Since around the age of 13 I have been learning Spanish, and when I started my undergraduate degree in 2014, I picked up Portuguese too. My Portuguese course has been very intense, as the aim was to bring up my level of Portuguese to the same standard of my Spanish. I am not entirely fluent in either language, but I can speak both at a good level, and to get to this level I had to study a lot. I thought I would share some of the things I did to improve my languages, and also some of the techniques I’ve learnt from my education.
- Grammar books: I guess that we should start with the boring stuff first, but grammar books that explain grammar rules in depth are really, really helpful. I can’t speak for other languages but for Spanish and Portuguese, I can recommend some really good ones. For Spanish, ‘A Spanish Learning Grammar’ by P. Muñoz and M. Thacker is brilliant, it goes through the grammar rules in two different stages, so that you can build on your knowledge. There’s also practice exercises and solutions in the back, too. For Portuguese, ‘Portuguese: An Essential Grammar’ by Amelia P. Hutchinson is really good, because it describes both the grammar and how to use it in everyday speech. Writing out the grammar you find hard could help you remember it, but practice exercises have helped me lots.
- Reciting conjugations: the bane of every language students life? Absolutely. I absolutely hate this tip but it isn’t something I could miss out: the only way to learn the verb endings and their different tense forms it to recite them, rewrite them, stare at them until they’re ingrained in your brain. It’s such a boring thing, but I promise that in the end, it really works. The more you write them out, or say them to yourself, the easier they are to remember.
- 10 words a day: my Spanish teacher from my A Levels actually taught me this tip, but she told me that during her education she used to learn a certain amount of random words a day/week and that was a really useful way of learning vocabulary. In my second year at university I bought a small exercise book from Paperchase and took it to lectures with me, and wrote in any words that I heard/read that I didn’t understand, and then would find out the meaning and separate them into groups and learn them each week. So tedious but so useful.
- Reading newspapers and magazines: I guess now we can move onto the more interesting things, because with languages comes culture. My grandparents really love going on holiday to Lanzarote, and so when they do, they bring me back a couple of magazines. Sometimes it’s fashion magazines like Vogue, or sometimes its celebrity magazines like Hola! It’s a really great way of expanding your vocabulary but also learning a bit more about the culture etc. Living in Portugal I was also able to read a lot here, but also, foreign publications are so accessible nowadays, its really easy to get hold of a newspaper or a magazine and spend even just 30 minutes broadening your vocabulary/knowledge.
- Reading books: I guess this one is quite daunting, especially if you’re just beginning to learn a language, the thought of reading an entire book isn’t appealing. In fact it’s so difficult but so rewarding. I would say to read a book you’re really familiar with, when I was younger I absolutely loved Twilight and so I’ve read it in English, Spanish and Portuguese. There were times where I really wanted to give up with it but in the end, it was so beneficial, so I would say to choose a book that you know really well, and love a lot, and persevere with researching the words you’re unsure of. But you’ll find that, especially if you know the story really well, you’ll be able to work out (within the context), what the words you’re unsure of mean.
- Listening to the radio: I used to hate this step, when I was at home in England, I hated listening to the radio in foreign languages. I never even paid that much attention so I never thought that I was learning anything. But actually, since moving to Portugal, I’ve realised this is such a good way to subconsciously improve your languages. You’ll be hearing the language being spoken but also be hearing foreign music (thus learning more of the culture, once again). I usually used “listen live.eu” and for Spanish radio stations you can click here and for Portuguese radio stations you can click here. You can use the same website for other languages though, by clicking here and finding your relevant country.
- Watch films: I love films so for me this step was always fun, but watching foreign films is so useful. When I first started learning languages I watched them with English subtitles, but now, as time has passed I’ve started to watch them with Spanish or Portuguese subtitles. It improved my understanding of spoken word and different accents. Also, another thing which is really helpful, is watching English films (or films in your mother tongue) and watching them with the subtitles in your chosen languages of study. It’s a really good way of learning vocabulary.
- Speak to other speakers of the language: I struggled with this at first, but speaking to other people who also speak your chosen language is really effective and beneficial. You’ll learn so much more vocabulary, but also your confidence will build so much. If you speak to native speakers, you may even learn colloquial speech and become more natural in your approach, but they don’t have to be native. So long as you’re speaking, it doesn’t matter! For students like me, I used a site called ErasmusU before going on my year abroad, and managed to make many friends through this site and now regularly text and call them and in this way practice my languages.