Reading books and articles in Spanish is a great way to increase your vocabulary and get an intuitive feel for the language. Unfortunately, it’s also easy to get overwhelmed by long lists of new words and unfamiliar expressions and quit reading altogether.
How can you get the benefits of reading without the frustration of looking up every other word in the dictionary?
When reading challenging texts in Spanish, alternate between casual reading and deliberate reading.
The main goal of casual reading is to get a good-enough understanding of the text so you can infer the meaning of new words through their context.
You are better at this than you might think. If you can get over the mental barrier of not always knowing exactly what you’re reading, you’ll be surprised by your brain’s ability to identify patterns and fill in the blanks.
As a quick exercise, try reading the following paragraph in casual-reading mode. There will probably be words that you’re not familiar with, but see if you can figure out the situation it’s describing:
El primero que nos dimos no fue especialmente romántico. Fue en el Patrick, un bar de Ventura Rodríguez. Yo había ido con mi amiga Lucía para celebrar que por fin habíamos terminado el maldito máster de mercados financieros. Él iba allí todos los viernes por la noche con un grupo de compañeros del trabajo. No recuerdo cómo empezamos a hablar. Probablemente fue él el que se acercó diciéndome alguna tontería que me hizo gracia. Lo único que recuerdo es que olía muy bien y que me gustaba cómo se reía. Una hora después nos estábamos besando.
If you’re in intermediate purgatory, you have enough of a base to understand the gist of most of what you read (the paragraph above, for example, is talking about the first kiss between two people), the problem is finding ways to go deeper.
Casual reading is a great mindset to cover a lot of ground, but if you want to go from kind-of-understand to completely-understand, you need deliberate reading. This is the kind of reading that happens when you’re actively engaged with the text. As you read, you ask yourself “is this something I’d be comfortable using on a conversation? If not, it’s time to do the detective work of figuring out where the difficulties are.
In this article, I want to show you three ways to apply deliberate reading:
E1: Whoever wrote this recipe book taught me everything I know about Asian cuisine.
E2: At the beginning, he didn’t want to (accept / be happy with) such a low salary, but now he says that he’s very satisfied with his job.
E3: Let’s hope this is the correct number. Here is a shoehorn in case you need it.
E4: I think that you would be much more calm if you didn’t think (about) things so much.
This past Thursday I posted an English-to-Spanish translation challenge made up of native sentences. Here is an excerpt:
I got the photography bug a few months ago, when my friend Carmen (who is a real photographer) asked me to hold her camera for a second while she rummaged through her bag trying to find one of her telephoto lenses.
Native sentences are typically longer than 20 words, they combine multiple ideas, and they’re full of idiomatic expressions and other descriptive words.
Classroom sentences on the other hand, are short, simple and unconnected:
I like photography. Carmen is a professional photographer. I hold her camera. She looks for something in her bag.
One of the reasons you might be stuck in intermediate purgatory is that you’re spending too much time working with classroom sentences instead of focusing all your energy on mastering native sentences.
When you’re a total beginner it makes sense to work with simplified sentences because they make it easier to grasp the core concepts of the language, but once you reach an intermediate level, you should be spending the lion’s share of your time playing at the advanced level. It’s the only way to become really fluent.
This article is a guide for how you might go about translating a native sentence like the one above. I hope it motivates to take on last week’s challenge in full force.
Can you translate this story?
I’ve been feeling guilty these past few days because my parents bought me a digital camera with a telephoto lens more than a week ago and so far I haven’t taken one stinking picture. It’s not that I don’t like photography—I love it—, the problem is that I have no idea about lenses, exposures or shutters. After flipping through the manual a bit and binge-watching twenty online tutorials, I decided to take action and go out into the street to take pictures. Like a real photographer.
The best way to internalize complicated bits of Spanish is by noticing the context in which they’re used and using them yourself until they become second nature.
Take llevar and traer. Trying to understand them by thinking of them as “to bring” is as frustrating as chopping wood with a blunt axe. To sharpen your Spanish axe, you have to place them in a web of interconnected ideas that elicit an emotional response. Or more simply:
Embed confusing Spanish words inside memorable stories.
Think about what happens when you hear the words “get up.” Your brain has accumulated so many stories throughout your life that the meaning seems obvious (Get up, it’s time for school. Let’s get up that tree. I want you to get up from the floor). Those stories look nothing like the ones you have for, say, “take up” (You’re taking up too much space. The plan takes up nutrients. I want to take up Spanish), but someone who hasn’t collected enough stories for those words will have a hard time telling them apart.
If this is your problem with llevar and traer (or with their equally misunderstood cousins ir and venir), let’s build some stories for them using the conversation below, where Bea and Diego are texting each other a few hours before they head out to Rafa’s party.
Can you fix these sentences?
M1: Después del cine, me decidí ir a una heladería porque hacía meses que no me he tomado un helado.
M2: No estoy seguro sobre lo que voy a hacer en mi viaje próximo a México.
M3: Aparece un hombre simpático, pero si le dijera que he besado a su hija no creo que le haría mucha gracia.
M4: Este último parágrafo es demasiado largo. No sé cómo me lo puedo hacer más corto.
You know your Spanish is in great shape when you can talk about something that happened to you without getting your verb tenses all mixed up. Getting better at storytelling is one of the best things you can do on your road towards fluency, and in order to do it successfully, you need to master the imperfect, the preterit (pretérito perfecto simple), and the conditional.
Instead of making a list of rules for each tense and going over a few simple phrases, let’s observe them in their natural habitat: the story.
What follows is a Spanishified liberal translation of a moving anecdote that I came across while reading the bestseller Essentialism). It’s an excellent illustration of how these verb tenses work together to move the plot forwards.
Can you fix these sentences?
M1: La semana pasada estaba llena de sorpresas y de sustos, pero me parece que la próxima pueda ser más tranquila.
M2: Quiero conocer más gente de este país, pero no les entiendo cuando hablan entre sí mismos.
M3: No sabía que tu hermana tiene los ojos del mismo color que yo. Acabo de me di cuenta ahora.
M4: Tengo un amigo quien me ha dicho que en este pueblo antes veranearon muchos turistas.
Let’s say you’re living in a Spanish-speaking country and somebody stops you in the middle of the street to ask you for directions:
—Perdone, ¿me puede decir dónde está la calle Maldonado?
La calle Maldonado. You know that street.
You could just say por allí and call it a day, but what this person really needs to do is keep going straight, go to the other side of the park, make a right, and take the second one on the left.
How do you say that in Spanish without sounding awkward?
Can you fix these sentences?
M1: Terminé el instituto y me pasé el próximo año preparándome para poder asistir el programa en Oxford.
M2: Tengo una amiga quien me está ayudando mucho y me ha ocurrido hacerle un regalo.
M3: Mi primer viaje fue en el 2008, y en cuanto salí del aeropuerto me di cuenta que en ese país hablaron muy raro.
M4: Yo tenía muchas ganas para cambiar de trabajo, pero los primeros meses en mi nuevo puesto me pasé muy mal.