Reverse Realia: Learn to Speak Spanish Just by Looking Around You

Although my little apartment is on the older side and a bit rough around the edges, one thing I do love about it is that it has a lot of windows. Any time it is sunny, I open all the blinds and let the light stream in. One recent day as I made the rounds, I noticed the warning tag on the cord and saw that it was in Spanish. I flipped it over and saw that it was in English on the other side.

Blinds tag in English & Spanish
You never know when you’ll come across a language learning opportunity, so be sure to take advantage of them whenever you do!
Photos courtesy of the writer

I decided to try to read the Spanish and check my understanding with the English. I got the gist, partly because of my knowledge of Spanish and partly because I knew what to expect from a warning sign on a cord that had a picture of a small child reaching with a “no” symbol (a circle with a diagonal line through it). This combination of knowing some Spanish and encountering the language in a real life situation full of context clues was a valuable and meaningful learning experience.

There were several words and phrases that I didn’t understand. Rather than being frustrated by this, as I might be on a test or while doing a worksheet, my curiosity was sparked. Because I had the English translation right there, it was easy to flip back and forth to get the meaning of the words I didn’t know. It was also interesting to compare the syntax between the two languages: the order of words within phrases and phrases within sentences. Because I was encountering the language in a natural context, my brain had a framework for absorbing the information.

I think of this as a sort of reverse realia. Realia is used in language learning classrooms to connect lessons to reality. For example, if students are going to learn vocabulary for weather, the teacher might bring in a newspaper with a weather forecast to serve as a springboard and point of reference for the lesson. This is a great approach to language because it connects arbitrary symbols (language) to their purpose (communicating meaning about the real world around us), an essential element of learning and retention.

A great explanation of the benefits of using realia in language learning.

Similarly, coming across the language you want to acquire naturally in your everyday life prompts learning. Real life is the prompt and language fits into it, as opposed to a predetermined lesson that incorporates a bit of real life. This is how we experience much of life, so why not experience a new language this way? If you’re in a restroom at a restaurant and the “wash your hands” sign or the notice about the risks of alcohol is also in Spanish, read it! If you’re at the DMV and there is a Spanish version of the form, read it! If you get a new board game and are reading the rules, see if they have them in Spanish; if they do, read them! Even if you don’t get every word, you’ll have contact with the language in a meaningful context that you can relate to.

Campus no smoking sign
This school is emphatic to both English and Spanish speaking students when establishing campus rules.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Daniel Lobo

Because our world is becoming more globalized, multilingual materials are very common: tags on clothes, warning labels, instructions, forms, and signs, just to name a few. While some people may think things should only be printed in one language, it is simply reality that there are many different languages coexisting in many places. If you’re trying to learn Spanish, take advantage of the materials all around you as both catalyst and support. You never know where a little chunk of language may be waiting, so always be on the lookout! If you find one, let us know in the comments below.

If you’re interested in an immersive and comprehensive way to improve your Spanish using real life materials, the Pars Omni program will help you improve in a real way. Check out the video on our homepage and download your free software now!