Want to know how to learn Spanish? Well I can tell you I learned Spanish…
Native English speakers are spoiled. We have it easy. Everywhere we go in the world somebody, somewhere will speak our language. It is the most commonly taught and widely understood language in the whole world and this has made us lazy.
Whilst we can take a certain pride in the influence and reach of our language we should also be equally ashamed of our own complacency and our collective lack of efforts to learn others and stretch ourselves by aspiring to bi-linguality.
Until as little as 18 months ago I was equally culpable, I got an F in GCSE German and left the whole second language thing there. That was until last year when I made the decision to go to South America and stay there for a while, I would be in an entire continent that spoke (almost) entirely Spanish and so I resolved that I would just have to learn it.
How To Learn Spanish
Hiring a private tutor was out of the question for monetary reasons (the lack of). There were also no classes in my area (people where I live struggle enough with their first language so why run before you can stagger out of the gutter?). Moreover I have always preferred to learn at my own pace and figure things out on my terms taking only cues and guidance from here and there as and when I felt I needed to. It’s been the same whether that was learning to play guitar (I just picked it up, looked over some chord boxes and hit the backwards delay) or driving a car (I just screw-drivered the door open, touched the two wires together and never saw that little dog coming…).
Inevitably I turned to technology which has been successfully reducing human interaction for the past 4 millennia and most of all to the internet where there was an overwhelming abundance of sources and suggestions to choose from. I began with Rosetta Stone, an interactive software package that engages learners by having them look, listen, speak but mostly just click a lot. It works entirely by image association and at no point offers any direct translations or explains any grammatical rules; in fact you can use this if your first language is English, Mandarin or Klingon. Apparently this immersion and association method is how baby’s learn their native language and through Rosetta Stone, like a baby baying for its food, you will learn the base command for “Milk!” long before you learn to qualify that with “Please may I have some…”. I found the programme useful for acquiring and memorising vocab but even after a few months I could still hardly string a single, actual Spanish sentence together and so I moved on.
Michel Thomas is a language teacher of legendary proportions who cut his teeth by working as a spy and interrogator for the allies and French resistance during World War 2 before developing his revolutionary method which promises to “Teach Spanish in a Week. That’s a great sound-bite and sales pitch but in reality, even if you are able to work through the 10+ hour course in a week (bearing in mind that (1) you will need to repeat and revisit most lessons and (2) even the spongiest of brains needs time to consolidate learning) you will still be a long way from fluency. However it is undoubtedly a highly engaging and effective method in which the listener becomes the 4th member of a teacher/class interaction. It uses some very clever and catchy memory hooks to help you remember what is being taught and crucially it gives you the tools to understand the verbs (“understand the verbs, understand the language” as Michel puts) and the ways which they conjugate and change depending on who is talking, who they are talking about and of course the tense. It is very easy to see why Thomas become the language teacher to the stars (who do you think taught Doris Day to say “Que Sera, Sera”?) and why this course remains popular. The Michel Thomas method is now available for most major languages although there is some debate as to how effective they are other than for the romance languages (Spanish, French and Italian). It does however provide very little actual vocab and whilst upon completion you will be sufficiently equipped to request your dinner you won’t actually know the words to express precisely what you would like!
This is where Duolingo came in. Duolingo is a free to download smartphone app which also has the learner, listening & speaking, reading and writing. The lessons are nicely broken down into manageable sections that you can complete whilst on the bus, whilst waiting in line or even whilst sat on the toilet if you are so inclined (which I am). Used in conjunction with the Michel Thomas method I found this to be the perfect sweet spot for me as Duolingo was ideal to practice what Michel had taught and also to build up vocab.
So how did I get on? Flying to Colombia is for some reason about a third of the price of flying direct from London if you catch the same BA/Avianca flight in Madrid (which can generally be reached for £50 from anywhere in the UK) so I had a 24 layover in Madrid to enjoy some complimentary tapas and more importantly to test my Spanish. Upon arriving at my hostel I approached the desk and confidently and clearly stated “Tengo una reservacion por la noche”. The clerk nodded. Bingo, I had been understood perfectly! But then he responded and I was completely lost so we had to promptly switch the conversation to English (thank God everybody speaks English…).
Learning a language from the comfort of one’s homeland is all good and well but there is no better school than sheer, bitter necessity. When I got to Colombia manging to communicate became the difference between eating and not, between getting to my hostel and not (but seldom between getting laid and not as the tongue has other, universally recognised uses for such situations) so I came on in leaps and bounds in very little time; it was sink or swim and whilst I nearly went down a few times I somehow stayed afloat.
Apparently I sound sexy in Spanish and can even sing well in Spanish so I guess it’s logical that I came to enjoy learning it. I loved realising the connections between Spanish and English words of which there are many as, thanks to the original colonisers the Romans, both languages share a common Latin root. For example “Dormir” is Spanish for sleep so think Dormouse, Dormitory, Dormant etc. Also, the thrill one gets when attending a reggaeton disco and suddenly realising for the first time that “y te llamare despues hacerte mia mujer” means “and I will call you later to make you my woman” (ah the universal, agony of the desperate, drunken, doomed booty call…), is unrivalled.
Thanks to the Latin root and shared alphabet Spanish is a pretty easy language for English speakers to learn. Whilst I am still a long way from being fluent I am already thinking of what language to tackle next, do I stick with the romance languages and give French a go or do I raise the difficulty bar and go for Russian or even Arabic? Either of the latter will come in more useful for the impending World War 3 I guess.
Freeborns Final Thoughts
- Anybody can learn a language. I mean you are reading these aren’t you so evidently you managed to learn English. Remember, I got an F in German and yet within 6 months of starting in Spanish was just about able to negotiate myself out of arrests of several occasions. It is simply a case of putting in the time and effort to practice.
- I personally don’t prescribe to the notion that you can “just pick up” a language by being in a country. Some form of structured study method and effort is absolutely necessary but being in the country will of course help you learn faster as you will be immediately utilising what you have learnt. The travellers I met who didn’t have any kind of proper learning method didn’t “pick up” Spanish, they simply didn’t speak any Spanish beyond “Cerveza”.
- Find a method that is best for you. If you enjoy being around people join a class, if you have trouble motivating yourself get a teacher who used to be a drill sergeant in the marines, if you have a smartphone and a toilet then download Duolingo!
- Above all try to enjoy it and before long you will be charming and offending people from all over the world and opening up those new horizons!