Communication is All that Matters
Communication is your goal. Communication is all that matters. You aim to understand and to be understood. Whether you are listening or speaking, reading or writing, you need only to receive and give meaningful information. You do this by focusing on what is said, not on how it is said.
Starting from the Bare Minimum
So what if you are completely lacking in basic Spanish? What if you happen to have read this far and you’d really like to have some fun with Spanish, but you know nothing beyond “Muchas gracias”?
What is the minimum necessary understanding of the language, and what is the best way to acquire it?
You need to understand three facts about the language:
All Spanish nouns are masculine or feminine. When you learn a noun, you learn “el” or “la” as part of it. Most adjectives you use with the noun have to be of the same gender and the same number as the noun: “el trabajo duro” (the hard job) and “los trabajos duros” (the hard jobs).
For many people, including me, the verbs are frightening. It’s true that Spanish verbs are complex, while ours in English are quite simple. It’s enough to understand this as a fact; it isn’t necessary to know all the verb changes, only that they are there. Knowing a few workhorse verbs (more on this later, see #7) will take you a long way.
Spanish is easy to pronounce once you learn the sounds of the vowels. It is pronounced exactly as it’s spelled. To see a word—provided you know the few pronunciation rules—is to know how to say it.
Now, if you know almost no Spanish but want to come along with us, how would you acquire the basics?
You can work through a textbook, online course, or audio course on your own. The problem with these widely available programs is that everything depends on you making yourself do the work.
The other way to learn elementary Spanish is to take a class. This is better. A class is a social situation, and the class will pace your learning for you.
If you take a class, make it a non-credit class. You can find one in a community outreach program from a college, high school, or city organization.
But, wait! Since you’re doing the work, why not take it for credit? Here’s why: In a credit class, the other students will be interested only in their grade (“Will this be on the test?”), and, unless you’re an exceptionally attractive person with a dynamite personality, not at all interested in you. In an informal class, all of you choose to be there and want to learn. You’re eager to get to know each other and help each other and enjoy the class together.
Here’s a confidence-building exercise to try before you take your first class: Right now, write down ten Spanish words you know.
That was easy. Now write ten more. You already know a lot, and you haven’t even started on the hundreds of cognates. Cognates are Spanish words that are almost identical to English, such as “continuar,” the verb that means “continue,” and “tradición” the noun that means “tradition.”
Good Spanish is a goal that’s worth the effort
In advising “Have fun with your bad Spanish,” I’m not making a choice between good Spanish and bad Spanish. I’m not saying, “Who cares about proper Spanish?” Hearing or reading proper Spanish is a joy; people who know it deserve enormous admiration.
However, if you’re reading this, you don’t have good Spanish. What you do have is bad Spanish. Your choice, then, is between using bad Spanish and using no Spanish. “No Spanish” is the default that you’ve been retreating to. You can choose to go up one level from none to bad. With mindful practice, one day you can ascend to the level of good.
Having fun with your bad Spanish doesn’t mean you can quit studying. It only means you start today, in whatever way you can, enjoying the Spanish you already know. Everyone—from a ten- year-old to his grandmother—will improve by spending time with a grammar book. Just don’t wait to start a conversation until you have perfected the subjunctive mode.
Free Your Thinking To Enjoy Your Spanish
Whatever you choose to do, it’s liberating to begin by telling yourself that your Spanish is what it is and that you’re going to use it as it is. I feel liberated just saying the title of this book. So will you. “What are you reading?” “A book called Have Fun With Your Bad Spanish.” There. Now I don’t have to pretend I have good Spanish. I’ve just announced that I don’t. Now I can go ahead and enjoy myself.
I know this is true because when I started writing this book and telling people the title, I became bolder about my own bad Spanish. So what if I made an error? Did the other person understand me? Maybe next time I’ll get through that same sentence more smoothly and correctly because I’ve just practiced it out loud in a real situation.
That’s the way it works. Having to understand and respond to Spanish in a pressure situation practically guarantees that you will learn it. Whatever you use will make a home in the mental mash-up of words, phrases, and rules that you call “my Spanish.”