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What types of sentences are easiest for beginners to understand, presuming that the beginner has already learned the relevant meaning of all of the words contained in the sentence? Presume also that we are talking about sentences that contain no idiomatic phrases, for example phrasal verbs.

I'm a native English speaker learning Spanish. I'm exposed to Spanish on a daily basis and when I hear a word a few times I will ask for its meaning. I find that this method allows me to learn words in an effortless manner. I'm now at the stage where I wish to understand sentences. Recently I heard the sentence "Yo no lo creo". Immediately I realised that I understood all of the words in the sentence, and tried to establish its meaning: Yo->I, no->not, lo->it, creo->think. "I not it think". Ah, it means "I don't think so". It took me a number of seconds to arrive at this meaning. And each time I hear the sentence I'm forced to repeat the steps once again - frustrating! Therefore, I get the feeling that this is not a good sentence for beginners even if it contains common simple words and even if those words carry their literal meanings. This is because the sentence is so abstract and because I am not thinking in Spanish since I am converting each word to English before I can establish the meaning of the sentence.

Anyway, I have a large list of sentences contains only those words that I have learned so far. A friend of mine who speaks Spanish has offered to record these sentences for me so that I can practice with them. Here is an example of some of these sentences:

  • está todo bien: is everything okay
  • yo no lo creo: i don't think so
  • eso eres tú: that thou art
  • cómo era ella: what was she like
  • lo tienes todo: do you have everything
  • está ella en casa: is she at home
  • me siento bien gracias: i'm feeling fine thanks
  • sé que lo puedes hacer mejor: i know you can make it better
  • dónde estaba eso: where was that
  • cómo te va: how are you doing
  • tú lo eres todo para mí: you are everything to me
  • puedo ir con él: may i go with him
  • parece ser una buena casa: it seems to be a good house
  • fuera de aquí: get out of here
  • por qué está aquí: why is he here
  • es mi mejor amigo: he's my best friend
  • quiere hablar con usted: he wants to talk to you
  • es el mismo hombre: is that the same guy
  • voy a casa de mi amigo: i am going to my friend's house
  • soy el hombre de la casa: i'm the man of the house

I'd like to start listening to the "best sentences for beginners" from my large list. But how do I determine the best sentences? I'm sure that word order compared to English, sentence length, concrete versus abstract and idioms are all factors. I'd imagine a sentence like "my house is big" is good since it is very visual and therefore it will help me to connect words to pictures in my memory rather than to their English meanings.

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    Your explanation of puzzling out "yo no lo creo" sounds to me like an easier process, not a harder one, so I wonder if what is "easiest" depends mostly on the individual. In that case why don't you just go down your list, and choose the ones that seem easiest to you? – Dan Getz May 14 '16 at 14:22
  • @Dan Getz Yes I will try that but I was wondering if there has been any research in this area since I will only be guessing as to which sentences will be "easiest". Hopefully my friend won't mind record sentences a few times as I figure out what works best. I also think it weird that I translate each word in "yo no lo creo" to English. This is not what we do in our native language. This is why I'm inclined, to start with, in favour of sentences which can be associated with an image as it seems more nature to connect meanings to pictures rather than to words in my native language. – Baz May 14 '16 at 17:10
  • your idea sounds good to me; I'll be interested to see what experts say about it. – Dan Getz May 14 '16 at 17:15
  • Rather than trying to narrow down "easier sentences", why not focus your question on what I read as the primary issue, how to improve phrase understanding when the L2 part-of-speech order is different than your L1. While word-to-word translation L2 to L1 is not a problem (at beginning stages anyway), word order can cause lots of confusion. Also to what level have you studied Spanish grammar? – user3169 May 14 '16 at 18:51
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    @user3169 I will not be reading Spanish and this fact is based on principle. I have learned Swedish before and those mistakes that still haunt me today can be traced back to me learning via text. For example, I still pronounce the common verb "ge" as "gay" instead of saying "yay". I am still doing this ten years after I began learning the language, a language I am reasonably fluent at today. I want to listen to Spanish only. Now I could just listen to the language in a passive manner but I want to see if I can do things more efficiently by listening to the "best sentences" for a learner. – Baz May 14 '16 at 19:00
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I've got several ideas because I've studied Spanish for about 4 years in school now, so these are some tips that I used.

  • Use sentences with the same word order as English. For example, Yo soy un hombre may be good to start off with because it has the same structure as the equivalent English translation, I am a man.
  • Next, throw in some negatives in the sentences. Try Yo no soy una mujer and compare it to the English I am not a woman. Note that the negative word (not) comes before the verb in Spanish and after the verb in English.
  • Once you've mastered that, try some questions. A good example might be ¿(Tú) descansas? while the English translation is Did you rest?

Once you've done these basic tips, work out some sort of dialogue, perhaps between maybe a salesperson and a customer. Not only will this allow you to practice new vocabulary, you can also make sure you understand how to properly script questions, and it will also get you to use negatives in an answer.

I'm sure that word order compared to English, sentence length, concrete versus abstract and idioms are all factors. I'd imagine a sentence like "my house is big" is good since it is very visual and therefore it will help me to connect words to pictures in my memory rather than to their English meanings.

You would be right in that assumption. I find that material objects like animals, foods, and colors are far more simple to use in daily speech and writing and are much simpler to grasp. (A side note: something that I've noticed when studying Spanish all this years is that it is most often the nonmaterial or abstract concepts that are used in idiomatic expressions.) Like you said, it is much easier to visualize a concept before saying it, so start off with easily memorable objects in your life, then expand on to more complex, abstract vocabulary.

I personally don't find sentence length to be a big deal as long as you know all or most of the vocabulary used in the sentence. However, the hardest idea to grasp in a foreign language is idiomatic expressions. For example, if you literally translated the sentences Tengo quince años. También, tengo mucho hambre porque no comí., you would get something like I have fifteen years. Also, I have much hunger because I did not eat.

Knowing Spanish idioms can help you simplify this to a more common form of English: I am fifteen years old. Also, I am very hungry because I didn't eat.

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The best sentences for beginners can vary on a case by basis. I tried to figure out some common views.

  1. Sentences which you frequently use in your native language. You can try to remember the Spanish counterpart when you are speaking the sentence.
  2. Sentences with words you already know as you said.
  3. Sentences with words in the same order as the translated sentences. However it is not possible in all cases. For example, if you are learning Tamil through English then most of the sentences will not have the words in the same order.
  4. Commonly used sentences (in the language you are going to learn) if you do things such as reading novels, watching movies, etc... in the language you are learning.
  5. Sentences which you can imagine visually or picturise.
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My A1 number one tip for you is to find a Spanish speaker and do a language exchange. We learn language best through a strong sense of context, and through needing to use the language in purposeful communication.

If you can't do this, then listen to video designed for language learning where the context of the language being used is very clear. Learning chunks of language like no lo puedo creer is useful when you are actually using the language, but it is kind of useless if you're learning it from a book sitting in your bedroom at home. Your brain has no engagement with the language itself. You have no interpersonal, emotional or goal oriented reason to absorb it.

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