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What should I do to improve my Spanish: beginner, intermediate, and advanced level.

Learning Spanish involves a series of difficulties that go beyond grammar or vocabulary and extend beyond purely linguistic aspects. We will discuss the challenges of learning Spanish at different stages (beginner, intermediate, and advanced) and the strategies to recognize and overcome these obstacles.

At each stage of learning Spanish, we encounter problems that we need to solve if we want to continue progressing in our practice. We will classify these aspects by their level of importance for each stage. It's important to note that without overcoming the difficulties of a lower level, it is extremely difficult to access the next level with a guarantee of success.

Diagram 1: Difficulties to overcome at different levels of Spanish learning.

A - Beginner level.

1.- Extensive time of practice: From the moment you decide to learn Spanish, you must understand that it requires a significant amount of time to learn and improve in a continuous and stable progression.

According to Félix C. P. in his publication "El lenguaje verbal del niño" (1999), a child needs between 2 and 3 years of life to handle a vocabulary of approximately 1200-1500 words. If we do a quick calculation, considering that the child is awake for an average of 12 hours a day, the total number of hours of language exposure (practice) amounts to 13,140 hours!

Diagram 2: Mother tongue acquisition (Spanish). Relationship between age and number of words.

Does this mean that you, as an adult, need the same number of hours just to learn 1500 words? Definitely not. However, this fact simply shows that if we want to learn Spanish and make progress, we must be willing to dedicate a considerable amount of time to it.

2.- Overcoming embarrassment: Speaking and interacting using a language that is not our own involves certain levels of embarrassment. This is because Spanish, unlike our native language, has different sounds, complex pronunciations, unfamiliar concepts, completely different cultural aspects, and so on.

Understanding this is much more important than knowing conjugations, prepositions, or irregular verbs, at least in this initial stage. Why? Simply because if you don't acknowledge that learning another language exposes you to uncomfortable, unusual, and often truly embarrassing situations, no matter how much Spanish you have learned, you won't be able to put it into practice or use it effectively.

Overcoming this difficulty begins with recognition. Then, in every interaction in Spanish, regardless of whether the final outcome is entirely satisfactory or a disaster, we must downplay the situation and accept that it is part of the learning process. I always advise my students to laugh at the situation, at themselves, rather than think, "I'm so bad, I don't know Spanish!" "I'm not good at the language" or "I'll never improve my Spanish."

B - Intermediate level.

1.- Discomfort in conversations: Many of us have experienced this sensation when faced with the reality of the language. Being in a group of Spanish speakers, it becomes really challenging to understand what is going on, what is being discussed, and even more so, to actively participate in the conversation.

Getting used to these conversations and the actual pace of native speakers requires continuous exposure and a certain period of adaptation. Even in situations where you might think you don't understand anything, you're wasting your time, or that you should give up, ask yourself: Do I truly want to improve my Spanish and be able to participate in this kind of conversation?

If the answer is yes, great. You simply need more exposure, and with time, you will be closer to reaching your goal. If the answer is no, then you have to accept that, even if you know a lot of vocabulary and possibly Spanish grammar, it will be difficult for you to improve and move on to the next level. There's nothing wrong with either option. It's just important to know our objectives and what we do to achieve them before reaching situations of great frustration due to a lack of alignment between our goals and the steps we take to achieve them.

2.- People don't want to speak with me: Even when surrounded by native speakers, it's common to experience a lack of interaction with other people in the group. This can be frustrating because, although we may be very interested in practicing and improving our Spanish, the interaction often lasts no longer than 1 or 2 minutes.

Firstly, we must accept that speaking with someone who doesn't speak the language fluently is not easy. It requires an extra effort from the native speaker, which they are often not willing to make. Secondly, the conversation we can have in Spanish may lack depth, precision, and involve many topics, which can generate disinterest from our interlocutor.

The solution to overcome these adversities is, firstly, to know that this will happen and accept it as part of the challenging process of improvement. Secondly, use clear structures with concise comments, without too much detail, and provide the main information. If we can do this, the interlocutor will feel more comfortable, and our chances of continuing the conversation for a longer time will increase.

C. Advanced level.

1.- Jokes, humor, sayings, and proverbs: Once we are able to understand native speakers in conversations, interact comfortably and fluently, and even live and work in a Spanish-speaking country, the difficulty we encounter relates to these specific nuances of the language.

Understanding jokes and humor that make us laugh without needing an explanation is a challenging task and, based on my experience, not entirely accessible when you're not a native speaker. Keep in mind that humor is a combination of historical and cultural factors, as well as double meanings of words. Furthermore, knowledge of famous personalities in the country or region, customs, rivalries between towns, and again, a myriad of other possible variables, play a role. The solution: listen, try to understand, and ask whenever you haven't grasped the reason behind it. It's not possible to understand every joke, but if you start to comprehend the type of humor used in the area you're in, you will be closer to catching on.

Popular sayings and proverbs pose another challenge. However, they often share common traits with those in our own language. Only in some cases are they a literal translation. Try to understand in which situations they are used and, whenever possible, put them into practice to see if you were correct. Only by observing others' reactions will you know if you have used them correctly.

2.- Perfection. This goal is often pursued by many individuals at different stages. While it's fantastic to have clear and ambitious objectives, striving for perfection in speaking Spanish can lead to significant frustrations, even when the person's level is excellent.

One aspect that can make us appear "more native" is improving pronunciation. For example, pronouncing vowels correctly can make your accent seem very neutral. Imitating expressions, comments, and jokes from native speakers is a good way to refine your Spanish-speaking skills. Regarding the pursuit of perfection in Spanish, I have my own perspective on the matter. Considering that there are 21 countries where Spanish is the official language, it seems like a utopian task to want to know all the words from all these countries. Therefore, don't put pressure on yourself and enjoy what you know and have learned so far. Practice your Spanish whenever you can and seize the opportunity to learn new things when it arises. Forget about perfection, and undoubtedly, your Spanish will improve every day without even realizing it.

As a general idea in this discussion, if you find yourself at an intermediate or advanced level of learning Spanish and believe that certain aspects from previous levels have not been overcome, it's time to take the bull by the horns and do everything possible to improve and overcome these obstacles that prevent you from progressing as you would like. It's never too late if the joy is good!


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