5 ways to sound like a native Spanish speaker on your travels

At Traverse Journeys, we know what a difference it can make to attempt to speak at least some of the native language whenever you travel. For many of us, we may already have a bit of Spanish under our belts either through school studies or simply through everyday life in the U.S. Crossing the bridge from awkwardly stringing together a few words and phrases into confidently speaking like you belong in Chile, (or Spain, or Ecuador, or any of the other Spanish speaking countries!) may seem daunting. Luckily, our favorite language school - Freestyle Language Center - breaks that barrier down with a handful of practical and fun tips!

¿Hablas español?  Fun Facts:

  • An estimated 450 million people speak Spanish around the globe, making it the second most spoken language en el mundo (second only to Mandarin)!      

  • Spanish is the official language in 21 countries. ¡Qué sorprendente!

Imagine how many different cultures and the wide variety of people you could connect with on a deeper level by speaking their language!               

Spanish may vary significantly across borders, pero no te preocupes – use these simple tips below (audio included) to improve your speaking skills no matter where you are in the world! Pero primero, watch this funny video that explains how to pick up on different Spanish accents (humor - a great tool in all learning, reminds us to have fun as we go!)

1. Pronunciation, the crossfit of language!

It’s normal for adult language learners to struggle with this ‘aural roadblock’, pero hay una solución: focus on pronunciation first! Research shows that training your ears to recognize the sounds of your ‘target language’ as a primer for studying greatly improves your ability to memorize new words and phrases in that language.

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While Spanish comes in all shapes and sizes, use that as an interesting benefit. Linguists find that listening to a wide variety of speakers and dialects actually benefits the brain! ¿De verdad? ¡Sí! Exposure to an expansive array of speech patterns and inflections trains your brain to better understand all types of accents.

Incorporate practice and audio (beyond simply listening) with FLC’s Pronunciation Workshops to improve pronunciation and uncover the nuances of spoken language all while having fun (with confidence-building tongue twisters to boot)!

Follow along with Oscar, Spanish teacher extraordinaire, as he helps you take on the debate of B & V sounds as spoken in most Spanish-speaking countries.

2. Use Filler Words:

“Um…well…so…like”. ¿Sabías? Filler words such as these exist in Spanish! ¡Qué alivio! Next time you’re struggling to find the right word, opt for the Spanish alternative. Here are some common fillers:

  • Osea (OH-seh-ah): Americans tend to overuse the word “like”. Because, like, you can pretty much use it anywhere and it, like, makes you seem casual. As it turns out, overusing the word “like” is not exclusive to us Americans. The “like” for Spanish speakers, osea, is one of the most popular filler words used in Spanish-speaking countries. Use osea to say “in other words” or “that is to say”.

  • Este (EH-steh): Use this filler in place of “well…” or “um…”. When you are at a loss for words or need to figure out your next sentence, este is the perfect way to bridge the gap!

  • Pues (poo-wehss): Similar to este, the word pues is the perfect filler if you need to stall for some time. Native speakers in most Spanish-speaking countries find themselves reverting to pues often. Use this filler as an alternative for “let’s see…” or “so…”.

  • Ya (yah): Ya, the gold standard for filler words among Spanish speakers! The meaning of ya varies greatly depending on the context, so be sure to take notes on how native speakers use this filler! Por ejemplo… Use yato say something has already happened. Lo he leído ya. Use it to say something is happening now. Ya está aquí. Use it to express agreement. Ya, pero es difícil. The list goes on and on!

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3. Increase your ‘cultural currency’

All of the shortened words, phrases, slang, idiomatic expressions, and si!, swear words, offer a glimpse into the culture behind a language.  To add authenticity to your speaking and to learn language as it’s truly spoken (or to at least know what’s being said about you!), embrace a wide variety of ‘authentic materials’ — ones created by ‘those of the target language for those of the target language’— in other words, the opposite of a textbook!

From music to film, and a variety of genres, time periods, and resources, including, si!, telenovelas, it’s not only enriching but fun to watch, read and listen to as much as possible!  

For starters, watch these short videos to learn some slang terms:

  • For Mexican slang, watch this video with Salma Hayek

  • For Spanish slang, watch this video with Antonio Banderas

Stream one of the biggest new hits on Netflix, La Casa de las Flores or relive the magic of the “Queen of Salsa” with the hit telenovela Celia. To really double-down on this tactic and go beyond the Netflix captions, you can join FLC’s online community of Spanish learners using this telenovela to improve their speaking skills. Learn more here!

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Recommended películas: family film Book of Life or not-so-family film Y Tu Mamá También.

It would take años to list all of the slang terms and expressions used in Spanish! Entonces, learn new words and phrases daily with this:  Spanish Phrase of the Day Instagram account!


4. Don’t Hold Back: (Cliché Alert!)

Most Spanish-speaking countries are culturally very expressive. Osea, don’t be shy. When practicing with others, or even on your own, say everything with confianza! Confidence is key in language learning. Just spit it out! Better to say it wrong and correct yourself than to never say it at all. The best language learners have a ‘growth mindset’ – they aren’t afraid to make errors along the way. Children make the best role models for language learning for exactly this reason – they don’t think too much about what they say or if it’s correct. Kids use trial and error to discover what’s right. So, blabber on until you get it right!

As our favorite language acquisition specialist Stephen Krashen says, it’s the face to face “negotiation for the meaning” that makes the difference. Por favor, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there!

In language learning, we all make mistakes! Just #keeponkeepingon and spit it out! Listen as Michelle explains this further.

5. Practice Y Más Práctica: (Cliché Alert Part Dos!)

ACTFL guidelines generally suggest 500 to 700+ hours of language learning ‘input / activities’ to reach basic intermediate level skills.

A good rule of thumb? Practice an hour a day whenever you can – get creative! And yes, your telenovela counts! Take advantage of speaking opportunities and listen to Spanish podcasts as well as committing to weekly conversations with a language learning partner… everything counts.

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Tip: If possible, when you go to a restaurant, ask for a waiter that speaks only in Spanish. That way, you force yourself to see the menu and order in the language. Definitely una buena idea! Want to up the ante at home? Grab sticky notes and place translations on common objects around the house. Turn your mirror into un espejo, your shower into una ducha, or your desk into un escitorio. ¡PRACTICA!

Now that you have some tips and tricks on how to sound more like a native Spanish speaker under your belt, try them out! Remember to have FUN with it! Language learning isn’t about perfection – learn to let the language wash over you, even if you don’t understand every word.

Be sure to check out the variety of online courses that FLC offers, designed to help you truly use the language just like a native speaker - perfect for those who want to use language abroad.

And join FLC’s newsletter for more language learning fun and tips!