Learn Spanish Fast:

#1 Tip for Learning Conversational Spanish

Try this effective technique to rapidly improve your conversational ability Spanish

If you read the previous article, 5 Rules for Mastering Conversational Spanish, you will remember that we discussed how learning to use Spanish in real-time conversation requires more than just vocabulary and grammar – you need to master the ability to understand native speakers, conjugate verbs in your head, and decipher slang, all while responding quickly with accurate pronunciation.

But if you have ever purchased a typical Spanish book, or taken a Spanish course in college or high school, you probably spent 90% of your time focused on vocabulary and grammar and less than 10% - if any - actually speaking and listening to Spanish out loud. You probably even thought that this made sense - you have to learn lots of words before you start learning how to speak, right?

The truth is you need relatively few words to be able to get through a typical Spanish conversation. Based on an analysis of the frequency distribution of words in Spanish, a person with a vocabulary of only 1000 words would be able to recognize about 88% of the Spanish used in everyday conversation. If that same person doubled their vocabulary to 2000 words, the would be able to understand about 93% of spoken Spanish - an increase of only 5%. The law of “diminishing returns” with respect to Spanish vocabulary means there is relatively less to gain from additional increases in vocabulary. In fact, learning only the 600 most commonly used words will allow you to understand about 80-85% of the words in spoken Spanish - enough to get through most basic conversations.

The real problem for most beginner to intermediate Spanish learners is that there is a significant gap between their "paper" vocabulary - the number of words they can recognize on paper - and their ability to understand the same words in real-time oral speech.

To see what we mean, try the following exercise from Lesson 3 of our One Month Spanish conversational course. The audio clip below contains a short dialogue between Señor White and the bellhop at his hotel. Most of the words used in the dialogue should be familiar to students who know a modest amount of Spanish vocabulary. Listen to the clip and see how well you can understand the discussion.

Note: Be sure to listen to the audio before reading the transcript that follows.


How well did you do? Did you miss anything?  Now try reading the transcript of the previous conversation:

>> Click here to show transcript <<

Compare your results: Did you understand the material better through listening or reading? If, like most people, you answered "reading" then your issue is not lack of sufficient vocabulary, but rather difficulty processing oral speech as quickly as the written word. If we want to improve our ability to understand oral Spanish, the answer is not learning more vocabulary, but rather improving our ability to recognize and understand the Spanish that we already know.

Introducing the Dialogue Deconstruction Method

So how can we use this information to helps us learn more Spanish in less time? The answer is that instead of spending several months learning vocabulary and grammar on paper and then several more months trying to transfer our "paper" knowledge into speech, we can improve efficiency and reduce the total amount of time by taking a "speech first" approach that incorporates oral practice into our study from the very beginning. If this sounds counter-intuitive, remember that this is the same way you learned to speak your native language - before you ever learned to read or write. This is also the essence of the approach used by foreign language experts like Alex Arguelles, Timothy Donner and other prolific language learners.

The Dialogue Deconstruction Method is a study technique designed to dramatically improve your ability to recognize and understand oral Spanish. If you are planning to travel to Spanish speaking country or need to improve your practical Spanish speaking skills in a hurry, this is the fastest technique we know improving your Spanish as quickly as possible.

To use the Dialogue Deconstruction Method, you will need access to Spanish dialogues like the example above. If you recently started our One Month Spanish course these dialogues are included in every lesson (if not, we have included a list of websites where you can find suitable audio files below). When selecting your audio, stick to short dialogues no more than 1-3 minutes in length and make sure that you have access to a complete Spanish transcript of the dialogue, along with an English translation.

Once you have your audio, complete the following steps:

Step 1 - In the first step, simply to listen to the full dialogue all the way through at full speed. Try to understand as much as you can, without stopping or pausing.

Step 2 - Re-listen to dialogue again and attempt to write down what you heard in Spanish. Pause and rewind the audio as many times as needed until you have transcribed the entire dialogue.

Step 3 - Read through the official Spanish transcript and make any needed corrections to what you transcribed. Circle any words that you do not know, and use a Spanish dictionary to look them up. Make sure you understand the passage fully before proceeding.

Step 4 – Re-listen to the full dialogue from start to finish one or more times.

You may feel that the speakers are talking "too fast" the first time you listen to the audio, but this is mostly because your brain is not used to processing oral speech at full speed. If you complete all four steps above, you should find the passage much easier to understand when you re-listen to the material at full speed in Step 4. The difference is that by then your brain has already done most of the "processing" work and can simply focus on recognizing words that it already knows.

The reason that the dialogue audio method is so effective is that it combines several powerful language learning strategies at once. It simultaneously (a) introduces new vocabulary and grammar (b) uses both text and audio to ensure that new material is learned orally as well as on paper, and (c) focuses on dialogue to stress spoken aspects of the language. This combination makes it a highly effective and time-efficient learning technique.

Ready to try this technique to boost your Spanish speaking skills?  Try it now with a free lesson from One Month Spanish.

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Where to get audio dialogues:

  • One Month Spanish - Our complete conversational course contains 30 dialogue-based lessons, specifically programmed to take you from beginner to conversational proficiency in one month. Each lesson includes transcripts, translations, vocabulary list and supporting grammar.
  • Audria (free) - Audria contains tons of free Spanish audio files, although you will need spend some time searching to find suitable dialogues.
  • Podcasts in Spanish (commercial) - Provides over a hundred 2-3 minute conversations. Although you can listen to audio for free, you will be required to pay before downloading the transcripts and supporting materials.
  • University of Texas Spanish Proficiency Exercises (free) - Although these are technically monologues (rather than dialogues), the material here can still be useful.

What do you think about this technique? Leave a comment below.

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