Beach Books


The list of ‘beach books’ is already out and the weather isn’t the only thing that’s steamy. What is your reading pleasure this summer? In this case, what are you reading for pleasure – in Spanish?

Am I kidding? No. For most of us short of native speaker fluency, the idea of pleasure reading in Spanish sounds like an oxymoron – hard work! True. So – why am I writing about this?

I’m writing about it because when reading is a pleasure you learn deeper and faster. Reading doesn’t become a pleasure until you learn to read well.  I learned to read in grade school with the ‘Dick, Jane, and Sally’ stories. At some point – I must have been eight or nine – I began reading other things because I enjoyed the stories. I read for pleasure.

Think about how much of your adult reading serves only a functional or transactional purpose. You read to accomplish something else. You read road signs, repair manuals, newspapers, and office memos. Any pleasure you derive from this kind of reading is purely secondary. It is not the reading itself that pleases you but reading provide traffic directions, how to operate a dishwasher, your major league team’s standing in the Central Division, or word you just received a promotion.

Reading for pleasure is simply that. It is reading for the sake of reading because doing so gives you immense pleasure, it feeds your spirit. In pleasure reading, you lose yourself in a world of imagination and find yourself in an imaginary world. You learn about and through the experiences of others in ways that illuminate and animate your own. Why limit yourself to only one language?

If you are new to Spanish language literature, reading for pleasure will seem daunting – far more work than pleasure. Summers are short enough, why load up with ‘homework?’ Just as you learned to read for pleasure as a child, be your younger self again and rediscover yourself in a Never-never-land of Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, or Spain through the words and phrases of the original language. Why the original? Wouldn’t it be better to simply by an English translation, or open a popular English book translated into Spanish. No. Please don’t.

Some of the ‘juice’ in a story may be lost in translation. Turning a Spanish story into English is an art, not a science. Writers work within their culture and use emotional urgency to animate their work and connect with readers. They choose words and phrases to resonate with their readers through shared connections and experiences. Words trigger memories of times and places that move you, transform you. The cultural context of time and place make the figures of speech powerful. A translation is only as good as the translator’s sense of language and sensibility. Translating a work to replicate faithfully an author’s sensibility can be difficult. Something gets lost in translation.

What to do? Dual language anthologies are a good place to start your summer reading . Short stories offer excellent literature brief enough to read in a day. Sometimes, finishing a story is its own satisfaction. An anthology offers you a variety of authors, stories, and styles; and these often span the culture across time. Ready for summer reading in Spanish?

I like the dual language short story anthologies published by Dover and Penguin books. The stories will introduce you to Spanish and Latin American literature with short author biographies – in English – and story introductions to give you the historical, social, and political context in which the author wrote. Both series print the stories in Spanish on one page and the English translation on the facing page. You can go at reading them by one of several ways.

You can start reading the story in Spanish and glance at the English translation when you don’t understand a word or phrase. Another way is to read the story through in Spanish, read it in English for clarification, and then re-read it in Spanish.

Personally, I prefer to read the story in English to understand the author’s narrative arc – the big picture. Then I cover the translation with a piece of paper and read it in Spanish, using the story’s context to lead me to an understanding of new vocabulary. If I’m stumped, I underline words or phrases and look them up later. I like this approach because the overview gives me a sense of direction but covering the translation keeps my mind immersed in Spanish, and working through and absorbing unfamiliar vocabulary.

If you are ready to try, consider any of the following resources :

John King, ed., Short Stories in Spanish (Penguin), a collection of short stories by modern writers drawn from the ‘boom’ period of Latin American literature (1950s and 60s), including pieces by Isabel Allende, Gabriel García Márquez, and Carlos Fuentes. The editor arranged the stories in order of difficulty, beginning with the easiest.

Stanley Applebaum, ed., Mexican Short Stories/Cuentos mexicanos (Dover), a collection of Mexican stories written between 1840 and 1920 and reflect literary romanticism and modernism. The volume includes author biographies, historical, and social notes.

Angel Flores, ed., Spanish Short Stories/Cuentos españoles (Dover), offers a wide range of Spanish language literature from Spain and Latin America. Stories range from the 1300s to the 1950s. Stories from Spain focus on the struggles of daily life, values, and behavior. Latin American writers use prose as a weapon to attack corruption and despotic rulers.

Anna E. Hiller, ed., Great Spanish and Latin American Short Stories of the 20th Century (Dover), includes a wide range of writers from Uruguay, Argentina, Spain, and Ecuador. Both Spain and Latin America produced prolific writers perhaps because the cultures experienced great political upheaval and social changes with issues of class, race, and power.

If you interest goes to biography or memoir, try Francisco Jiménez, Cajas de Cartón (Cardboard Boxes), a memoir of his boyhood as a migrant Mexican child in California, and its sequel, Senderos Fronterizos (Border Trails) about his education. Written simply and directly, they provide a richly detailed picture of the family’s struggles in the late 1940s and 50s. You will emerge from the books with a deeper sense of the past and current realities of undocumented immigrants and their drive to find a better life.

If your interest goes to current events, try Jorge Ramos. This well-known journalist, writer, and Univision commentator writes clearly and simply. La otra cara de America (America’s Other Face) includes stories of Latin American immigrants in the United States, and La ola Latina (The Latin Wave) explores the impact of Latinos on American politics.

My ‘beach books’ for this summer include La muerte es un sueño (Death is a Dream), 15 short stories by writers from Puebla, and the novella, El coronel no tiene quien le escribe (No One Writes to the Colonel) by Gabriel García Márquez.

So, wherever you spend your summer vacation, take some time by the pool, the beach, or the lake, sit back and lose yourself in a short story that suspends reality long enough to transport you to another time and place. ¡Vale la pena!







Home Sweet Homestay – living and loving the language


OAXACA, Mexico

Many Spanish immersion programs offer a “homestay.” It’s a real-world setting for using and learning language.  Is that something a middle-aged adult really needs to do?  I mean, after college, aren’t we too old be living with strangers? Isn’t that going to cramp our adult freedom?  Wouldn’t it be better to rent an apartment, maybe with a friend or spouse?

If your answer is “Yes,” please keep reading and consider my experience.

Hosts are more than you imagine them to be …

Getting off the Estrella Roja coach in Puebla for my first immersion, I know little except I will live with a family named Gutierrez. Of course, I speculated about what they would be like.  By the time I reach Puebla, I have a clear, imaginary picture of them.  But Julian and Lupita Gutierrez are not as I imagined.

My first impression is I’m having a homestay in a nursing home.  Julian is at least 80 and Lupita is in her mid-sixties.  He has a shock of white hair; hers is still naturally dark, with long eyelashes to match.  Julian and Lupita are nothing like the multi-generational family I imaged.  I’m afraid we won’t have much in common. But I’m wrong!

Their house is small by U.S. standards, but comfortable; their bookshelves are jammed with titles covering a range of interests; and souvenir plates from their travels cover the dining room wall.  My room is more than I expected: a double bed, desk, dresser, and built in closet as well as a private bathroom.  It’s everything I need.

I rise early the first morning, a Sunday. Julian steps out of the kitchen to offer me a mug of fresh coffee flavored with cinnamon.  “From now on, we speak only Spanish,” he tells me in English.  It’s one of the Institute’s rules.   I’m okay with that.  I came to learn.  And then he asks if I want to attend early Mass with them.  I say “yes” because I’m committed to saying “yes” every language and cultural opportunity.  And after Mass he invites me to go to with him to a friend’s ranchito for a party.  Again I say “yes.”

Hebert and Socorro host the party and don’t speak English. Neither do any of the other 25 or 30 guests. Julian introduces me to people whose names I immediately forget. Then he settles me into a conversation with Hebert’s son, an attorney.  Seeing that I’m “dog-paddling” in a conversation, he leaves me alone.  At first I feel anxious; later see it was shrewd on his part.

Over bottles of Corona beer, I chat as best I can with the young attorney.  Although I went to Mexico with some vocabulary and basic grammar, I couldn’t mold it into a real sentence.  But the attorney is patient and kind; he nods and encourages me. Slowly, thanks to his affirmation, I gain enough confidence to push my boundaries in Spanish.  By day’s end, I’m exhausted but elated. I’ve been in conversations for nearly seven hours!

I suppose our proximity in ages and life experiences started my rapport with them.  We are, at most fifteen years apart in age and we’ve already lived a lot of the ups and downs that life dishes out.  In less than two days, we act as if we’ve known each other a long time.   I feel settled, without the uncertainty of being with strangers.

Homestay is more than room and board …

They give me more than room and board. Lupita corrects my words and makes it her mission to improve my accent.  “Say fácil,” she says at breakfast.  It’s more like an order than a request.  Fácil means “easy” and is accented: FÁH-sil.

I try to copy her accent but it comes out “fa-SIL,” and “fassil” and “FUH-sal.”

“No.  FÁH-sil.”

And so it goes, back and forth for a week until I get it; until fácil is fácil.  While Lupita works on my diction, Julian guides me through some of the cultural norms.  

Buen provecho! he says as I sit down the dinner.  It means roughly the same as bon appetit.  “We say that at every meal,” he explains, “and we say it to strangers in a restaurant.  It’s impolite to ignore those who are eating.”  This is a revelation!  In Minnesota, we give people their space and this would be an intrusion. But in the more extroverted culture of Mexico, it is rude to ignore people.  This is only the beginning of lessons in language and culture.

Very gently and casually, they take me under their wing and teach me without appearing to teach me at all.  Like a child, I learn by imitating what they do.  Its’ easy. And they do this when I lived with them during four of the five immersions.

A network of lasting friends is possible …

Eduardo and Lorena live next door to Julian and sometimes board students.  He is a businessman, she volunteers at a nursing home, and their children are grown.  Eduardo and I are the same age and on Sunday afternoon, during an outing, he and I climb through cactus and mesquite to the top of a butte. Our friendship grows out of that adventure.  On my next visit, they take me to the indigenous town of Cauhuatinchan to explore an ex-convento dating from the 1500s.  A couple years later, after immersion, when I work voluntarily in Puebla, he invites my wife and me to stay with them instead of a hotel.

Hebert is a doctor, an anesthetist, about my age.  He and Socorro live in the city but own the ranchito in the country.  They are a couple of expansive generosity and we become friends almost instantly.  One year, I spend the Cinco de Mayo holiday with them, sitting in their arbor and talking for seven hours! At other times, I visit the ranchito, or they take me to their social events.

Besides friends who are contemporaries, my network includes former teachers with whom I correspond regularly, conversation guides, and some of their family and friends who make up my social circle in Puebla. A homestay is an efficient way to build a network of friends.  Once I acquired a network of friends, the city no longer seemed foreign but familiar. I no longer felt like a visitor, but a resident.  That’s how I feel in Puebla; like I belong there.  An emotional connection to people anchors me to the city.

Home Sweet Homestay 

A homestay adds a special dimension learning and living in Mexico. It’s a privilege to be an integral part of a family.  This is one of the joys of Spanish immersion.  And although I’m no longer a student, I seek out homestays instead of an apartment when I volunteer in Mexico.

Now I am living with Estela and Daniel in a Oaxacan family.  They are in their sixties, people of humble origins and means and not quite middle-class, although their grown children are.  I have my own room, the appointments are simple; the food is excellent and abundant.  So are laughter, conversation, and love among all members of the family – including me.

I have always learned more about how to talk and act from living with families than from classrooms.   Like a child at the dinner table, I’m still learning the language as it’s really spoken from people who use it daily.

Learning the language and learning to talk are different things.  I can learn the language as a body of knowledge yet be unable to really speak it.  But living in a family, I hear hijole! for “wow!”, orale for affirmation like “okay,” and esta en la onda for “to be with it.”  Something that is produced or grown around Oaxaca is criollo, and if you appreciate something, the phrase is, te pasas.   If you’re frustrated, you might say, no manchas.  A fool is called  a pendejo, or guage, and a small boy is a chamaco.   You won’t find these in regular dictionaries or, if you do, you won’t know how to use them, and when.

After seven years, I’ve come to regard Julian and Lupita as my Mexican padrino and madrina, or god-parents.  What began as a passing acquaintance has become familial love.  Their friends and neighbors are my part of my extended family, and I’m a part of theirs.  To be loved in your family is a divine gift; to be loved in another country, another culture, in another family, is an even greater gift.

Not getting your money’s worth … 

So, if you’re still thinking about an apartment, you may have more privacy and liberty to go as you please but at a price.  You’ll have fewer opportunities to learn day-to-day Spanish from native speakers.  And if you are living with a spouse or friend, you are less likely to speak to each other in Spanish.

If you skip the homestay and opt for an apartment, you have just cut your immersion experience by half. Said another way, you’re not getting your money’s worth because you’re getting only half the education you’re paying for.

So, weighing the two options, which is the better deal?

For me, there’s no place like homestay.




Spanish – getting it WRITE

OAXACA, Mexico

At the end of my first day of my first immersion at the Spanish Institute of Puebla, Claudia assigned “tarea” or homework: Write ten sentences in the “co-preterito” or past imperfect.  You know, the sentences that say “I used to do this,” or “I was doing this.”

Ten sentences in the imperfect!  That’s all?  Ten random sentences in the past perfect?  I can do that in twenty minutes! That’s not much of an assignment.  I expect something more for my fee!  So I set to make it something more and found a strategy that worked well for me – then and now.

The imperfect is ideal for narratives and description.  That evening, I hit on telling a story I might relate in a conversation.  Sitting at my small desk, I thought about a story of ten or a dozen lines.  It wasn’t anything serious, just an episode with a beginning, middle and end.   Then I picked the verbs I wanted for the imperfect and wrote them across the top of the page.

Then a decision:  Write the story in English and then translate or rewrite it in Spanish?  Or just plunge into Spanish and start writing?   Writing in English struck me as half-hearted – almost cheating – and self-defeating.  Writing in Spanish meant thinking in Spanish, and wasn’t that the point of immersion – to learn to think and speak in Spanish?

After two hours and a couple false starts, I finished a one-page story I was proud to hand in the next day.  Besides the ten sentences in the imperfect, the narrative needed a few in the present and future tenses.  I gave it to Claudia, she put on her glasses, and read it.   She said nothing, but looked at me with a question in her eyes, as if awaiting an explanation.

In halting Spanish, I said writing a story seemed like the best way to practice the imperfect in a context.  This seemed to me a good way to create a coherent relationship among the sentences was to write them the way I   would say them in a conversation.  This way I can get used to handling several verbs in shaping a story.

She smiled and nodded.  “Si,” she agreed.  Thereafter, I wrote essays, short stories, and opinion pieces every day during each of the five immersions.  As my Spanish improved over time, I  wrote longer stories, developed characters and plots, and gave them richer details and greater nuance.  My writings ranged over simple narratives, humor, short fiction, and political editorials.

The point of writing

But, you say, I don’t like to write.  All I want to do is learn to speak the language, not write it.  I understand.  Many of us find writing a chore, and sometimes it is.  None the less, we all know how to write – however poorly we do it.  Writing is a part of language; our capacity to write is integrally linked to our capacity to think, to feel, and to speak.   All of these functions work together in to create language.  Writing – however poorly done – can improve our fluency.

Don’t think you have to come up with the “Great Mexican Novel.”  Let’s be pragmatic.

Writing makes visible our speech, our thoughts or the fruits of our thought.  When we write, we can see our thoughts, we can save them, refine them, correct them, and return to them again and again.  If nothing else, our writing becomes a personal artifact of intellectual archaeology.  And as an artifact, your essay, opinion piece, letter, or short story in Spanish provides you and your teacher with a map of how our mind works with the language.  Don’t fret about the sophistication of what your write.  It’s not the story you tell that’s so important, it’s HOW you tell it.    

Writing saves our thoughts in a moment of time, a reference point in our development as Spanish speakers.  Why?  From essay to essay, our writings create benchmarks for measuring our progress toward fluency.  With our teacher, we can identify the chronic weak spots in our grammar, syntax, or conjugation (and we all have weak spots).  After a few essays, we can identify patterns: habitual errors, missed accents, failure to use the subjunctive in subordinate clauses, misplaced direct and indirect object pronouns, and more.  All of this information helps to set our priorities for improvement.  Through triage, if nothing else, we can tackle one problem at a time.  And a periodic comparison of essays will reveal the progress we are truly making. 

The method

Writing takes a little planning.  And planning makes our task easier.  Ah!  The question: What am I going to write about?

Pick something simple; maybe something simple you know how to do and describe that to an imaginary Spanish speaker.  Or write about an episode from childhood, or about your dog.  It doesn’t matter what the topic is as long as it’s something you like.  The more you like the topic, the easier it is to write about it.  But keep it simple so your mental energy goes into the language rather than the theme.

Think about how this story relates to and will be useful in working through the problem you have with a category of conjugation, a grammatical tense, or vocabulary.  It may be verbs in the conditional, indirect object pronouns, or “modismos” or colloquialisms.

Don’t try to cram two or three problem areas into one essay.  Use triage.  One problem area per essay.  As you review your work,

If you’re not a writer by nature, you may still feel stumped for a theme.  If you are, play this little game.  Select words from the category you are working with (let’s say it’s verbs) and write them across the top of the page.  Okay: Now you have verbs but they are unrelated.   Your task is to create a story line that puts these verbs into a logical relationship.  Think of them like the magnetic words on the refriderator door – words you can re-arrange to make different sentences.

Dollars to donuts, with a smidgen of imagination, the verbs will “suggest” the story line to you.  Words have friends, and as soon as you put down one word, that word invites another, and very soon they invite more words and you have a sentence.  Once that happens, the rest is easy.  Or easier.  The juxtaposition of verbs suggested possibilities I wouldn’t have thought of on my own.

Try this

No matter where you are in your pusuit of Spanish, try writing as a way to confront problems with grammar and syntax.  Take an aspect of vocabulary or grammar that is particularly difficult and make an assignment.  Think of a story or a dialogue between characters that will cause you to use the part of the language that is most difficult in the moment.  Put the key words at the top of the page and start writing.

Like physical exercise, the effort will strengthen and expand your capacity to use the tenses (say, the subjunctive), the indirect object pronouns, etc. with ease.  I’ve read that this kind of effort creates new neural pathways.  Maybe so.  I do know, however, the effort smooths out rough places in my Spanish.  Who knows, you may enjoy it!






Rainy day Spanish – when you’re all alone

OAXACA, Mexico.

As a farm boy, a rainy day meant staying indoors, freed from chores, with “nothing” to do but read books.  I fell in love with reading and rainy days.  If  you live in a desert, you can declare for yourself a ‘rainy day” and take up reading – in Spanish!  Here’s how it works:

Julita, a Mexican friend, arrived in Minnesota twenty-five years ago with two small children.  She didn’t speak English and neither did they.  Being an intelligent and determined woman, she supported her family by cleaning, and set about learning English on her own.   Her children are now adults and native speakers in both languages, and she talks as readily in one tongue as the other.  How did she do it?

She read to her children.  Not the simplest children’s books, but books with characters and plots.  Her favorite was the “Amerlia Bedelia” series.  These books revolve around literalness, figures of speech, and the humorous mishaps of Amelia.  But she told me – with a smile –  she read mostly for herself.

Like Julita, I stumbled upon the same strategy early in my Spanish studies.  Without forethought, I bought a memoir about growing up as an undocumented immigrant in the late 1940s.  The author is my contemporary in age and a university professor in California.  He wrote a simple narrative at a 9th grade level.  I caught the drift of the story, but not the color and details.  Those I looked up.  Unfamiliar words on the page revealed themselves when I sounded them out (as we did as grade-school children).  Soon, I read aloud, just under my breath, and the story took on greater depth and meaning.  Somehow, hearing the word as I read it increased my comprehension.

Although I’m fluent now, and sight-read Spanish, I continue to read aloud, particularly when I’m not in Mexico.  Reading aloud is a good strategy and I believe sharpens several language skills at the same time.

Imprinting the language:

1) I learn the words as I speak them.  This seems to imprint the words in my memory for pronunciation and meaning.  (There is research that combining learning with a physical act strengthens retention.)

2) Besides receiving the word visually, I hear it as well in my own voice.  Letters and sounds go together as a single action.  This makes it easier to recognize the word when I hear someone say it.

Physical training:

3) By reading aloud I practice the physical act of making the sounds.  Some sounds are not as easy to make as others, such as the rolled R – as in “perro,” or the sound of double L as in “llamar.”   Unlike English, Spanish articulates every vowel separately, and this isn’t always easy to do.  Reading aloud helps to train the muscles of my tongue to make the sounds it’s not accustomed to making.  Think of reading aloud as a “work-out” for your tongue muscles.


4) Reading aloud creates linkages between sight and sound with words commonly used phrases, such as “asi como” “antes de que,” and others that stitch together nouns and verbs.  When reading, we tend to see one word of phrase at a time.  But speaking is an almost unbroken flow of sounds.  Native speakers often fuse the sounds of words to the point non-native speakers can’t distinguish them.  (We do this in English, too:  “seeya later,” “doncha know”, etc.)  If we’re not attuned to the sounds as they link and fuse, we may quickly lose the thread of the conversation.  Reading aloud can help create and reinforce these links.


5) There is rhythm to the spoken word.  We all have a distinctive, individual rhythm speech that identifies us as surely as a photo.  We instantly recognize friend or family by their voice over the phone.  Reading aloud – but particularly if the book has dialogues – may help develop your particular rhythm, one that is natural to you.  Speaking naturally will improve your confidence as well as your fluency.

Try this:

If you already know even a little Spanish, buy a Spanish language book (children’s or young adult) that fits your level of fluency.  Then read aloud to yourself and listen to your voice.  You may not understand all the words the first time through.  In fact, I can almost guarantee you won’t, unless you bought a book below your level of experience.  But read slightly above your level, underline words you don’t understand, and continue reading.  You will likely re-read a paragraph or sentence; and when you do, check to see if the context tells you something about the underlined words.  If you have to look them up, do it later rather than break your rhythm and concentration.

I still do this as an exercise.  A friend recently gave me a book of Mexican short stories; the writing is literary, the plots are subtle, and some of the words escape me.   I often reread paragraphs, even whole pages, before I get it.  But it strengthens my vocabulary.  I carry this or other books with me and read while waiting to meet a friend.  I also have some bi-lingual anthologies of short stories, but I’m not convinced they’re as helpful.  To me, at least.   But that’s a personal preference.

Yesterday, I spent several hours in the Centro Cultural de Santo Domingo, Oaxaca, in the galleries of artifacts from the early period of Zapotec culture.  Besides the cards identifying the fetishes and funeral objects, there were panels explaining the background and details of the culture.  I read them aloud, just under my breath, my whispers floating down the empty hallways.  I read aloud as fast as my eyes could sweep over the words, and the comprehension was complete.  When I stopped reading aloud (because someone was close to me), my rate of comprehension slowed noticeably.  Why?  For all the reasons I’ve outlined above, I suppose.

To repeat something I’ve said before: language is more than words.  It is also a physical activity that engages our brain, our emotions, and the muscles of our mouths.  All must work together if we are communicate and understand the words of others, whether written or spoken.  I believe effective language learning requires careful attention to and training of these distinct parts of our being: mind, body, and soul.

To sum up:  Reading aloud is an easy but effective way to boost your language capacity.  It’s cheap.  You can do it anywhere, at any time, when you’re alone.  And who knows, you may look forward to rainy days.

Shifting focus – “feeling” the language

OAXACA, Mexico

Can you “feel” the language when you speak Spanish? That is, do you have a sense of emotional confidence?  The kind of confidence to meet whatever circumstance you’re in?  Being self-aware of our emotional state is a useful aid in gaining fluency.  With confidence,  our focus shifts away from thinking about the words and grammar to focusing on the content of what we want to say.  This is something that seems to come with practice.

Everyone learns in their own way, but some fellow students have had common experiences on the road to fluency.   These are moments to treasure, like hitting a homer with the bases loaded.  Let me share several of my high points.

At the end of a food bank consultancy in Guadalajara, Luz, the chief volunteer and President’s wife, took me to a food distribution. After introducing me to the local leaders with generous praise, she turned and looked directly at me.

Suddenly, I realized she expected a response.  I had to say something more than “Gracias.” And I wasn’t prepared! Or so I thought. Swallowing momentary panic, I began, by thanking Luz for her kind words. And then I forgot about the words and concentrated on what I felt, what I wanted them to know. Miraculously, the words poured out without conscious effort, without hemming or hawing. I couldn’t quite believe what I’d just done: A spontaneous speech.  I felt both joy and pride.

Immersion experiences, formal and informal, can give us the base of experience to “feel” the language. By feeling, I mean an unspoken, intuitive trust that the necessary words will come to us when we need them. Think of Nik Wallenda, who walked the cable between Chicago sky-scrapers.  He succeeded because he wasn’t  preoccupied with falling.  Like him, we’re more likely to speak well if we aren’t preoccupied with making mistakes.

Test this:  Deliberately let yourself be drawn into a Spanish conversation that enters territory not covered by lessons, or involves somewhat complex topics. Asking someone about their profession is a good way to do this. Chances are you’ll enter a vocabulary thicket without a map. It’s a good way to practice trusting your intuition to serve up the words you need at the right time.  The words might be English cognates for Spanish ones, but you can modify many with ease.  And if you don’t know, you can always ask: “Como se dice,” or how does one say ….? One way or another, you can find a “work around” as you describe the idea, situation, or action for which you don’t have the exact word.  Even a work-around is a good exercise in conversation.

In the beginning, speaking Spanish in a complex conversation made me nervous.  It was like the first date with a girl I really liked.  I felt insecure, socially awkward, and wished I hadn’t asked the girl out.   The first date is always the hardest, but if you can survive the first date, and overcome the fear of rejection, or humiliation at your own hands, who knows? You may soon “go steady.”

Here are some signs to look for as you progress in building confidence on the road to fluency.


Our minds rarely rest.  I remember waking from a dream in the middle of the night during my first immersion.  In stunned disbelief, I realized I had been dreaming in Spanish!  It happens to a lot of students. If it happens to you, trust it. It doesn’t mean you’re fluent, but it’s a sign you mind is absorbing the langauge at a an unconscious level.

Oblivious to the language you speak.

During my third week of immersion, I patiently answered a Mexican student’s interview questions for her English class project.  After the third question, the student’s companion stopped me and said: “Ingles, habla en ingles!  Tu hablas en espanol.”  That is, speak English, I was answering in Spanish and didn’t know it.  Again, I was flabbergasted that Spanish was becoming an unconscious “default” language.  What was happening to me?  Now I know.   And it’s happened several times since, in both languages. It’s another sign.

Catching mistakes before and after you make them.

Another sign of progress is catching yourself making or about to make a mistake. Relax. We all do it. Our brain moves faster than our tongue, our mind edits as we speak, and sometimes we change our mind, leaving our tongue still trying to conjugate verbs we’ve rejected on second thought.  We all do it in English, too.  Don’t criticize yourself for small mistakes. Perfectionism is a crippling disease. As a good yardstick, listen to how you speak English and note how often you make mistakes, or edits, or “uhs” and “ers.” Our conversations aren’t oral exams with a final grade. As long others understand us, we pass. Not trying at all is the only failure.

More energy at day’s end.

As Spanish sinks deeper into the subconscious, you may feel more energetic than when you started Spanish.  When we stop thinking about the language, and start feeling it, it takes less and less energy.  Being at ease means focusing on what you want to say, not how you want to say it. It’s like shooting a moving target; you follow the clay pigeon with your eyes and your body automatically brings the gun into position.

Talking with your hands.

You may also notice that your body language changes as you gain proficiency. The changes may be subtle or obvious. You may find yourself talking with your hands as well as your voice where you never did that before; or use more emphatic gestures. I notice that in Mexico I use my hands more than I do when talking in the U.S.

Try this:

Pay attention to your emotional state when engaged in a conversation that is going well, perhaps going easily. Notice how you feel, how much conscious energy are you investing in it.  Is it flowing without apparent effort?

How you feel when you speak – confident, nervous, fearful – will influence how well you speak. Self-awareness is one key in gaining fluency.  Like the tightrope walker, success lies not in looking down but in looking ahead.

Be sure to let me know if this works for you!