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,
    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.