Over the course of more than thirty years in Mexico, I've had the benefit of many amateur tutors to correct and refine my Spanish. When it comes to learning a foreign language, however, I am not a 'quick study'. (For the life of me, I still don't understand why the Widow Twankey is cross with her son.) In spite of all my work, there's no doubt that rough spots, gaps and outright grammatical embarrassments still remain.
Based on my own efforts to learn Spanish, I've observed several important hurdles that have to be overcome to achieve real fluency.
--Challenge yourself to improve. Rather than accepting the status quo, make an effort to identify and correct your most common mistakes in grammar and pronunciation. Most Mexicans are too polite to offer corrections. When speaking Spanish, watch other people's faces for flickers of doubt, surprise, shock, dismay or even disgust. These valuable clues indicate that you may be committing errors or fracturing the laws of grammar. How many of us have said, "Estoy embarasado" (I'm pregnant) when we really meant, "Estoy apenado" (I'm embarrassed)?
--Keep written lists of your doubts, questions and words you don't quite understand. Periodically ask a native speaker to go over these with you.
--Take chances. In spite of the previous points, don't be afraid to make mistakes. Strengthening your vocabulary and loosening your tongue require that you 'exercise' new words and grammatical forms in real-life situations.
--Read in Spanish! I started with comic books and children's schoolbooks, then graduated to the daily newspaper, non-fiction, and finally, mystery novels!
--Talk to yourself. One of my favorite methods of study is to imagine myself in common situations -- buying a bus ticket or arguing politics -- and then 'scripting' the conversation in Spanish, line by line and quip by clever quip.
--Repeat yourself. Simple, repetitious conversations with native Spanish speakers are invaluable aids toward speaking naturally. These conversations about the weather, jobs, food or cost of living may not be intellectually challenging, but they'll help you learn to speak Spanish without having to think about each word before you use it.