Day One of sixth grade: my first ever Spanish class. After learning a few different ways to say “hello” and “goodbye,” we were given our homework: use our newfound knowledge to fill in the blank speech bubbles in a Charlie Brown cartoon. Determined to wow my teacher, I hatched a plan to stand out from the crowd. I rushed home, opened up Google Translate, and frantically typed in, “I still can’t kick that football!” I knew I would make quite the impression.
And make quite the impression I did. The next day, my teacher smiled as she walked through the room, checking off each “hola” and “adiós” on my classmates’ homework. When she reached my desk, she stopped cold. I cannot remember exactly what my paper said, but my teacher’s look told me I had subjected the Spanish language to a grisly mutilation.
Online translators and dictionaries have come a long way since I was in a middle school, but they still cut both ways when it comes to language learning. These tips can help you make the most of these tools while avoiding some common pitfalls.
DON’T look up every new word in a reading.
This might seem strange at first, but you don’t need to know every word in a passage to read with fluency. Think about it: does being fluent in English mean that you know every word in the language?
Rather than helping you, looking up every word in a reading slows you down and limits your Spanish progress, overwhelming you with a mountain of new vocabulary you can’t possibly remember.
DO look up key words and use context clues for the rest.
If there’s a new word that appears repeatedly in a reading and prevents you from understanding a passage, chances are it’s a key word and you should look it up in the dictionary. The same goes for words in important places, like the title of a poem or a section heading in a newspaper article.
When looking up words, I recommend detailed online dictionaries such as wordreference.com or spanishdict.com. In addition to definitions, these sites will provide you with grammatical information, usage tips, and numerous example sentences to help you master the new vocabulary.
Regardless of your level of Spanish, chances are there will be quite a few unknown words that don’t fit into the “key words” category. Instead of looking them all up, bring in your Language Arts skills and use context clues to figure out the overall meaning of a particular sentence or paragraph.
DON’T use a translator for whole phrases, sentences, or paragraphs when writing.
Besides the fact that online translators can’t produce long passages accurately, using them to translate large chunks of your work doesn’t let you practice your Spanish. You may not be able to say everything you want right now, but relying on translators for new grammar you haven’t learned yet won’t help you reach your goal.
DO use the language you already know in creative ways.
One of the best ways to improve your Spanish is through circumlocution: using the language you already have to paraphrase something you don’t know how to say yet.
For example, you might not have learned how to say something like “it’s important that we recycle,” which requires the present subjunctive (“es importante que reciclemos”). Rather than relying on a translator, you can express the same sentiment with a simpler construction you already know, like “it’s important to recycle” (“es importante reciclar”).
This strategy helps you think creatively and prepares you for real-world situations. After all, it’s hard to converse with a native Spanish speaker if you stop to pull out your translator every time you don’t know a word.
Ultimately, translators should be used to complement your Spanish knowledge, not to replace it. Don’t be afraid to use a translator; do be afraid of using one too often!
There’s a good reason Spanish is by far the most-taught second language in America: it’s by far the most useful. Whether it’s for school, business, travel, or simply for everyday life, Spanish rewards anyone willing to put in the effort to learn it. And with the right teacher, learning it can be a breeze! That’s where Cambridge Coaching comes in. We offer customized private Spanish tutoring at all levels:
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Want to learn more about learning Spanish? Check out some of our previous blog posts below!