I wouldn’t say that learning a foreign language is difficult as such, but it does take time. There are things you can do to speed up the process, but I don’t think there are any true short-cuts. I found sometimes information just doesn’t sink in as fast as you would like, and you can’t force your brain and memory to absorb information faster than it is able to. All you can do is increase your exposure to the language and practice until it sticks.
While some ways may help you learn quicker what works for one person may not work as well for another. Here’s what worked for me:
1. Move to Argentina or the Spanish-speaking country of your choice, at least for a bit. It may be stating the obvious but full immersion (which excludes moving to another country and mixing exclusively with fellow ex-pats) will really boost your skills. Sometimes this isn’t the answer people want to hear when they are looking for language-learning tips. People have all sorts of reasons why they can’t just up and leave their life or go on a sabbatical. These reasons may well be genuine, and only you can decide what your priorities are, but it’s just a fact that you’ll learn faster if you’re surrounded by the language every day. If learning Spanish really is your priority, then you should consider spending some time in a foreign country. You will find yourself frustrated at times, but when I look back, the times I was frustrated (at not being able to follow a conversation properly, or unable to express myself fully) were probably the times I was really learning.
2. Just give it a go. If you are in a situation where you can talk with native speakers, go ahead and make mistakes. Just use what you can to say what you want and get your message across. One thing I found quite frustrating was that many Argentinians would want to practice their English with me. Particularly starting out, whenever I ran into difficulties people would try to switch over to talking English. Even when my Spanish was at a higher level than their English people would want to take the opportunity to practice or show off. Stick with it and answer back in Spanish as best you can.
3. Formal classes – many people disagree, but to me it’s still one of the best ways to learn the basics. Teaching is an art and being talented in a subject is a very different skill to being a good teacher. Your own experiences are likely to be shaped by the quality of the teacher you find. There are also some incredibly reasonably priced adult education courses around. I found that the structure and group-work involved in a structured learning environment was really helpful. Not to mention the tips and encouragement from other people learning who are about the same level as you.
4. Watch films in Spanish, with the (Spanish) subtitles on. It’s a good way to develop your listening comprehension. It also works watching films you’ve seen before – that way you already know what they’re going to say and what happens and you can sit back and enjoy the ride. I found it too distracting to watch films made in English but dubbed into Spanish, but it can be useful. Besides, there are many amazing films coming out of Latin America and Spain that you are spoiled for choice.
5. Read trashy paperback novels in Spanish. You may not understand everything, but you will see numerous examples of sentences and grammar constructions. The key is to not use a dictionary as you read, you will likely find it too slow, get frustrated and not be able to get much further. Much better to follow what you can and get the gist of what’s going on. If a word keeps coming up, by all means look it up, just don’t stop to check every word you don’t know, you’ll slow to a crawl, get frustrated and stop. I found a good compromise was to wait until the end of a chapter, then look up all the new words that I could remember. I would usually only remember 5 words that kept coming up and have to check those. Ask yourself – if you can’t remember the word you wanted to look up a few minutes after reading it, are you really going to remember it once you have looked it up? Besides, if a word only comes up once in a chapter, it’s probably not a common / key word and therefore not worth stopping for. If you’re still struggling, children’s books can be a good starting point. With the advent of e-readers, you have many options. You can also find audio-books on-line and follow the text on your e-reader.
6. Change the language setting on your phone. It might not help too much, but it will certainly drive a few extra words into your memory. If you’re feeling very brave, change it on your computer too. I tried this but found it a bit much when searching for the more obscure menu items, which is just annoying when you want to complete some important task or do some work and you’re not really in the mood for practicing.
7. Question your idea of ‘fluency’ – There are different levels of fluency, in reality most people would consider being able to hold a conversation on any topic to be fluent. If that’s your aim, the best way is to practice talking and learn through sweat, tears, frustration and sign language! There is a big difference between fluency and literacy. There are many people who get by in their native language without achieving what I would call true literacy.
8. Listen to music, read the lyrics and sing along. I found this a great way to practice the different sounds, and also how the words fit together. Really listen to the sounds and try to copy them exactly, especially the way two words might run into each other. Copying the sounds in this way can make your speech sound more like a native and less robotic.
9. Kids are brilliant, often patient teachers! They can be much more forgiving about mistakes, but also direct when they do correct your errors. Adult speakers may sometimes let mistakes ride. This is fine for conversation flow, but when you’re making the same mistake repeatedly, you really want them to pull you up on it before it becomes a habit. I still have incorrect phrases ingrained in my head as I wasn’t corrected early on!
10. Listen to podcasts or audio-courses. Pimsleur is OK for beginners but soon runs out of usefulness as you progress. There are plenty of other listening materials available on the internet too, I found it really useful to be able to plug in and listen while on the move and make the most of commuting or other wasted time. Why just do the supermarket shop when you can learn another language at the same time?! And of course, there is our podcast if you already have a reasonable level of Spanish.
11. Michel Thomas is a good resource. It can be hard to take a language expert seriously when he has such a strong accent, but his methods seem to work and he had some good tips along the way. I found it useful to show how to form different sentences using the same vocabulary. Another tip I got from him to improve your apparent fluency is to change the ‘err’ sound you make while you’re thinking. Different language use different ‘filler words’ and having a few in your repertoire, as well as saying ‘ee’ instead of ‘err’ while you think of what to say next can really help you to fit in!
12. Destinos – quite (very!) dated now, but I haven’t been able to find anything quite as useful that’s been made since. Basically a story told as a telenovela (soap) about a woman who travels the Spanish-speaking world on a kind of mystery story. Come to think of it, I don’t think I ever did find out what happened! I also remember being confused by mishearing the phrase gracias a Dios (thank God) as Gracias, adiós. I thought it was strange saying ‘goodbye’ in the middle of a conversation. There may well be a better / more up-to-date version now and I’d be pleased to hear about it!
13. Use a vocab book. Keep it (and a pen) handy to add new words as they come up. I found it useful to use different colours for the genders. These are words that have been proven to be useful and genuinely appearing in day-to-day life. Just the act of physically writing down the word will make it stick in the memory a little better.
14. On the subject of vocabulary, don’t ‘waste’ your time learning obscure words and phrases as I did when I started out. Some of these come back to me years later, so it may not be a total waste of time, but in the beginning you’re best off focusing on the 100 (or 1000) most common words. Find a list and learn them. You’ll get plenty of bang for your learning buck. In the same way, learning a few stock phrases that you can use regularly (copy what others say!) will help you out a lot more than knowing the word for ‘coffin’. The point is that you don’t need a large vocabulary for general conversation and you can pick up the less common words later on.
15. Stick with it. If you put in the time and the effort, you will get there: Enjoy the journey!
What are your tips for learning a new language? What worked for you, and what didn’t?