This article is for you if you’ve been learning Spanish for a while, you’ve learned a lot of words, you’re doing all the grammar drills… but then, you’re in a conversation, and you still feel clumsy and can’t stop translating in your head.
If that happens to you and you sometimes think “What am I doing wrong?”, you MUST read this article because you’re probably neglecting ONE simple activity in your Spanish studies… the one activity that’s the key to think in Spanish and having fluent sentences roll off the tongue.
Well, my friend, estás de suerte (you’re in luck) because I, teacher Juan from Spring Spanish, will reveal that one activity that will help you stop translating in your head and show you how to add it to your daily Spanish routine, so you can start chatting away in Spanish!
Why you always translate in your head
Let’s get straight down to the facts: the only reason why you’re translating a sentence word-for-word in your head is because your brain doesn’t know what a Spanish sentence is supposed to look like.
Imagine you want to say “What do you do for a living?” in Spanish. Do you know how to say that? If you do, great! But if you’re not absolutely certain about how to say that in Spanish, your brain will revert to the only frame of reference it has: your mother tongue… and it will try to build the sentence by translating that example word-for-word…
Okay, let’s see, “what” is qué. Then, “do you do”… How am I supposed to translate those 3 words? Hmmm… Ah, right! In Spanish, it’s just haces, one word. Okay! Then, “for a living”… Hmmm… para… una… viviendo? Or just “para vivir?” Let’s try that.”
¿Qué haces para vivir?
(What do you do to live?)
So, as you can see, even if you can turn this into a grammatically correct sentence, you’ll still be struggling and wondering, “This sounds weird. I don’t know if I’m just making something up or if this is really what a native speaker would say.”
What do you do if you want to stop this from happening? Easy! Just find out what a native speaker would say… and then, say the same thing! But you won’t discover that in textbooks! You’ll only discover it at the source: by listening to native speakers, like myself, speaking Spanish. All the time! It’s as simple as that!
I’m a native speaker, and I’ll tell you what we’d say in the conversation above: “¿En qué trabajas?” or “¿A qué te dedicas?” So much easier, right? Now, would you have known that if you were just learning words and grammar? I don’t think so! But can you now say this yourself in a conversation? Of course!
And now you know this is how we say it. Will you ever translate word-for-word in your head again for this sentence? Never again!
Here’s another example:
You want to say you’re very busy on weekdays. How do you say “on weekdays” in Spanish? You won’t get far with words and grammar. You can try translating from English… en días de semana… de la semana… en los días de la semana??
You might get away with a weird version of Spanish, but here’s what I, an actual native, would say:
- Tengo una rutina muy ocupada entre semana. (I have a busy schedule “during the week / on weekdays”).
So, in Spanish we say “entre semana” (literally, “between week”) to refer to weekdays.
What's the only way you know for sure native speakers say “entre semana“? Because you’ve just heard me say it! And if you listen to a lot of Spanish speakers, you will hear them saying it too! These word combinations are chunks, and they’re the key to speaking a foreign language fluently without translating in your head!
Conversation Based Chunking
So, your goal while learning Spanish: listen to as much Spanish as possible, and discover as many chunks like these as possible. We call this process Conversation Based Chunking and these are the steps for it:
- Step 1: Get INPUT
Listen to native speakers in conversations to discover how they speak.
- Step 2: IDENTIFY CHUNKS
Find word combinations, like en qué trabajas or entre semana.
- Step 3: IMPRINT them on your brain as a whole
Memorize them, so they roll off the tongue when you’re speaking Spanish.
- Step 4: IMPLEMENT
Use the chunks yourself in conversation. Notice how you’re not translating in your head anymore!
Now, of course while you’re learning Spanish, you’ll still want to say things you’ve never heard from a native speaker before. So, you’ll still need to improvise once in a while, and maybe translate in your head while speaking Spanish. But the more you listen, the more chunks you’ll discover, the more you’ll know what a Spanish sentence is supposed to sound and look like. And the easier it’ll become for you to speak!
Now, check this out: If you’d like to get a head start, why don’t you download our free Essential Spanish Chunking Kit, which contains a collection of the most frequently used Spanish chunks? The ones you’ll need in any conversation.
Ready to listen to a lot of Spanish and recognize all these Spanish chunks? We actually have videos that are completely in Spanish! And they come with subtitles in Spanish and English, with chunks highlighted! Isn’t that amazing?