word like "ventilador" and try to define it without using English. Then you can try to explain it to a Spanish speaker and see if he/she understands what you’re describing.
Thinking constantly in Spanish will also help you improve your fluency. If you’re planning your day, do it in Spanish. If you’re cooking, describe every part of the process in your mind, or out loud. If you’re getting ready to go out, talk about what you’re doing while doing it. For maximum improvement, write down everything you are trying to say in Spanish but can't and later look up the translation, make a flashcard and keep reviewing it until it's memorized!
When talking to a Spanish speaker, pay attention and ask him/her for those sentences or words you didn’t catch, and as we said before, try to use them as soon as possible. Learning from the real world is probably the most effective way to reach fluency, and also to learn how to speak naturally without sounding like a grammar book with words that almost no one would say.
If you listen to a sentence or word that you find interesting and you want to adopt it, you can try to imitate the tone and manner of the person who told it. It’ll be helpful to rehearse specific dialogues you find online or ones you write on your own. You can practice them with a friend or with your Spanish tutor. Imitate their real life way of talking; after all, when you learn a new language you must also adapt your own personality to the one who speaks that language. Embrace your inner Latino!
This is something many people don’t worry about, but imitating gestures and fillers will help you feel more comfortable and you’ll express yourself more naturally and fluently. For instance, in Spanish when trying to remember something, we don’t say “umm”, instead we say “eeh” or “este”. We also make specific sounds to refuse or accept something. Do you know what those sounds are? Do you know how we say “kind of” with our hands? If you do, it’s time to include them in your conversations.
Every language has its own verbs and expressions that come from its own cultural references. For example, if a person says in English “I’ll be back”, everyone will know it’s kind of a joke because it comes from a very popular movie, so the common reaction would be laughing.
In Spanish there are plenty of these cultural references, for instance, many people apologize saying “fue sin querer queriendo”, which it’s a phrase from one of the most popular sitcoms in Latin America, El chavo del 8. Given the fact that this sentence doesn’t make a lot of sense, you’ll probably miss the joke and the meaning of it, but if you connect with culture: music, traditions, popular tv shows, etc., not only will you understand what Spanish speakers mean by certain words and expressions, but you’ll also feel comfortable enough to make your own references. It’ll be a major boost to your fluency!
It's very important to take into account that no one is fluent 100% of the time in all places, with all people, situations and topics, even in their own language!
For instance, many Spanish speakers find it very difficult to understand and communicate fluently when we visit other Spanish speaking countries, either because they have a different vocabulary or because of their accent.
No one can be fluent in every topic either, for instance, it’s very unlikely most of us can speak fluently about quantum physics if that's not our specialty.
So, relax. There’s nothing wrong if you can’t speak about every topic with complete fluency. That doesn’t invalidate your progress or the fluency you’ve achieved speaking about other topics. It’s important to do your best, but it’s also important to enjoy the ride.
Also, be sure to check out our conversational podcast to listen to Michael, who learned Spanish, and Andrea, who learned English, talk about how they reached fluency in their languages and how to achieve this yourself!