Learning Languages: My Epic Journey to Speaking Spanish
Learning a new language...few things in a person's education are more challenging or more rewarding than this one pursuit, but it takes a huge devotion of time and patience and - in order to ensure that that time and patience are not wasted - the proper tools to learn. Finding those tools can be quite daunting and without them you may feel like the task of learning a language is completely insurmountable...that was me, after many years of trying to learn Spanish I felt like I was making no appreciable progress and that perhaps I just didn't "have the knack" for languages. Let's start at the beginning of my story...
At this point in my life I knew how to say "please", "thank you", "hurry up" and "let's go" in Spanish because my mother used them around the house, but she decided that perhaps that wasn't quite sufficient and bought a series of tapes with books to go with them for my sister and I to start learning in earnest. These tapes start with basic words of color, location, numbers, etc. read by a Mexican native (my mom picked those tapes specifically for that narrator because of the substantial Mexican population in the town) with corresponding pictures in the books, no English is used but it starts out basic enough that one can tell what the words mean by the pictures.
We used these tapes twice a week (one lesson each time) for about six months and then never got the next set...but even with all the time invested I finished those tapes knowing little more than basic vocabulary of household items, some professions, the names of some businesses in town, and so on. I think if we'd continued the tapes I would, in time, have been able to carry on a very basic conversation in Spanish...though possibly in a LOT of time considering it took six months in the first place. Despite the limited success these tapes did form a fairly broad and firm foundation for my future learning.
Yes, it truly did take this long to get back to learning this language. By age 15 I'd been in the public school for two years and finally got the opportunity to take classes in Spanish, which I happily did for two years. Throughout the course of these classes I learned how to introduce myself, ask for directions, conjugate verbs in "standard Spanish" (I'll discuss that later), the basics of grammar and word order, and quite a bit more vocabulary.
There were a few problems with these classes. First, though the teacher was skilled at delivering a message to his students he wasn't a native speaker so we got to hear a flawed accent and the Spanish he knew was for basic communication as opposed to actually "speaking like a native" with native inflections, phrases and lingo. The next problem is that I have some difficulty with just sitting down and reading, writing, speaking and listening to these basic sentences that we were taught and actually retaining what I learned. When we practiced speaking it was always talking to a classmate about an assigned subject that reviewed what was learned in the past lesson with a little review and no more...and I can assure you it is not at all difficult to understand a conversation that only covers things you've learned within the past week. In short, I was getting bored. The third problem with the classroom setting and I think possibly the largest deficit is that there was no extra incentive to learn...we had to learn to pass our tests and do our homework and as soon as the bell rang we walked off cheerfully chatting to our friends in English and not thinking about it again until the next assignment came due. Absolutely no reinforcement of what we learned.
Several months ago I sat here seething in frustration at my apparent lack of language capabilities; I am a person who would love nothing more than to be able to speak every language known to man yet had never been able to master this language that I'd heard spoken on the streets my entire life and have wanted to learn for its beauty and widespread usage. Finally I decided that it wasn't a matter of being no good at learning languages, it was a matter of being too lazy to seek out a system that works for me. As must always happen for true learning to take place, I took my education into my own hands. I started seeking out my own system, my particular resources allowed for pretty much anything online that costs little or nothing. The funny thing is that after all the time and expense of learning Spanish I did find a way to learn it fast and effectively for free.
What Has Worked for Me
I think the most valuable learning tool I've discovered so far is a language and culture exchange. In this case, finding native speakers that I could talk to through online messaging who could teach me Spanish in exchange for my help with their English, each learning about the other's home and culture while practicing using the language. Sounds great...but where to find someone like that? The first huge leap in my Spanish education occurred the day I, by chance, ran across the advertisement for a site called My Happy Planet (linked below). This site is designed as a social networking site but geared specifically to people wanting to learn languages...each person's profile details the languages they speak and the languages they are learning with their proficiency in each, making it very easy to search for someone who is a native speaker of the language you wish to learn who also wants to learn your native language. Basic lessons in each language are also available on the site but be aware that they are user-submitted and so must be picked over for the accurate and valuable ones.
So I sign up...then what? By this point I'd forgotten most of what I learned in school, but at least remembered the fundamental elements enough to find them again and review so that with the help of a translator I could communicate (however ineptly) with Spanish speakers. I started "smiling at" a few people whose profiles suggested we would have some common ground to hinge conversations on and within a day had some native speakers to chat with...an quickly found out just how much I needed to learn. As time has gone on I have invested in a headset for my computer so that I can speak to those people as well as write (an effective combination for me because new words can be written so I also learn the spelling and any word that is not understood by either person can also be written) and can not believe how fast I've learned.
I believe the success I've experienced with talking to native speakers is primarily because of two factors...first, because I have the added incentive and follow-up to really commit this language to heart (to be able to communicate and then to be able to continue speaking to my new friends, a much better incentive than just to pass a test), and second because my "teachers" can fill me in on things I didn't even know existed to learn (for example, I'd previously never been made aware that Chile and Argentina use different sets of conjugation than the rest of the Spanish-speaking world...until someone asked me if I preferred he speak "in Chilano or ‘standard Spanish'").
However, as effective as this talking has been I felt the need to speed things up a bit and hopefully reduce some of the exasperation my "teachers" must be feeling at teaching me so I also sought out some actual spoken lessons to review things I already knew and to add to my basic knowledge of mechanics and vocabulary...finding such lessons can be difficult if you need it to be high-quality, interesting, and cheap or free, but I managed to find a series of lessons called Coffee Break Spanish (also linked below), a program out of Scotland that goes all the way from introducing yourself to some very in-depth discussions about uses of words and regional differences...and all in 15- or 20-minute lessons. The first 15 lessons or so covered the same sort of things I learned in school so I breezed through those by way of review and now try to do a lesson or two every week to supplement daily chats with native speakers.
Finding a System and Making it Work for You
If you are like me then you can follow the aforementioned methods and probably experience some surprisingly outstanding results...but the truth is a vast majority of you are not like me, so how do you know what will work? Here are a few pointers for finding your own system.
Identify your needs/wants: Do you want to learn just enough Spanish to order food at a Mexican restaurant or do you want to strive to the closest to fluency a non-native speaker can achieve? If all you want is to be able to ask for directions in a Spanish-speaking city then there is no need to go in-depth and spend months learning all this language if you don't really have an interest and aren't going to learn it, so save yourself some time and frustration and identify your goals first.
Determine how you learn best: Education classes will tell us that there are numerous ways of learning (six primary ones, if I remember correctly) and most people learn best in only a couple of them, so try to determine which ones are best for you...is it easier to hear it? See it (such as pictures)? Learn through hands-on activity? Once you've determined what you feel to be ideal for your learning it's time to find a system with hopefully a bit of variety and balance to aid in your learning.
Acknowledge that this will take time...a lot of time: Learning a new language is not easy and encompasses such a vast amount of information that you never can really "know it all"....and even "knowing it a little" could take months or even longer. Be prepared for something that will take a huge time investment, but luckily it's an investment that can be made at your own pace and that can be added to for your entire life.
Focus! Once you've found ways to learn sufficient with what works best for you it's time to really buckle down...find at least one small activity per day that uses the language, even if it's something as simple as writing a quick note or looking up a couple of vocabulary words. The more you use the language the more your previous learning will be reinforced and the faster you can commit even more to heart. Also, one of my primary problems with talking to native speakers to learn is that there is a strong temptation to be lazy and "work on their English" and never quite get around to practicing your Spanish...all of the people I talk to are just as eager to learn English as I am to learn Spanish and so it can be easy to use my native language instead, particularly with the people I most enjoy talking to because I can say a lot more in each conversation in my native language. Keep your goals in mind and set a rule with your study partners that you will switch between the languages in some set pattern...be it "switch every ten minutes" or "every other conversation in ______ language"
Find some discouragement-reducing activities: With something as in-depth and time-consuming as a new language it can be very easy to get frustrated and feel like you aren't making any progress and "what's the point anyway, I'm never going to get it". I've caught myself in these kinds of mind sets before and each time I will imagine scenarios in my head in Spanish so I can realize how much I know or look back on old messenger conversations to see how much I've learned in such a short amount of time...find some activities that will work to reduce your own discouragement and that will help you stick with it, it's worth it!
Obviously there is a lot more to learning a language but hopefully what I've outlined here will help you get started on your road to learning that second language...and maybe even the third and fourth after that!
- Coffee Break Spanish
Some lessons that have worked very well for me...they're short, interested, and very well put-together. Did I mention free?
- My Happy Planet
An awesome site for meeting native speakers in just about any language so you can learn via language exchange and meet new friends while you're at it
- Babelfish Translator
A free, easy text translator that I use for support when I don't know certain words
- Verb Forms
Having trouble with conjugation or need some extra practice? This page lists tons of verbs and each of their forms