Thursday, November 15, 2012

Common Sense

Do what you do, but in Spanish!

The title pretty much says it all, and it may be obvious, but some people don’t think about these things. Many of the students I work with in the library lack practice partners and perceive this as a barricade to learning . Pittsburgh has a growing but very small Latino population. Even without native speakers you can learn and progress or maintain your Spanish. Just do what you usually do, but do it in Spanish (for intermediate learners)!

Reading is a great way to do this. I’ve always loved reading the news, but if I switch to reading the news in Spanish, I’m killing two birds with one stone. This may be laborious for the novice, who should probably read short articles with a dictionary handy. If you are not interested in the news there are Spanish websites about everything. Whether you like movies, gossip, sports, or business you can find reading material. (I’ll list some websites at the bottom of this post). Even children’s books are a great way to practice. Check to see if your local library has the Diario de Greg series (Diary of a Wimpy Kid) for some laughs!

Watching TV, like reading, builds language muscles. In my opinion watching tv may be even more valuable than reading. You can tune your ear to the language and become accustomed to different voices and accents. If you like soap operas you’ll love Spanish tv. If you don’t there are plenty of other options. Sabado Gigante is a variety show on Saturday nights that has segments ranging from singing contests, to comedy, and everything in between. Sports programming is something on almost all Spanish networks, so if you love sports you can learn some great sports vocabulary watching futbol or boxeo in Spanish. Often you can watch american programs in Spanish by going to the SAP option in your tv settings. Media isn’t the only way to practice, and you can actually practice with nothing but yourself and your own thoughts.

Thinking in Spanish is a great way to keep Spanish at the forefront of your mind. I know that noone is there to correct you and you very well may make errors, but that is okay. The benefit of keeping your vocabulary cycling through your thoughts is much more important than thinking perfectly correct grammar. Don’t commit to thinking in Spanish all of the time, that would be overwhelming! Just try to run through some things: Translating recent conversations you’ve had, recite what you’ll talk to your Spanish speaking friend at work about, even run through your imaginary grammy acceptance speech!

Our success in learning Spanish will be the direct result of our learning habits. For those of us who are past the beginner level, doing some of our regular activity in Spanish can help our Spanish progress or keep us from forgetting. Try out some of these approaches to see if any will fit your life! Feel free to share any Spanish websites you like to read!

Good Spanish Websites: The BBC’s Spanish language site. Great coverage of Latin America and the world. - Great news from Latin America and news relevant to Latinos in the United States, plus lots of great entertainment and music news. Wipedia’s web portal, if you want to learn about something you might as well do it in Spanish. - msn’s spanish content

Monday, August 27, 2012

Spanish learning product reviews

There are many products making claims that they can teach you a new language. Some are better than others. These are my thoughts on the pros and cons of several of the products I've had experience with:

Michel Thomas CD’s:

Pros: All audio, very natural teaching/learning style, learn very rapidly, learn grammar in a way that does not seem like learning grammar, courses go from beginner through to very advanced, focuses on correct structure, interactive, uses many mnemonics

Cons: Leaves out certain things like days of the week, numbers, and other vocabulary in favor of correct structure, you only hear one person speaking Spanish so you will not hear a variety of accents or regional differences


Pros: All audio, drills material meticulously, teaches structure without grammar terms, interactive, learn basic and useful phrases fast, uses principle of ‘graduated interval recall’ to help brain remember more effectively

Cons: Very robotic speech that sometimes doesn’t follow the way people actually speak (ex. the Spanish course uses “Castellano” instead of “Español”), even the more advanced levels are not very advanced, focuses on most common vocabulary with lots of drilling so vocabulary building takes a long time. 

Mango Languages

Pros: Audio/Visual, mobile app, voice comparison, focus on core vocabulary, repetitive drills

Cons: Must be used with a device, progress is relatively slow, advanced levels are not very advanced.

Pros: Very entertaining and knowledgeable hosts, covers every level from beginner to very advanced, multimedia content (mp3s, videos, and more), cultural content is covered very well, hosts and guests from all over the Spanish speaking world.

Cons: Not making new content, while the grammar explanations are good there is no real sense of progression.

Note: I have not checked out any other Spanish podcasts but do intend to give them a shot in the near future.

These are just my thoughts, and other folks may have different findings than me.  Please feel free to share any reviews or any products I should look into! 

Please feel free to share your thoughts on these products or any Spanish learning products you have used. I definitely plan on reviewing more products!

Thursday, August 16, 2012


Por and para are hard words to use correctly in Spanish. I think that using one in place of the other is one of the mistakes I make most frequently. Usually people understand when I make this mistake and sometimes they even correct me, like if I say “gracias para la ayuda (thanks for the help)” they’ll let me know the correct way to say it is “gracias por la ayuda”. Both words can mean “for” “to” and several other English words. So, is there any general, easy to learn rule for when to use which word? Not really, but there is a way of thinking about these words that can make it a little easier to choose the correct word!

“Para” can be thought of as an arrow pointing towards space, time, or a goal.“Por” can be thought of as the arrow moving through or alongside space, time, or a goal.


If you say “vamos para el parque” you are saying “we are going to the park”, you can picture an arrow pointing towards the park. If you inserted “por” in this sentence, instead of “para”, it would mean we are going through the park “vamos por el parque”. This time you could imagine the arrow going through or around the park. “Por” can also mean your mode of travel, such as “vamos por carro” (we are going by car). If you said “vamos para el carro” it would mean “we are going to the car”. “Para” is also used for the final destination or recipient of an object. “tengo un regalo para ti” means “I have a gift for you”.


Using “para” in regards to time usually refers to deadlines or target dates. We can imagine an arrow pointing towards the date/time. “Tiene que prepararlo para el viernes” means “you need to prepare it by friday”. “Por” in regards to time can be thought of as during, or the arrow going through the time. “Trabajaban en ello por 4 días” could be thought of as “they worked on it for 4 days”. “Por” in regards to time is very similar to “durante” (during). “Trabajo por la tarde” would actually carry the same meaning as “trabajo durante la tarde” or “I work during the afternoon”.

This analogy does not work with all of the uses of these prepositions. “Por” can be used for referring to exchange “I’ll give you this apple for that orange” is “Le doy esta manzana por esa naranja”. “Por” is the “per” in “percent” and also used in multiplication 2 x2 is said “dos por dos”. Division is said “cuatro dividido por 2” (4 /2). “Para” is used when expressing a purpose. “ para ir a la playa necesita bloqueador” (for going to the beach you need sunblock).

In asking questions it can be difficult to know when to use para qué or por qué. If you want to know someone’s goal for being in a certain place you would say “para qué está aquí”. The answer could be “estoy aquí para visitar a un amigo” (I’m here to visit a friend). If you saw someone you knew in a hospital that was dressed in normal clothes and did not look like a patient you could ask them this. “Por qué” seeks the cause, so you may ask a sick person in a hospital “por qué está aquí”, which would be asking why the person is there as in what injury/illness is the cause.

These are just some of the uses of “por” and “para”. If anyone else has different ways of thinking about these concepts please feel free to share them.

ejemplos de “por” y “para”

gracias por el regalo (thanks for the gift)

le doy esta manzana por esa naranja (I’ll give you this apple for that orange)

tiene que tenerlo para el jueves (he has to have it by Thursday)

la comida es para ti (the food is for you)

gracias por la bebida (thanks for the drink)

How do you think about "por" and "para"?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Book: Alpha Teach Yourself Spanish in 24 Hours

Although I don’t think books are the best way for a beginner to start learning a language, Alpha Teach Yourself Spanish in 24 Hours is an easy to use guide to the basic concepts of Spanish grammar, pronunciation, usage, and overall language. Author Clark Zlotchew puts together a lot of information in his hour long lessons, complete with practice exercises in clear and easy to understand language with a lot of examples.

Zlotchew starts out, as one might expect, with the alphabet and Spanish pronunciation. He does a great job of explaining the sounds of Spanish vowels and consonants and the rules of accents and stress. He breaks down stress into 3 rules: If a words ends with a vowel, an s or a n then the stress is on the penultimate syllable (next to last). If a word ends with any consonant other than s or n the stress is on the last syllable. The last rule is that exceptions will carry a written accent mark. The language he uses to describe these rules is clear and simple and plenty of examples are provided.

The author spends a few chapters mixing indicative verbs with other topics, all the while intertwining vocabulary. I like his approach to mixing the vocabulary instruction with the grammar. Every indicative tense is covered ( preterite, imperfect, progressive, present, future, conditional). The next section does a fantastic job of covering the complicated Spanish subjunctive. Once again I must commend this book for taking a complex subject and breaking it down into simple language. This book helped me with my personal understanding of the subjunctive. Different units include cultural tips to help you betterunderstand the language and communicate. He also explains some vocabulary differences between Spain and Latin America, such as regional words for foods (ex. gambas in Spain and camarones in Latin America for shrimp).

While I’m not a fan of books for the beginning language learners, this book could certainly help someone who has basic pronunciation down. There is much to be gained, especially from the simple to understand grammar explanations.     

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Presently I am....

The present tense in Spanish is quite different than it is in English. The other night in class we were discussing the verb "to go" which is "ir a".   I happened to say that you can use "ir a" to mean "going to".  In an example we used the conjugation "voy a" to mean "I'm going to" . A student said “but isn’t ‘I am’ either ‘soy’ or ‘estoy’", and she was absolutely correct. At the same time “ir” can be used as “is going”.

The present tense in Spanish can often be used where the progressive tense is used in English (think the words ‘am’ or ‘is’ with a verb ending in ‘ing’, such as “I am going). The verb ir (to go) in the first person is voy (I go). Usually it is translated as “I go”, as in “I go to the movies”, a habitual action. This is certainly one of the uses of the Spanish present tense.

This same tense can describe actions in progress at the moment. “Voy” can mean “I’m going”. You don’t have to use the verb “to be/am” with “voy” to achieve this meaning. If someone asks you “¿qué haces?” (what are you doing?) you can reply in the present tense and will be correct. There is a progressive tense in spanish where you do use a conjugation of the verb “to be” (estar) and a verb with the progressive ending (‘ando’ for ar verbs and ‘iendo’ for er or ir verbs). We will certainly explore this tense more at another time!

The present tense can also be used to express actions in the future. “I’ll call you tomorrow” can just be “te llamo mañana” (I call you tomorrow). This is perfectly correct in Spanish, although not the only way it can be done. Spanish does have a future tense, and again that will be a topic for a different day.

The main takeaway, you can use the simple present tense to express habitual actions at the present time, it can be used as a progressive action you are doing at the moment, and it can be used to talk about the future. Three tenses for the price of one!


Habitual action: Voy al cine todos los viernes (I go to the movies every friday).
Progressive: no está, ahora va al cine (he’s not here, he is going to the movies now).
Future: Vamos al cine mañana. (we will go to the movies tomorrow). 

Monday, May 21, 2012

The key to language success for adult learners: Habits

Having smart and consistent study habits will help our language ability progress towards greater proficiency and communication skills. Good language learning habits are not equal to hours of study and memorization. There is also no standard for what ‘correct’ habits are, they will vary according to individual tastes, preferences, and learning styles.

In general good habits can include (depending on your level): Listening to language courses , listening to audiobooks and reading in the language (anything from news, books, children’s books, or websites), attending classes or conversation groups (check for these at your local library), using language learning software, and language books.

We don’t have to set aside a lot of time for these activities. For learning languages the ‘less is more’ approach will definitely yield greater success. Listening to a language course while in the car or doing dishes for 10 minutes in the morning then again at night is better than trying to cram vocabulary lists for hours. We don’t want our language learning to be a chore, so we should try to enjoy it as much as possible. Study in a coffee shop or on the front porch. Get comfortable and enjoy!

I personally would give priority to audio learning techniques over visual, this is the way we acquired our native language.  That being said this may not be the best approach for everyone, and however you choose is right if it works for you.

In the coming weeks I plan on writing some product reviews for various Spanish learning products. There are certainly some methods that are better than others, and there are certain methods that will be better for certain individuals. I hope to describe them so that you can make an informed decision about which method or methods to use.  

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Gender in Spanish

One initial and significant difference between Spanish and English is that nouns in Spanish have a gender, and articles and adjectives have to agree in gender and number with the noun.

Articles are either definite (the) or indefinite (a,an). The definite article “the” means one particular thing. An example could be “the bank”, which we know means one particular bank. The indefinite article refers to any of something. “A grocery store” refers to any grocery store. 

In Spanish there are eight possibilities for articles: indefinite singular masculine, indefinite singular feminine, indefinite plural masculine, indefinite plural feminine, definite singular masculine, definite singular feminine, definite plural masculine, definite plural feminine. Adjectives are words that describe or modify nouns and, in Spanish, they are usually placed after the noun they describe (though there are exceptions that we will get into another day).

masculine noun definite article

       singular                                                                     plural
el supermercado (the supermarket)           los supermercados (the supermarkets)

feminine noun definite articles
singular                                                                            plural
la biblioteca (the library)                                            las bibliotecas (the libraries)

masculine noun indefinite article

 singular                                                                           plural
un supermercado (a supermarket)          unos supermercados (some supermarkets)

feminine noun indefinite article

singular                                                                          plural
una bilioteca (a library)                                            unas bibiotecas (some libraries)

In Spanish an adjective has to agree with a noun in gender and number. So for a feminine noun like casa (house) if we wanted to describe it as red (rojo/roja) it would look like:

singular                                                                           plural
la casa roja (the red house)                                   las casas rojas (the red houses)

To describe a masculine noun with the adjective small (pequeño/pequeña) you would do it like this:

singular                                                                          plural
el apartamento pequeño                                     los apartamentos pequeños

For a lot of adjectives, changing from masculine to feminine will involve changing an o (masculine) to an a (feminine), but this will not always be the case. In the near future we will explore some other adjective endings and how we change them. If you have any questions please leave a comment, and I will try to clarify.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


¡Bienvenidos a un nuevo recurso para aprender español! 

Hello and welcome to my new Spanish blog.  I am an American who took up Spanish in college with a good deal of success (I can speak fluently now).  What I want to do with this blog is pool together resources, techniques, experience, and links to help people better learn Spanish.   I'll try to post reviews of learning products and little tricks and tips.

¡muchas gracias por leer!