How to find the right words in Spanish?


How to find the words to say what you want to say, and how you want to say it? In other words, how to achieve accuracy in Spanish? 

At the base of an accurate expression in Spanish – or any other language you are learning–, is an understanding of basic sentence construction, in other words, you know how to build a sentence. For example, you know basic verb conjugation in the different tenses, you recognize the most common linking words… 

But even though grammar is at the base of effective communication, it’s not all, is it? Even when you understand more or less the conjugation of verbs in Spanish, know your endings in the different tenses, memorized some irregular verbs, know the most common linking words and know how a sentence in Spanish is constructed, still, you can’t express yourself as you’d like to.

Well, then, it must be a lack of words, right? And partially, yes. I have students who believe their listening skills are poor when the reality is they lack the vocabulary. If you listen to a sentence and you don’t know part of the words, or you have “seen” the words but never “heard” them before, then, it’s not that you have poor listening skills, is that those words are new and haven’t got yet a “line in your brain’s catalogue”.

this blogpost will cover

So, in this post, I am going to offer you ways to increase your vocabulary in Spanish first.

Then, how to find your own words so you can say what you want to say and HOW you want to say it.

And finally, I will give you tips to be able to use your knowledge under stressful conversational situations, ie. fast-paced group conversations with natives.

INCREASE YOUR VOCABULARY

There is a lot of great advice around this topic out there. I will mention the article Mark Kauffman, co-founder of the language learning app LingQ, wrote apropos expanding your vocabulary in a foreign language. He talks about 10 pieces of advice from which I will highlight the most effective in my experience with some personal nuances:

  1. Look up every new word. Yes, totally, but when looking up every word stops the flow of the activity you are performing, then, look up only the ones you are attracted to or hinder understanding or communication.
  2. Read and listen to podcasts or audiobooks every day. Yes, but find joy in them. You are most likely learning Spanish for fun, so keep the fun element there and remove the pressure.
  3. Write it down. Yes. My advice is to write every new word down, but not in a list. Write them down in a sentence of your own creation, or even better, write them down as a part of a whole paragraph! Bring some “meaning” into the word, make it real for you.

Because when we memorize a list of words, we are not actually helping our brain to use them. Same goes with memorising full sets of verb endings, by the way (but this is a topic for another day). What helps our brains it to have words with context.

CREATE YOUR OWN IDIOLECT IN SPANISH

But having a very extensive vocabulary to build our sentences is not enough to say what we want to say how we want to say it sometimes. Sometimes we speak as if our words were coming out of textbook dialogues or were imitations of movie scripts. We speak with a strange melange of old fashioned expressions, modern ones, and combine different speech styles in the same sentence: formal and colloquial, regional…

And yes, our own idiolect is likely to be a combination of everything we have been exposed to but there is a logic that doesn’t necessarily translate in your target languages.

Why do you think that is? Is it because of the imitation and a lack of conscious understanding of your own voice?

In my journey to express better in English and find confidence in my expression in this language, I went from imitating to finding my own voice, and from having lists of words that didn’t say anything to me, to find my own words without the need to constantly having to increase my vocabulary.

A bit of introspection

The first step is understanding your own vocabulary and needs in your mother language/-es. Ask yourself, what do you normally talk about in your everyday life? What are you passionate about?

In my own language learning journey, I quickly realised that lessons and “impersonal” (mass-produced) textbooks were of not (much) use when it came to find my words and say what I really wanted to say. They were very limiting, as I had to follow and repeat the same structure over and over and if I didn’t, I wouldn’t learn it.  And that method might work for some people but didn’t work for me and my rebel heart.

Relate with the words. 

Who, writers, bloggers, instagramers, poets… in your target language touche your heart? Who expresses in such a way that you feel seen as if that person has gone inside your heart, mind, soul and came out able to write exactly what you are feeling?

To discover and find your role models of expression in Spanish, you need to read a lot: blogs and books alike, to follow a lot of people expressing in the language you are learning and about topics you are interested and want to express yourself in. Explore, explore, explore!

My biggest improvement in English was when I started blogging (in my target language) and following other blogs about topics I love such as personal development, creativity, self-expression… It was then, when I was reading at least two blog posts a day from people who were expressing from the heart, – not in an academic, matter-of-fact manner –, that I started to be exposed to words that were meaningful to me, that spoke directly to my heart and that expressed my truths better than I could at that time.

Even now, years later, feeling confident and pleased with the accuracy of my expression, I read those people and feel that they express my feelings, thoughts, emotions better than I could ever do it. And that’s wonderful because they are still helping me to find my voice.  They are my mirrors.

The truth is that we don’t live and experience in isolation. We are not as unique as we might think. Well, we are and we aren’t. And both statements are true: we are unique in our expression but we are not unique in our feelings, experiences, emotions, thoughts…

We are not unique in the sense that we experience the same things as everyone else, we have the same fears, the same desires, the same needs… So, that is at the core of the message. Understand that any message is not “new or exceptional (as in unordinary)” but it has been experienced by the person I talk to. Assume they will understand not because you are very clear, but because what you want to say is relatable.  Then, you can relax and focus on the uniqueness of your message.

The core message is common. The way you express it is or has to be unique. So, the choice of words, the rhythm, the figures of speech you use… are what makes the message unique, relatable and colourful.

Colourful expression in Spanish

We tend to be very colourful in our expression in our mother language, and this happens in an almost unconscious way. This unique and colourful expression in our mother language is a result of our life experiences and everything that we have been exposed to during our life. This individual expression is called “idiolect”. So, each one of us has a unique idiolect in their mother language. An idiolect we have not “studied”, it just happened.

However, it’s not that simple to build our idiolect in the other languages we speak, and that is because very often we focus in the “proper” way to express, rather than in the “unique” way to do it.

 

“Accuracy has as much to do with correctness and precision than it has to do with a subjective and unique point of view.”

 

The truth is that to develop our idiolect in Spanish won’t happen unconsciously. Ideally, we would have to expose ourselves to the same things that created our idiolect in our mother language. So, for example, if you are into personal development, you should consume books, podcasts, blogs… in Spanish.

One of the most enriching experiences language + personal wise for me was to hire a life coach (in English). It was hard work because sometimes I struggled to express myself fully, but I was so motivated, not only about learning the language but also about the coaching sessions that my self-expression through English improved dramatically.

And this is the key. The target language, Spanish if you are reading this, is a tool. And for you to find your own idiolect, you need to make Spanish a tool through which you access or expose yourself.

Don’t make Spanish be a goal in itself but a means to an end that will be all the other things you are passionate or interested about.

Identify your passions in your mother language

You like watching horror movies, or reading mystery novels. Maybe you love dancing or yoga, or meditation. Maybe you like cooking or gardening, or birdwatching. Rather than translating and researching your words, I invite you to experience them. How? Do the thing in the target language! Watch horror movies in Spanish (there amazing horror ones by the way. Ask me if you want Spanish horror movies recommendations) or ready mysteries in Spanish, even if you watch or read Spanish versions of movies you already watch or read so you don’t miss the plot. Watch cooking videos in Spanish or sign up for cooking classes in Spanish.

Find your pleasure/passion in the target language. These days is totally doable.

This is not only going to help you find words that are relevant for you but also to experience them, which is an often neglected step in language learning. Experiencing the concept is what embeds the word in your brain and in your body.

Spontaneity is result of preparation

Maybe what you seek is to be able to be spontaneous in your conversations in Spanish. Well, the ability to be spontaneous is preceded by preparation. Ironic, isn’t it? But the truth is that there is a direct correlation between spontaneous expression and the precursory hard work of understanding oneself deeply.

What do I mean by this?

Self-questioning and introspection in Spanish It means understanding our beliefs and opinions and the reasoning behind them. How you can achieve this? Follow your interests and go further: reflect on it in Spanish, journal or talk about it in front of the mirror, or record yourself talking about it.

In a conversation, you will most likely be asked to express your point of view rather than to explain the thing impersonally. So you need to know what your opinions are beforehand, because in the midst of the conversation, with our stress levels higher than usual, we might struggle to even know exactly what we want to say, let alone express it accurately.

HOW TO SAY WHAT YOU WANT TO SAY?

This also requires preparation. As Aristotle said: “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor”, Why? Because although metaphors are associated with poetry and literature, we all use them in our day to day conversation even without realising it. And the reason why we use them is that they are so effective at instantly communicating both tangible and conceptual information that metaphorical expression is woven throughout the fabric of any language.

The solution? Read poetry and make a note of the word combinations that speak to your heart. Write poetry, play with poetic expression to find your own metaphors. Writing poetry has been proved to be an amazing tool in second language learning.

HOW TO ACCESS YOUR FULL KNOWLEDGE IN FAST-PACED GROUP CONVERSATIONS?

Active Listening / Presence

One of the pieces of advice about how to be a good conversationalist (in any language) is active listening. Unfortunately, we tend to fail in concentrating fully on the speaker because we are having an inner conversation: probably thinking about our answer. Not only we don’t listen fully to what they have to say, but we also fail to pay attention to body language and any other non-verbal cues we can get from them. 

This kind of presence with the speaker in the conversation is essential to be able to respond properly and to understand beyond what the person is verbally communicating, which for non-native speakers is very useful when our listening skills fail.

Have you ever been in a conversation with a native speaker of the language you are learning and thinking about the response you are going to give instead of being fully present in the act of listening? I know I have. So. Many. Times. Half-listening, half-preparing my sentence. Listen to reply instead of listening to understand is the key to failure in any language. 

And I get it. If you don’t prepare your sentence you fear that it won’t come out correctly or that it will take you a long time to respond. But what if you would take the time to think about your response AFTER you fully listened to what the person actually said and not what you thought they said because you were half-listening?

 

Slow down the conversation / Breathe

“Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything” – Wyatt Earp

As I mentioned before, being as much relaxed as we can, it is essential to any form of effective communication. When we are nervous, even if ever so slightly, we can’t think clearly or fast. 

One of the reasons why you can’t access your knowledge fast enough in a conversation is because you are stressed about the situation. Some of us, introverts, or shy, get low anxiety levels any time we are in a social situation. Add to that having to express in a language we are not fully confident yet, and the stress levels rise a little (or through the roof), enough for us to experience one (or more) of the reactions to threatening situations like “fight, flight or freeze”, tunnel vision or blanking out. 

We might be able to only access the basic knowledge that we have integrated over years but not the knowledge that we just understand at an intellectual level but haven’t made part of our repertoire yet.

So, relax to access more of what you know .

And remember:

“Your unique word choice is the spice of the speech”

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