Improve Your Conversational Skills in Foreign Languages Fast

by Mira

There are many ways to improve your conversation skills in a foreign language, some of them cheap and others more expensive. Read on for my tips.

For those of us wanting to learn a foreign language, there are many avenues we can take. I keep reading how important radio was for recent immigrants in the UK right after WWII and up to the advent of the Internet and cable and satellite TV, sometimes even after these media channels became common and affordable. With cable TV here in Romania, we have the option of watching the news or entertainment in English, French, German, or Italian. I wish we also had some Spanish channels.

But there’s always Internet TV, and a whole range of channels in all languages that we can watch for free online. So if you want to learn how to patter in a foreign language, find a TV channel in your desired language and listen to a talk show host or game show host speak. Or to the news, of course.

Or to movies. If you’re watching one of the channels you got with your cable TV subscription in some countries, you have the advantage of listening to movie actors speak in one language (usually English) and reading the subtitles in your own language. Now, this doesn’t happen everywhere. In many countries the norm is to dub movies rather than subtitle them.

Here’s where DVDs come in handy and offer a huge bang for the buck sometimes.

Radio, TV channels, movies

So there's radio, a cable TV subscription and online TV channels, all of which are excellent tools in your quest to improve your speaking skills in a foreign language by hearing natives speak. For conversational Spanish, for instance, Latin American soaps helped me when I was first learning the language. But Desperate Housewives or other TV Series offer much better writing and, needless to say, more fun. But if you like Latin American soaps, do that. Get those DVDs instead. I know I watched two Brazilian soaps for the language, and ended up enjoying them more than I had expected.

Watching movies dubbed in a foreign language is also a great way to better conversational skills and general knowledge of that respective language. I learned a lot of English from movies. I still do. Now, if it's not English that you want to better but a different language, you have to go back to what I consider the second-best way to learn to converse in a foreign language fast: DVDs with audio and subtitles (or only with subtitles) in your desired foreign language. The best way is, of course, interacting with native speakers.

Watch your favorite TV series in another language

Here’s what I discovered these days, looking for ways to get more mileage out of some old DVDs. I bought Season 7 of Desperate Housewives in the fall of 2011. I watched it at the time in English, learned a few expressions, and then set the box set aside. Time flew and it was time to get the much-awaited Season 8. But I had to put that off for a while, preferring to order other books and DVDs.

I know many of you prefer Amazon’s Instant Video or other services that offer instant movies online, but I’d like to make the case for DVDs as far as learning a foreign language goes, or improving conversational skills in a foreign language.

Desperate Housewives: The Complete Eighth and Final Season
Desperate Housewives: The Complete Eighth and Final Season

A thousand minutes of practice per season

Watching your favorite TV series a second time with the audio or subtitles switched to Spanish, say, gives you hundreds and hundreds of minutes of practice. The Desperate Housewives box set for Season 7 now costs $32.30 (but get the complete collection and you get a much better deal: $96.93 for all 8 seasons) but the DVDs have no less than 989 minutes of film on them. That’s huge!

And you get subtitles for Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish! Isn’t that amazing?

Buy Desperate Housewives: The Complete Collection Deluxe Edition
Desperate Housewives: The Complete Collection Deluxe Edition

Region 2 DVDs (for Europe) with subtitles in 10 languages

What’s even more amazing is that if you get the Region 2 DVDs of Desperate Housewives Season 7, the DVDs made for the European consumers, you get subtitles in no less than 10 languages: English, English for the hearing impaired, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, Portuguese, and Dutch. I’m planning to go to town with them! What’s surprising is that, while French was included as an option on the Region 1 DVDs, there’s no French on these Region 2 DVDs. Maybe there wasn’t a great market for Desperate Housewives in France. I’m just saying. Maybe the campy style of this well-written, fast-paced American comedy-drama didn’t find many fans in France for some reason, and the producers decided it wouldn’t pay to invest in making subtitles for all those 989 minutes since the market for them wasn’t there.

What puzzles me about audio and subtitles in foreign languages

Since I’m new to this game of watching movies I own using the audio and subtitles for foreign languages, what I haven’t figured out yet is why the audio and subtitles differ so much sometimes. I mean, it’s natural, and I’ve seen it done when I watched DVDs with both audio and subtitles (both in English) that subtitles are sometimes the condensed version of the audio. What I don’t understand is why in Desperate Housewives I’m seeing two very different translations at work in the Spanish audio and the Spanish subtitles. It’s very helpful for those learning conversational Spanish (by the way, it is, of course, continental Spanish on these Region 2 DVDs, and that is Spanish as it’s spoken in Spain), but what’s the point of paying for two translations?

Some examples of the two different English to Spanish translations

Está loca! / ¡Está majara!

Me dejaste en la estacada / Me dejaste colgado – You left me in the lurch

Soy la leche. / ¡Que me decís! This one isn’t even a direct correspondent, even though the meaning reflects the same sentiment: I’m great (in other instances: I’m terrible) / How about that?

As I said, two different translations.

Other alternative translations come in easier conversational Spanish. As in:

The invito yo. / Pago yo. -- My treat. / I'm paying.

Vaya como vaya / Pase lo que pase -- Come what may

oferta de paz / rama de olivo -- peace offer / olive branch

¿Pasas de mi? / ¿Me estás dejando? -- Are you through with me? / Are you leaving me? ("Paso de ti" means something like "I don't want to have anything to do with you.")

How you can watch DVDs to learn conversational Spanish

...or to improve your conversational skills in another foreign language of your choosing (and if you choose your DVDs carefully, you’ll see you get quite a few options on some, as I mentioned)

First, if you’re a beginner, and have learned only “textbook Spanish” so far, start by listening to the audio in English and switching the subtitles to Spanish. It will be hard to follow both (and the movie) at first, but if this is the second time you’re watching the movie, you’ll have some residual knowledge of the scenes and dialogues that will allow you to grasp the audio and subtitles more easily. The disconnect between the languages will take some time to get used to. At first, you won’t be able to read the full subtitles sometimes. I wasn’t. But only for the first 15 minutes, while all this was very new to me. Then I got used to it.

You can go through the whole series doing this, or, if you become more confident after a few episodes, you can try switching both the audio and the subtitles to Spanish. In fact, if you love a language, you’ll love hearing a native speaker with great diction speak it. I absolutely love the Spanish cast of Desperate Housewives. It reminds me of hearing Spanish spoken in Spain, which brings me to the next section of this article.

Travel to Spain

I was able to travel to Spain for a month as a student and it has improved my speaking skills considerably. I became pals with local students, and we hung out at discos and at the local high school. It was a splendid experience, one that I was fortunate to have and will always treasure. I lived in the house of Spaniards and sat with them at their dinner table. With a mini English-Spanish Collins dictionary, but still, while I didn’t get all their comments regarding my own explanations as to why I was there and what I plan to do with my life, it was fabulous to interact with them. As it happens, this was in Andalucía, where pronunciation is especially hard to follow for beginners, as they “eat” letters, as we say in Romanian. I have to admit that first time I was there I could only understand a fraction of all that was being said. I was a fast learner, with at least 30 words solidly learned each day (maybe that’s not much, but it felt like much to me at the time; there were many other words that were passing by my ears but which I couldn’t learn instantly, and they too, found a way into my brain, even as I didn’t realize it that very month), but even so, amid all the excitement and the local flavor of Spanish, I was a little lost. But not for very long.

A summer passed and come fall, I discovered I could speak way more Spanish than I thought. I also made friends, and they started writing letters. Like 16-page-long letters, as some teenagers were prone to at the time, in the 1990s. And I had found one teenager in Spain who met me on this level, for I, too, was a letter writer. Most of my letters were stories in a conversational tone, complete with conversational words. The Spanish girl that was to become a good friend of mine wrote in a more wistful manner, but she too, used the language conversationally. There you go.

Emails and Skype in Spanish

With email becoming the main method of communication for people living in two different countries, we (me and the friend I told you about) became email pals. As email was easier than getting a letter finished and to the post office, we found ourselves communicating even more. Our friendship deepened. So did my Spanish skills. So there you go, again. Find yourself a pen pal (whatever they are called these days) and start sharing life stories over the Internet. Over email, Skype, and whatever else you're using.

Read a Spanish newspaper online

A professor of Spanish once suggested I start reading the famous Spanish newspaper El País online in order to exercise my knowledge of Spanish. I have to admit I did it for a few days and then stopped. Not because I got bored but because there was only so much I could do in a day and at the time I used to spend more time than I do today writing long emails. It was more important to me at that stage in my life, and, in a way, while I think a lot of what I used to write was useless and I could have spent my time more wisely, I got to communicate with certain people better and more. So, anyway, that’s why I didn’t continue to read El País. Looking at the (Arts and) Culture section today, however, I found some very interesting articles. I think I’m about to start reading it again.

Take a Spanish class

Foreign language classes are designed not only to improve your reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills in Spanish or whatever other language you may choose to explore, but also to introduce you to the arts and culture of the country or countries where that language is spoken.

In my experience I found that among all the above-mentioned skills, speaking is the one that's the least practiced in some of these classrooms (luckily I've had the pleasure of discovering it's not always the case). And that happens because there may be 15 or 30 people taking that class, and only 1 or 2 hours for the lesson. Another thing that happens is that in a classroom teachers tend not to correct you in order to boost your confidence and encourage you to speak more, which I don't think is always beneficial. I don't want to go on repeating the same mistakes. If I talk on Skype with a friend or let her know over email that I want her to correct my mistakes, she might do it -- ok, maybe not all the time, not when the conversation is very interesting or the tone is very excited -- more often than a teacher would. But that is something that not all people want, so if you think taking a class in Spanish is for you, go for it.

Spanish classes are certainly helpful in the beginning, when you're learning grammar. Lessons are designed to combine grammar and vocabulary exercises. I find that such an approach works for me. Other people prefer full immersion in the language right away, and pick up the language by ear before they can make out the grammar rules the way they are laid out in textbooks.

So, again, foreign language classes are an option to help you improve your conversation skills in the language of your choice. You decide if they are for you. Do keep in mind that lately more and more language course do offer full immersion, whether by offering you the possibility to study at a school in a country where that language is spoken, or by using a classroom method that encourages more conversation. Choose wisely when choosing a foreign language course. They can be expensive and you want to pick something that works for you.

Study with a Tutor

Katemcbride wrote an article here on Wizzley about The Best Place to Learn Spanish. One of her suggestions is that you contract a tutor to work with you privately, by appointment. I think it's a great idea. You may be able to work this time of arrangement easier into a busy schedule than a regular class (and katemcbride's article touches on options regarding those, too, by the way); and in many ways, working with a private tutor can maximize your learning experience per amount of time set aside for it.

Take an Online Course and Interact with a Real-Life Tutor

KellydeBorda here on Wizzley wrote an article about her experience learning Spanish online through WebSpanish has been in business since 2005. As part of the online courses they offer they pair you up with a native speaker who becomes your personal tutor. Read about Kelly's experience in her article:

Are Online Spanish Courses the Best Way to Learn

Subscribe to the Spanish Word of the Day from

There's a site I use a lot online. It's Besides making available a range of great dictionaries for English, an English thesaurus, and other online services in English (including quotes), they offer a Spanish Word of the Day by email, with content provided by Collins. It's a great way to improve your Spanish bit by bit. I don't always have time to read these emails, but every now and then I read a whole bunch of them.

I hope Collins will forgive me for posting Word of the Day content for January 18, 2013, by way of introduction to this great free service that can help you absorb Spanish effortlessly. It's free and it costs you only a few minutes every day. The benefits are considerable. Do it for a year, and your facility with the language will greatly increase with minimum effort on your part.

cambiar, verb:
to change

Apart from meaning to change, cambiar can also mean to swap.

Te cambio mi mochila por ese libro.
I’ll swap you my backpack for that book.

Me gusta el tuyo. Te lo cambio.
I like yours, let’s swap.

If you need to get changed, you express that with cambiarse, the reflexive.

Voy a cambiarme.
I’m going to get changed.

You can add de ropa, for further precision:

Se cambió de ropa, y se afeitó.
He changed clothes and shaved.

French Word of the Day from offers a Word of the Day service too, in French. It's different to the concept in that the word is accompanied only by a plain old sentence. So you won't have all those wonderful notes on language usage that Collins puts together. What you will get here, however, and what you don't get in the Spanish Word of the Day from Collins, is an audio rendition of the sentence.


French word: lundi

English translation: Monday

Part of speech: noun

Il semble que quelqu'un a la morosité du lundi!

Looks like someone has a case of the Mondays!

Great Free Apps for Learning Spanish

If you own a smartphone, tablet, or phablet, you can use Google Play (formerly Android Market) there to download some great apps for to help you with your Spanish.

I have an Android smartphone and have just downloaded two of the best Android apps for Spanish out there. One of them is the Spanish Dictionary RAE, made available for Android phones by STK Developers. If you have been studying Spanish for a while, you probably know what RAE is: Real Academia Española, or the Royal Spanish Academy, the institution that regulates the usage of Spanish since the early 18th century.

Well, the Spanish Dictionary RAE comes not only with a whole bunch of words (from the whole Hispanic world!) and great dictionary entries, but also with verb conjugations. So if you're unsure how to use a verb and know a little grammar, you can quickly check there.

Another one of my favorite apps for learning Spanish is iTranslate. This one is the most popular translating tools out there for any language, and there's a version for iPhones as well. In fact, as its name suggests, it started as an iPhone app first.

iTranslate facilitates interaction with natives to an incredible degree, as it not only helps you translate sentences from English to Spanish and 50+ other languages (it has Romanian as well), but also helps you speak the words -- or let your mobile device do it for you, to help you communicate with native speakers.

Now, the translations are not always spot-on, but that's to be expected. I don't understand why they translated "I'd like a glass of water" (English) to "I'd like a bottle of water" (Romanian), since the word "glass" can never mean "bottle" in Romanian. Also, Romanian doesn't come with the audio feature.

Among the best iPhone apps for learning Spanish, I'm reading Duolingo is one of the most popular. Just like the Spanish Dictionary RAE and iTranslate, this app, too, is free. I'm reading on the iTunes App Store that PC Magazine gave it PC Magazine Editors' Choice for Language Learning, with the blurb: "Among free iPhone apps for learning or practicing a language, you can't beat Duolingo."

So check out Android or iPhone apps if you want to improve your conversational Spanish. They're free and they're fun, and they help a lot when you're traveling. In fact, some apps are designed with travel in mind, so you'll get the content of phrasebooks in an easy-to-navigate format. One of them is Learn Spanish Phrasebook by Codegent. It only includes some 800 words and phrases, but it can be helpful. Another one is the app from (called Learn Spanish with, which is actually a combination of phrasebook and vocabulary (the latter organized by categories and themes).

Arts and Culture of Spain

I found, and I think you will find too, that the more you learn about the language of a country, the more you’ll get interested in certain contemporary and historical aspects of that country. My main interest in Spain involves its art and architecture, its film and movie depictions of contemporary and past life in Spain, its cultural traditions, of course, and contemporary Spanish literature, which I know very little about. Traveling is a great way to learn about art and architecture (as well as about things I may not read a lot about before, such as the natural landscape, plant and animal life of certain regions, or various foods) but newspapers, if they are interested in having a solid arts & culture section (and El País is, just like The Guardian, which I used to read at one time), are also great at channeling important and interesting info to get you acquainted fast with certain topics. Newspapers will also improve your conversational skills, because not all these latter are about is slang and informal speech. To be able to converse in a foreign language, you also have to be capable to put forward an argument in a dialogue, and you have to become used to the lilt of that language, to internalize cadences that go beyond those of short statements like “Soy la leche.”

I’ll leave you with some photos from Andalucía / Andalusia in the south of Spain, taken during a trip in 2011 (occasioned by my friend’s wedding), when I was finally able to understand 90% of what was being spoken colloquially. It was my second trip to Andalucía but not my second trip to Spain, since in recent years I’ve traveled three times to the Canary Islands, where I have one of my best friends, who is, by the way, married to a Canarian. So I got to learn some Canarian Spanish as well.

Fiesta en Andalucía / Fiesta in Andalusia

Fiesta in Andalusia
Fiesta in Andalusia
© Mira at Wizzley
Women wearing flamenco dresses in Andalusia
Women wearing flamenco dresses in Andalusia
© Mira at Wizzley
Girl in flamenco dress on horseback during local fiesta in Andalusia
Girl in flamenco dress on horseback during local fiesta in Andalusia
© Mira at Wizzley

Carnival in Gran Canaria

Carnival float in Gran Canaria
Carnival float in Gran Canaria
© Mira at Wizzley
Carnival parade in Gran Canaria
Carnival parade in Gran Canaria
© Mira at Wizzley

Colonial Architecture in Gran Canaria

Colonial architecture in Gran Canaria
Colonial architecture in Gran Canaria
© Mira at Wizzley
Patio of a colonial house in Gran Canaria
Patio of a colonial house in Gran Canaria
© Mira at Wizzley

Back to Learning Spanish

Some of My Favorite TV Series
Desperate Housewives: The Complete Collection Deluxe Edition

Inside this exquisitely appointed box, a treasure trove of guilty pleasure awaits. Delve inside and bite into the forbidden fruit that has seduced and satisfied audiences for al...

View on Amazon

Cold Feet - The Complete Collection - 11-DVD Box Set ( Life, Love & Everything Else (Young Adults...

United Kingdom released, PAL/Region 2 DVD: it WILL NOT play on standard US DVD player. You need multi-region PAL/NTSC DVD player to view it in USA/Canada: LANGUAGES: English ( D...

View on Amazon

I hope you enjoyed this article and will use some of my suggestions. Have fun learning conversational Spanish or any other language with DVDs such as these. I know I will!

Updated: 10/11/2014, Mira
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


Mira on 11/29/2016

Frank: Wow, a couple of years? Nice! :)

Mira on 11/29/2016

Thanks :). It may be that people in Andalusia have more of a flair for dance and the dramatic :)

frankbeswick on 11/29/2016

My son spent a couple of years teaching English as a second language in Cordoba.

DerdriuMarriner on 11/29/2016

Mira, Very nice observations and suggestions! Córdoba remains one of my favorite cities because, among other attractions, people walking on the street would stop and strike flamenco postures.

Mira on 08/23/2014

Thanks, Telesto, for your comment. I'd never heard of those methods (Michel Thomas and Memrise) until you mentioned them. Hopefully they will help people reading this. Thank you!

Telesto on 08/23/2014

Thanks for this Mira, I'm learning Italian, so it's useful to learn about different ways to help. The Michel Thomas system has been recommended to me, I'm going to try it soon. At the moment,since we broke up from class, I'm spending a lot of time with Memrise and Duolingo. They are good, but there is still the grammar to learn.

Mira on 09/16/2013

Thank you, Shraddha. Unfortunately I've been too tired lately to do the DVD thing, watching the movies with foreign subtitles, but if you can do that, know that it helps enormously! I can't wait to learn some more French that way. Also, when you're pressed for time, a few sentences with words of the day every few days help too. And class interaction has its own advantages, and so on. Thanks again for stopping by and commenting!

WriterArtist on 09/16/2013

There is no short-cut for learning a foreign language but here are some useful tips to shorten the learning curve.

Mira on 05/23/2013

Thank you, Yvette, for stopping by. Glad I could offer some useful ideas. :) What online program are you using, and how do you like it so far?

Guest on 05/23/2013

Hi Mira, your page is great. I always wanted to learn Spanish, and you give some informative ideas. I've just started with an online program, but need to organize my schedule to spend more time practicing. Thanks for sharing

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