How to improve your spoken Spanish

Rob Ashby
The Spanish Obsessive

How is your spoken Spanish?

If you’re anything like me, it depends on what day you ask the question. Some days my spoken Spanish is flowing and accurate (or at least, it feels like it), other days I stumble apologetically over every sentence.

Over time, however, I’ve learned what it takes to have more good days than bad, and in this post I’ll share what’s worked for me. This post focuses on the “performance” side of speaking, dealing with the psychological blocks to achieving fluency.

If you feel that you struggle with fluency, and are frustrated with your spoken Spanish, you’ll find the tips in this post helpful.

What’s stopping us from speaking fluently?

In order to answer this, it’s actually easier to think about when our spoken Spanish is at its most fluent.

If you’ve had an evening speaking Spanish, you’ll no doubt have found that your Spanish miraculously improved after a couple of cervezas or copas de vino.

Why?

Alcohol lowers our inhibitions, and it’s actually our inhibitions which are the major impediments to our fluency. Having a drink or two puts you at ease and generally creates a lower pressure atmosphere, which both increase your fluency as well.

Of course, we don’t have to resort to alcohol to improve our fluency! To improve fluency, we should look to remove these impediments, and try to lower our inhibitions. Spoken fluency comes from a relaxed state – as a result of lowered inhibitions, lower pressure interactions, and a general sense of ease.

What gets in the way of relaxed conversation?

Barriers to relaxed conversation can be either external or internal, and are different for everyone. See if any in the following list ring true for you:

You worry about what other people think

Especially if you are looking to impress with your Spanish, this creates additional pressure. It’s natural to want to give our best impression, and if we don’t get to show off our best Spanish it can be particularly frustrating. This mindset leads to higher pressure and performance anxiety – exactly what we should be looking to reduce.

You worry about making mistakes

Related to the previous point, a symptom of this can be seen in continuous pausing and self-correction. If you constantly worry about making mistakes, this means you are more focused on speaking Spanish well than on actually getting your point across. To increase our Spanish fluency, we need to focus more on our message, rather than how we are saying it.

High pressure situations

Imagine chatting to an old friend over a couple of drinks in Spanish. Now, imagine giving an impromptu speech in Spanish in front of 200 people. Where would you be more fluent?

These two situations represent two extremes, but all of our interactions contain a certain amount of inherent pressure, which can be an aggravating factor in your Spanish fluency (or lack thereof). While this is partly out of our control, the way we react to situations, our general state of relaxation, and even conversation preparation can help here.

All of these represent barriers to the performance aspect of speaking. Of course, our spoken Spanish is tied to our overall level of Spanish – we need to take an integrated approach as we learn.

How to increase your spoken fluency in Spanish

Now we’ve examined a few causes for a lack of fluency, let’s look at a few strategies that we can use to help out during the performance of our speaking. There are things we can also do before we speak, and a few tactics to use when we are in the middle of conversations.

Things we can do before we speak:

Prepare and memorise common phrases

Much of the language which we most often use is hugely unoriginal, and by considering a few common questions you can prepare some phrases in advance. Practise these enough, and they’ll become automatic when you’re in the middle of conversations. Imagine these as a reflex – a response that you can give automatically, that doesn’t require too much creative thought (ie, re-inventing the wheel), and that can fit multiple situations. Conversational fillers work well here, and can create an impression of fluency.

This idea was taken further by writer Boris V. Shekhtman in his book “Improve your Foreign Language immediately”, with his concept of “language islands”. Imagine speaking a foreign language to be like swimming in the open sea. It requires continuous effort, and there is the constant risk of drowning (ie, giving up!). A language island is an area we can rest up for a while – these are the pre-prepared topics that we have available to us, and that we can use to rest from constantly having to string together Spanish words and sentences.

Here are a few highly common situations where language is very formulaic, where you don’t need to be particularly creative, and where you can build your “language islands”:

  • The beginnings and ends of conversations. Learn a few different ways to say “hello” and “goodbye”, along with “how are you”, and “nice to see you” type phrases. You can always check our 95 beginners Spanish phrases for some inspiration.
  • Transactional phrases. Ordering food, asking for the bill, asking for directions – these are all specific requests for information, and are usually very formulaic. We’ve put a collection together for you: Spanish phrases for tourists
  • Your “autobiography”. When meeting new people, you’ll always be asked certain questions about how long you’ve been learning Spanish, where you live, what you do, and so on. Having a few of these answers up your sleeve will help you relax during the early parts of a conversation.

Listen to and take note of common phrases from native speakers

Building on the previous point, if you can build your “phrase bank” from answers you often hear from native speakers, this will help you become even more secure in your conversation, safe in the knowledge that you’re using authentic, natural Spanish. Listen to the way that they answer formulaic questions such as ¿cómo estás?, or ¿qué haces?, and pay attention to the beginning and ending of conversations, which tend to use very common patterns.

Practise conversations on your own, in advance

I wouldn’t recommend this for general chats, but if you know that you are going to be in a specific situation it’s worth considering what kind of vocabulary you are missing and need to know. Imagine you are going for a job interview, or attending an event on a certain topic. Each of these situations have their own vocabulary and phrases, and by “practising” a conversation in advance, you can start to prepare some phrases and vocabulary to use.

In a recent episode of “Reaching for Words”, I chatted with Luca Lampariello (who speaks 13 languages) about how he practises conversations on his own.

Visualise yourself in a conversation

I’ll be honest, I haven’t tried this technique, but know some people who swear by it. It’s particularly useful if you struggle with confidence in a conversation:

  1. Sit down, make yourself comfortable, and imagine yourself in a conversation. Add as many details as possible: who are you talking with, where are you, and what are you talking about? Feel free to use conversations you’ve had before, if this makes it easier.
  2. Imagine yourself in that situation, calm, relaxed, and able to express your ideas fluently. Resolve to carry this emotional and physical state into your next conversation.
  3. Repeat the above steps as many times as necessary – this is a good exercise to practise if you are facing high pressure conversational situations, and know about them in advance.

“For the foreign speaker, an island is salvation: it provides a chance for improving communication contact, it affords a desirable break, it attracts the attention of the native speaker.

I would say that the confidence of the foreigner in speaking is directly dependent upon the number of islands he/she has in his/her command. It is not possible to overstate the communicative value or importance of islands for speech.”

Boris Shekhtman, How to Improve your Foreign Language Immediately

Things we can do while we speak

All of the previous tips focus on things we can do to prepare in advance of conversations.

Try out a couple of these quick tips when you are in the thick of it, if you can remember!

Feeling tense?

Take some deep breaths, relax, and realise that you don’t need to be constantly speaking. You can be a more passive participant in this conversation. Get comfortable with silences, and realise that a conversation is a two-way dialogue. The old cliche “two ears, one mouth” is as relevant when speaking a foreign language as much as your native tongue.

Feeling self conscious?

Here’s a quick exercise for you. Think back to the last conversation you had with someone who was learning your native language. What do you remember more – the topic of the conversation, or the mistakes that they made?

Always remember, people aren’t listening to your mistakes, they’re listening to your message. It’s understandable that you want to appear fluent and on the same level as native speakers, but it’s simply not that important. What’s important is that you have a message, and that you express it – with or without mistakes.

Garbling your words? Brain going faster than your mouth?

This can be debilitating. You need to consciously slow down. Open your mouth wider, speak a little louder, and smile. Focus on each word and sentence as they come, and don’t get ahead of yourself and garble your message.

For our intermediate podcasts, I actually find my Spanish far more fluent and natural. I’m making a conscious effort to speak more slowly and simply than I usually do, and this results in a more relaxed conversation, and increased fluency. Just because native speakers speak at 100 mph doesn’t mean that you have to!

Self-correction

Personally, I don’t see the point in correcting your own mistakes (despite being guilty of this myself on our podcasts!), so recommend you reconsider too.

Why?

There are two types of mistakes: slips and errors. A slip is when we get something wrong, and we realise immediately after that we got it wrong. This is when we might self-correct.

An error is when we get something wrong, but don’t realise that it’s a mistake. This is because of a lack of knowledge, and we can’t self-correct these as we don’t even realise that we are making these mistakes!

So, we can only self-correct our slips. Why would we do that?

If we already know that it’s a mistake, who is our correction benefiting? You already know what you got wrong, and the person you are speaking to probably doesn’t care.

Personally, I find that self-correcting interrupts my rhythm, and decreases my fluency. I know I’ll slip up, but I don’t feel that consistently correcting myself will actually help to avoid these mistakes in future. Better to slow down and relax (see point 4), possibly avoid the mistakes in the first place, and preferably not worry about them at all. This might not suit everyone, but if you find yourself struggling with fluency is something that you could consider.

Don’t slip into your native language

Nothing ruins the “spell” of speaking a foreign language like slipping into your native language when you can’t express yourself. Doing this acts as a signal to your conversation partner that it’s ok to speak English, and it indicates that you are not really speaking the language, but dabbling in it.

If you are a beginner this may be unavoidable, but resolve to use your native language only as a very last resort. Learning how to express what you don’t have the vocabulary for is a crucial skill in speaking, and will be something that you do no matter your level.

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