Saturday, October 6, 2012

¡Vamos a Cuba! Learning Spanish In Newfoundland

This is a Clarenville Packet article I wrote about learning Spanish on your own.

¡Vamos a Cuba! Learning Spanish In Newfoundland

When I hear my Canadian friends talk about vacations they’ve taken to Cuba, I become a bit jealous.

The Lonely Planet calls Cuba, “a wildly exuberant place where the taxi drivers quote Hemingway and even hardened cynics are ensnared by the intrigue and romance.”

You can insert my longing sigh here.

I always wanted to visit Cuba, mostly because it is a country that is off-limits to Americans like myself.

I can’t take a trip this winter to Havana, but I can work on my Spanish.

If you have an interest in gaining some conversational Spanish skills, despite living miles and miles away from the nearest Spanish tutor, you can try some of the methods I’ve incorporated into my daily life.

1.    Label everything

Back in my teaching days, labeling my students’ surroundings was a common practice I used to help English language learning students increase their vocabulary. It works for adults learning a new language, too.

Pick a room. Make a list of everything in it. Spend some time looking up the Spanish translations of each object. Then label everything with both the English and Spanish word. Over a few weeks you’ll start connecting the word door with la puerta, and oven with la estufa.

When you feel comfortable with the words, take the labels down and find another room to cover in post its.

2.    Keep a journal

This is another method inspired by my days as a reading teacher. Every night, write about your day in English, and then translate in into Spanish using a site like

The essential part of this method is rereading your past journal entries before starting a new diary entry. You’ll be studying grammatical structure and vocabulary without even noticing you’re studying.

3.     Use your children

Kids are fascinated by the sound of other languages.

You can use them to help you practice, by reading them bilingual books storybooks or playing them bilingual music. I find a great selection on ITunes and Amazon.

There is also a great free web site called where you can read Garfield, Calvin and Hobbes, and Marmaduke strips in Spanish.

4.     Watch your soaps sells a variety of Spanish telanovelas, essentially soap operas, you can get delivered to your home. These television episodes help you master pronunciation and idioms.  I’m currently watching the 2010 Mexican show, Teresa, about a poor young women using her seductive abilities to become filthy rich.

English soap operas have nothing on Spanish telanovelas. The entire story is told in one season, so there is no backstory to worry about. These shows aren’t known for their subtlety or depth. The good characters are rewarded and the bad are punished.  Sweeping overdramatic scoring helps you figure out what is going on.

Just watching the show is not enough. You have to try and understand every nuance of dialogue. Here is how: watch for a few minutes, pause the DVD, write down everything you heard, and translate what you wrote into English.  Then try saying the lines exactly as the actor said them.

If you practice Spanish this way, one thirty-minute episode may take you a whole week to transcribe and practice saying. But as you learn more, you’ll work your way through episodes faster and faster.

Plus, you’ll know how to tell your lover in perfect Spanish that the maid confessed to you that she saw your sister’s boyfriend murder his father after he took his vows to become a priest.

You know, in case the situation arises.

5.    Speak to a native

Okay, this one can be challenging in Clarenville.

Luckily, the internet comes to the rescue again.

Three times a week, I take hour-long Spanish classes via Skype.

I do this through a Spanish Language school named Guacamaya in Copan Ruinas, Honduras.
It costs ten dollars a lesson, and the teachers refuse to use English, forcing you to converse as best you can in Spanish. 

They are also very flexible with their class times, which is great for people who travel frequently or have shifting work schedules.

Guacamaya also offers immersion classes in Honduras for weeks at a time as well. Two summers ago, I spent two weeks living with a Honduran family and taking classes with the excellent teachers, all for less than $200 a week.

Since moving to Honduras isn’t an option for most of us, weekly Skype dates with my Spanish tutor, Julia, is an affordable alternative.

I find myself sweating at the end of our conversations, exhausted but exhilarated from using my brain in a new way. I feel as if my brain is rewiring itself with each class.

These five methods can be applied to any language because the number of affordable resources available on the internet is amazing.

On your next vacation to Cuba, there is no reason why you can’t order your mojito using español bueno.

Just please take a sip for me, too, and tell me how beautiful it was when you get back.


Lili said...

Great article! Did they publish this one?!

Jayme said...

Unfortunately not, lol. Not enough clarenville folks interested, I suppose. Thanks for reading.

Jayme said...
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