Increase Spanish Fluency Outside of the Classroom
Your Target Audience
You can usually tell which students are really serious about becoming fluent in Spanish. They submit all of the assignments and homework activities on time, and seize every opportunity to participate in class. They're the students you'll see practicing their Spanish on any native speakers that are willing to listen. These enthusiastic, dedicated students have the "secret ingredient" to becoming truly fluent, which takes more than just showing up for class. They're also the ones most likely to make use of out-of-class exercises like the following.
Television as Brain Food
There are enough Spanish speakers in the US that if you have cable television, you probably have access to at least one Spanish-language channel. If there are no Spanish-language channels in your area, search the Internet for video podcasts and online television programs. These channels and programs are priceless for working on real-world Spanish listening comprehension skills. Spanish-speakers on television speak fast, make puns, and use popular (but grammatically incorrect) idioms -- all things that people do in real life, but usually not in Spanish class.
Scan through the listings for your local (or Internet-based) Spanish channels and pick out a few programs from different genres. Your goal should be to expose yourself to the broadest spectrum possible, from Latin American youth culture to Cervantes-era classic Spanish. Each different program and channel will have speakers using a variety of Spanish accents, expressions and even mannerisms; try to catch a range of popular genres such as comedy, news, talk and sitcoms or "novelas." If you have access to a DVR or on-demand programming, all the better.
Try to spend at least an hour a day watching the programming you've selected, even if you have to fit it in while you cook meals or clean house. Keep a vocabulary journal and a pen nearby and jot down any unfamiliar words as they come up, but don't go running for the dictionary. You can worry about exact meanings later; for now, just let the unfamiliar words flow over you and focus on catching the gist of the conversation. If you find yourself getting frustrated about not understanding the words, set the vocabulary notebook aside and just watch and listen.
A learning exercise that revolves around watching TV may seem a bit silly to some, but any person who's learning a new language will quickly see how helpful this exercise can be. Over time, even the fast-speaking newscasters will become more intelligible, and you'll find it easier to understand different regional accents. If you're not lucky enough to know native Spanish speakers in your community, this may be the closest you can come to real immersion.
Watching Spanish-language television can be pretty entertaining, too, as you adjust to a different culture's ideals of humor and professionalism. You'll know that you're becoming fluent when you start understanding jokes, puns, declarations of romance and heated, emotional discussions. In the meantime, remember that you won't necessarily understand a lot of the words you hear at first; try to relax and just enjoy what you're watching. Also, don't fall into the trap of assuming that Spanish-speaking people always follow the conventions or mannerisms you'll see on television. On-screen behaviors are almost exaggerated, in any language.