No, this is not a pyramid scheme or anything like that. I would say it is a product of my own observation and casual conversations with fellow Spanish native speakers and Spanish learners. In a time in which we are bombarded with what we should focus first in order to be identified as fluent speakers and so. Is grammar that important? Is rolling your r a matter of life or death? What dialect or variety should I learn and which of them is the best/easiest one?
Most of those answers are completely up to you, according to your current situation, your language learning history, your motivation, environment and many other factors any native speaker or even I don’t have to know. However, as a product of observation and conversation with different people (shout out to my Spanish chat group!), I think I have managed to gather some things that can really tell you are fluent at different levels, considering the 4 different language abilities and sorted out in 3 levels of the Spanish Fluency Pyramid! Is it scary? A bit, but I am confident you will enjoy your journey through it.
Now here comes the explanation of the three parts of the pyramid.
The base of this pyramid consists on two things: being able to be INDEPENDENT. That does not mean you know all words, verbs and how to construct a sentence by heart, but you do know how to construct a sentence, where the verb or noun goes, you drop pronouns as much as you can, you can give your opinions and ask back. Mistakes can still happen and you wouldn’t be able to speak about anything at more formal occasions, yet there is something that is evident: CONFIDENCE. You would probably make a mistake and either carry on or correct yourself immediately or if being corrected, you thank the person and carry on with your conversation. Confidence is essential for any of the steps above it is a sign you feel at ease with the language.
Now, the middle of this would be pronounciation and being aware of context. One thing many Spanish speakers do is aspiration of certain phonemes. Have you noticed that sometimes your Spanish speaking friends would say something like “e’htoy cansa’o” when they are tired or skip certain sounds at an informal setting? That is not wrong at all! In fact, it’s what makes a language feel alive 🙂 In several varieties, [s] gets aspirated or even ommited, specially in casual settings and it is probably a trademark for many Spanish speaking regions. If you were taught to pronounce all words and phonemes, it is quite good during formal settings, but at a party or while talking with friends, you may sound as distant or quite formal. The only way to be aware of when to do this is being a good listener and probably imitate their aspirations until they can become “yours”. As I already mentioned, the notion between formal and informal settings works different from, for example, an English Speaking context or even among different countries. For example, Peninsular Spanish tends to have a reputation of being less formal in many contexts that in other places would be formal and so. Being aware of the context you are in is important for many people. Your boss may use tú with you, but it wouldn’t be a smart choice to use tú with him or her. You probably don’t know anything about the shopkeeper, but if she or he looks your age, both of you might be quite okay with using tú. Also, formal Spanish tends to be more eloquent and less direct than other languages in formal contexts (if you’d ever see the documents I tend to proofread at work or whenever I have to sign a contract!). These kinds of distinctions are important in order to prove yourself you can transmit your confidence and play with it in different settings.
As for the top of the pyramid, here comes the scary part… most non native Speakers of Spanish often give themselves away with a single sound. For some people, their r’s or j’s; for others, a certain vowel and a long list of etc. Many people are quick to detect that and if you are one of those people who don’t want to give out that, well you can always look for help and work on mastering that pronounciation. There are plenty of YouTube videos who teach you step by step how to drill those sounds and listening always help. It doesn’t matter if you look weird while singing in Spanish while commuting (I’ve done it for my languages, people may stare at me, but I feel happy practicing my language skills with it) or if you tend to look yourself at the mirror while making that sound. You can always look for the method that suits you best because your motivation will do the rest. I also put mastering slang at the top of the pyramid since it is a thing that is even complicated for native speakers. What can be an innocent word in one Spanish speaking country, it may be a complete, different and even rude word in another. Many native speakers will probably have a funny anecdote of using an awkward slang word in another country and getting giggles or weird stares for it. Also, slang words are probably the most alive part of the language since they tend to evolve faster than regular words. What was cool in the 90s may not be cool right now. Again, listening and its use will be your ally at mastering slang words and using the right word in the right context.
I hope you have enjoyed this small guide towards Spanish fluency. If you would like to get this graphic as a printout, you can suscribe to my newsletter on the right sidebar and you will get it on your e-mail inbox during the weekend.
Are there any aspects you would like to add to this pyramid? What were the hardest things you have gone through with learning Spanish? Share it in the comments!