Learn Spanish by Memorizing Simple Bible Stories

If you're not up for spending a month in Mexico, learning simple Spanish stories by heart may be the next best thing.

Learning Spanish? Try memorizing simple Bible stories.

How simple? How about a version that uses only 850 vocabulary words (plus proper names) for the entire New Testament?

It’s the Nueva Vida Biblia Bilingüe (New Life™ Bilingual Bible). And it seriously does seem to use only 850 different words.

As a translation, sure, it’s not the most accurate. Instead of “priest”, you get “religious leader”. Instead of “Levite”, you get “man of the family of Levi”. There are no “parables”, only “stories” or “examples”.

But what do you expect for 850 words. It’s no study bible. But as a tool for learning basic Spanish grammar and vocabulary, this book seems ideal.

The Text is Familiar, But Also New

I’m already familiar with the content, which makes a huge difference. At the same time, I’m mostly focusing on texts that I haven’t memorized in English.

For instance, I’ve started with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, in Luke, because this parable isn’t in the Gospel of Mark, which I’ve memorized. I don’t want a word-for-word English translation conflicting with the Spanish words I’m learning.

Not Too Easy, Not Too Hard

I already know enough vocabulary and beginner grammar to have a basic understanding of most verses. This is very exciting.

But the verses aren’t too simple. Actually, at this point, any complete sentences more complex than “Voy al teatro” have a lot to teach me.

Sure, I’ve logged many hours listening to carefully crafted dialogues. But somehow, they don’t energize my mind the way that following a story does.

To be fair, I never tried memorizing those dialogues. Memorizing changes everything.

Memorizing: Do-It-Yourself Immersion?

Why does everyone recommend learning a language by immersion? One reason is that you hear the same basic words and patterns over and over and over again.

I used to think that learning a foreign language would mostly be stockpiling vocabulary. But a huge percentage of the words in Spanish (and hopefully all the Romance languages) are very similar to our Latinate English. Quick, translate el dentista, el doctor, inteligente. Too easy.

But the common words, and even more, the common language patterns, are completely different.

For instance, Spanish is a festival of tiny pronouns and conjunctions. You can’t open your mouth without a se or a lo popping out. And que seems to be the glue that keeps everything from falling apart.

When I approach Spanish as a puzzle, I keep thrashing around, trying to parse each sentence by the rules.

But when I memorize a simple story, I’m practicing a skill. I don’t need to know exactly why the same sentence has lo robaron but then se fueron. I just need to keep deepening the new grooves in my brain. Lo robaron. Se fueron. Lo robaron. Se fueron.

Yes, I need a basic idea of what lo and se are doing there. But beyond that, my task is to get used to the new patterns.

Learn Verb Forms Naturally

Then there’s verb forms. The verb ir only counts as one of those 850 words. But even in a text this simple, this crazy verb will show up in forms as diverse as voy, fue, and iba.

Common verbs tend to be the most irregular. I would much rather learn these crazy forms in context than try to memorize (and then use) the conjugation charts.

(Lest I sound like a whiner, I want to note that I’m very happy to be speaking English and learning Spanish, not the other way round. English is insane. Especially our spelling and pronunciation.)

Memorizing Won’t Be Enough

Learning texts by heart won’t be enough. I’ll need to keep learning vocabulary and reading about grammar.

And I’ll need to make new sentences too. I’ve already tried striking up a conversation at the local tiendita. The conversation was short. Exciting (for me), but short.

Memorizing Focuses Your Attention

But learning these texts could be a huge boost. I’m willing to bet that memorizing is much more effective than spending the same amount of time taking in a stream of constantly changing language.

Partly, I know this from experience. I’ve listened to around sixty lessons of constantly changing Spanish. Because everything is always new, I remain at a superficial level, scrambling to figure out what’s happening. Not much sticks.

By contrast, memorizing focuses my attention. With each pass over the material, the pattern etches deeper. I get that se I missed last time, or that al instead of el.

Don’t Forget Bible Rhythms

Naturally, I also break these verses into Bible rhythms. Chunking the text into phrases makes it so much easier to understand and remember.

Here’s the first verse of the buen samaritano (Luke 10:30):

Jesús dijo:
    “Un hombre iba de Jerusalén
       a la ciudad de Jericó
y fue atacado
    por ladrones.
Lo robaron,
    lo golpearon
       y se fueron,
dejándolo
    casi muerto.

Typing the Text Also Helps

To get these rhythms, I need to retype the text. But this is unexpectedly helpful. Even typing Spanish, I feel the patterns soaking in. Which makes sense — every way of learning activates different parts of your brain. So this “chore” turns out to be a good exercise.

Breaking My Public Domain Rule

Normally, I don’t memorize anything that’s under copyright.

But in this case, the free Spanish Bibles are mostly too old-fashioned, and probably all too complex. If you know of simple, contemporary Spanish New Testament that’s freely licensed, let me know!

I wouldn’t memorize an entire book of the Gospel with this translation. But for where I am, the controlled vocabulary and the simple language are a perfect match. Bit by bit, my brain is getting accustomed to real Spanish.

2 Replies to “Learn Spanish by Memorizing Simple Bible Stories”

  1. How about learning from context?
    I know this is a website about memorizing, but I think the ability to understand something from context is the key in learning a foreign language. Never tried memorizing a whole book, but definitely remembering phrases is very helpful in learning a foreign language. By learning whole phrases instead of individual words one obtains better ‘organic’ understanding of grammar (not mentioning collocations and an unconcious feeling why this word should be used in one context and not in another), as you mentioned, but I would disagree that any ‘concious’ knowledge is necessary in order to speak correctly a Language (I would suggest trying out Pimsleur method). Memorizing those phrases may be done as well unconciously by reading thousands of texts. The point is that one doesn’t need and it’s even better when one is able to understand a full text without knowing all the vocabulary included in the text and by reading lots of them, the most common words and phrases are being reread and because of that memorized. Another thing which comes to my mind is the fact that in books, the language differs much from the spoken one, especially in the novels where the used vocabulary range is much wider than in ordinary speech. Many words may have little use outside books, so knowing them can be neat but not obligatory on early stages of learning. I think memorizing >whole< books, in means, each line perfectly, can be a great way to master a language in order to be a translator, a writer, or simply to... be fluent in it, but in my opinion people on basic and intermediate level can get a lot by simply reading texts, trying to guess the meaning, and additionaly comparing it with the translation in Native or whathever language this person knows well. I wouldn't recommend trying to translate foreign language into the native in one's head though, I think it's much better to try to think in a target language. After some time one can experience that they can't say something in native language but knows that word in foreign one, at least it happens to me.Hope I didn't embarassed myself by writing everything above with thousands of mistakes, nevertheless I hope it's at least legible. I also hope it doesn't sound rude, because it wasn't my intention, if it does, I'm sorry and it'll mean I shouldn't be writting comments at 5 am anymore.Maybe mixing those two methods (not mentioning listening and practicing pronunciation of the language which could be done by easily reading/memorizing them parallelly with listening to audio-books and reading aloud) would be a key for efficient language learning.Good luck in learning Spanish and other languages!P.S. I'd also like to mention that I’m also very happy to be speaking Polish and learning English, not the other way round. 🙂 Every language is insane at some extent and it's beuautiful about them.

    1. Hi Radosław! Not rude at all,
      Hi Radosław! Not rude at all, and as for mistakes, your English is worlds better than my Spanish would be if I tried to comment.

      I agree that there are definite benefits to reading and hearing lots of texts and dialogues. I don’t mean to put those methods down, only to share my excitement at how memorizing stories seems to bring additional clarity for me. The more I learn about learning a language, the more it seems you need a wide variety of methods to ever actually arrive at fluency. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

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