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4 tips for learning a little Spanish in a short period of time

The debate rages on: do you need to know how to speak Spanish to walk the Camino?



At least some?

I am going to vote for yes, although I will drop the word “need” and replace it with “it’s a really good idea and it will vastly add to your overall experience.” (No short answers from me!)

And I am going to give you four tips for how to learn a little Spanish in a short period of time. First, it’s story time.

How I know it’s not too late

Regardless of when you are heading out to walk the Camino, it’s not too late to pick up a little Spanish. Here’s how I know this:

A couple of months ago I got inspired by a movie I saw in the run-up to the Academy Award show in the US. The movie was called “The Last Repair Shop” and it lit a fire in me to learn to play the piano.

At age 58.

The movie is about a shop in Los Angeles that repairs instruments rented by high school students. The film explores the experiences of four shop employees and four student musicians as they tell the stories of how music has influenced their lives. I was mesmerized. And inspired.

Some background: My big brother, Dave, is a musician. The musician in the family. At least that’s what I have believed since age six when our parents took us to the Yamaha music store to shop for a piano for Davey (as he was known back then). He sat down at a piano and started making music. Age seven.

I humored my parents and tried out a few keys, and then swiveled around on the piano bench and asked, “What else ya got?”

Five decades later here is this film, and it inspired me to bravely ask the question, could I learn to play an instrument? I have been a proud, devoted member of the audience for over 50 years – where would I even start?

The next day I struck up a conversation with the music director at my church, Chris, and asked him if there was any hope for me. He took my question seriously and kindly said yes. He suggested I explore the guitar, the piano, or the recorder.

Since my beloved big brother plays the piano, it was an easy answer for me. That night I got started, and now I want to share what I learned in my first few weeks of playing the piano and why I believe it’s not too late to learn some Spanish for the Camino.

1. First, get some perspective

Carnegie Hall, here I come! Not so much. All I wanted to do was see how far I could go. I was truly starting at close to zero. I knew there were black and white keys on a piano, and some pedals, but that was it.

When you start to learn Spanish, you are not looking to go from zero to fluent in 60 minutes. When you are on the Camino, you don’t need to understand everything said to you, and you don’t need a perfect accent.

You are looking for some basic functionality and to be a good guest in different country and different culture. You are looking to be able to get some of your basic needs met. If you are starting at zero, this is the place to start.

2. Next, chart your course (and keep it simple)

The first thing I did, the very night that Chris gave me permission to explore playing the piano, was to go online and search for basic piano lessons on YouTube. That night I learned the first 15 or so words of the language of music, things like flats and sharps, cords and scales and arpeggios, 3rds and 5ths, treble and bass clefs, harmony and melody, ABCDEFG.

I couldn’t yet play the piano, but I knew what I needed to learn, and I knew in which direction to go.

When you start to learn a language, first determine what you need to learn. Here are some ideas for where to start with Spanish for the Camino:

>> How to pronounce the vowels (good news – it’s super simple, because in Spanish all of the vowels is pronounced the same way every time)

>> The words for the pleasantries: hello, goodbye, good morning, good afternoon, please, thank you

>> The words for the things you will need every day: coffee or tea, a bed or a room, breakfast, lunch, dinner, water, wine, beer, restrooms, WiFi

3. Take the time to get it right

With my simple goal of learning what I could with no need to “preform”, I knew I could take my time and get every note right. One of the early lessons I found on YouTube instructed me to find every C key on the keyboard. Then find all the Fs. Then the As. And so on. Slow and steady, I located them all.

The next lesson was one of my favorites: using my right hand, play two keys at the same time, CG, and then three keys at the same time, CEG. It sounded so beautiful! And miracle of miracles, I could hear when I got it wrong (which happened a lot, because my fingers weren’t accustomed to acting this way).

I slowed down and took the time to get it right – thumb and one finger hitting the keys at the exact same time with the same amount of pressure. Thumb and two fingers at the same time, same pressure. Then I added in the same exercise on the left hand and worked on it until I got it right.

When you are learning your simple Spanish words and phrases, take the time to get them right. Find out the correct pronunciation and say each word and phrase out loud so you can hear what it sounds like.

A good place to start learning how to pronounce words in Spanish is the episode of the YOU on the Camino de Santiago podcast I did with Maria Seco of Spanish for the Camino. We walked through the entire Camino Francés route practicing the place names in Spanish, in both Spanish-accented and American-accented Spanish. Here is the link for that episode. And here is the list of place names we learned.

And one of my favorite tools for learning Spanish is the website howtopronounce.com. You type in the word or phrase you want to hear and get a sampling of pronunciation from different speakers, some native, some not. Try it!

4. Practice x 100

There is a reason new piano players practice the scales. The repetition of practicing scales lays neurological tracks in the brain, and ensures the behavior becomes routine. I doubt I will ever forget how to plan a C major scale. And that first beautiful arpeggio I learned? That one is mine forever. Why? Because I have played them both a hundred times. At least.

It may seem mindless and tedious, but when you are learning your simple Spanish, once you get the pronunciation right, focus on repetition. Say each word or phrase over and over again until it feels like your native tongue. Side benefit: I bet saying gracias 100 times will feel pretty good. And if you can roll that R even a little, you are going to love that sense of accomplishment.

Will you be fluent by the time you leave home to go on your pilgrimage? Of course not. But is that even your goal? (If it is, go for it! But start now either way.)

Wishing you a beautiful Spanish-filled journey on the Camino de Santiago . . .

Learn more about the Camino here.