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Enrich Your Spanish Language Skills Using Cultural Elements

written by: Larry M. Lynch • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 9/28/2012

How would you like to really improve your Spanish and make having conversations better and easier? This article examines how using non-linguistic cultural elements can allow you to quickly and easily improve your Spanish language speaking skills using food, geography, history, and current events.

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    Do You Think You Speak Spanish Fairly Well?

    What would you think of someone who says ”I speak Spanish” but then could not hold even a modicum of an intelligent conversation with a native speaker? When I asked this of several Latin Americans, their reply was virtually unanimous: They wouldn’t think much of that person’s speaking skills. One person even replied, “They’d look kind of stupid if they couldn’t converse on a basic level”. To be more than functionally fluent in a foreign tongue, a foreign language learner needs to have an on-going knowledge of language-related, non-linguistic topics including:

    • History
    • Food
    • Customs
    • Culture
    • Music
    • Geography
    • Local idioms and expressions in context
    • Politics
    • Sports
    • Current events

    This is just starter list. If, as a foreign language learner, you cannot address any or most of these topic areas to some degree, you’re going to lack a great deal of credibility in speaking the Spanish language.

    What’s the point? Well, in order to be credible as a foreign language learner, one simply MUST have some knowledge of a number of non-linguistic topics related to their target language. Otherwise, whatever could you talk to people about?

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    The Improvement Solution

    So what’s the solution? Well, happily, you have several options.

    First, you might arrange a short, intensive Spanish language immersion experience in a Spanish-speaking country. This would force you to immediately come to grips with current events and expose you to colloquial language in context. Your immersion need not be a lengthy one, either. From as little as a week or two, you’ll begin to derive countless benefits, provided you focus on use of your Spanish while speaking and integrating yourself into the culture of the country to the greatest degree possible in the time that you have.

    Now, this does require that you focus on a country or two on which to base your immersion and deepen your Spanish speaking skills. Of the twenty-one countries which have Spanish as a first or official language, each has its own “regional” Spanish language idiosyncrasies. The people in Mexico do not speak Spanish the same as the locals in Costa Rica or Panama, who in turn have a noticeably different range of vocabulary, pronunciation, idioms, and expressions than the native Spanish speakers of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, each of which are distinguished from one another by their modes of Spanish language speech. Go to Argentina, Chile, or Uruguay and the Spanish language shifts yet again and again each time a region or border is traversed.

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    Not Just the Spanish Language

    This "phenomenon" is certainly not limited to the Spanish language either. Many other languages similarly undergo alteration of vocabulary, usage, idioms and expressions, and connected speech elements. Do Brits speak English like Americans do? Of course not. Even though both Queen Elizabeth and President Barak Obama both speak English, they sound nothing alike although their speech is mutually intelligible to one another. The same types of alterations in language that take place in Spanish and English connected speech elements also occur in other languages such as:

    • Arabic
    • Chinese
    • Portuguese
    • French

    To a lesser, more localized extent, this occurs in a number of other languages as well.

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    How to Add Richness and Depth to Your Speaking Skills

    Then how exactly might you incorporate these cultural elements into your learning? This might be especially challenging if you can’t arrange a total immersion in a Spanish-speaking country quite yet. There are a variety of ways to accomplish an increment of non-linguistic topics into your Spanish language learning.

    Why not try these proven techniques to enrich your Spanish speaking skills:

    • Read a popular novel in Spanish noting new words, idioms, and expressions in context using works by authors like Isabel Allende or Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez
    • Get a good history book and detailed map of the relevant country to deepen your knowledge of that region
    • Make regular visits to a restaurant or cultural center of your target country and investigate recipes and ingredients of typical food items
    • Regularly read a Spanish newspaper, magazine, or other periodical based in your target country (20 Minutos from Barcelona, Spain is a good one)
    • Check out a music store or website(s) online that features traditional and popular music of a region, country, or language
    • Use the internet to reinforce your Spanish language skills and abilities with a pen pal, chat partner, or correspondent from a Spanish-speaking country
    • Get access to movies, documentaries and videos in Spanish which will aid in adding depth to your knowledge and skills
    • Watch available TV programs on cable or the internet and make sure to include news broadcasts and variety shows, too
    • Tune in to Spanish language radio broadcasts over-the-air or online to maximize your listening comprehension skills
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    So if you truly want to master the Spanish language, try incorporating these additional, non-linguistic elements into your daily language learning efforts. Then, watch your Spanish speaking abilities explode into new and greater levels much sooner than you might imagine.