Have you ever tried learning a new language? I set out to learn Spanish after a week of fumbling my words during a trip to Madrid and Barcelona back in 2015. I’m embarrassed to admit that I studied Spanish in junior high, high school, and college for a total of 8 years prior to going on this trip and I still couldn’t put together anything more than “hola”, “¿cómo estás?” or “tengo un gato en mis pantalones.” After dedicating myself to learning Spanish for the last 2+ years, I’ve come across a ton of resources and now understand that learning a language is challenging but with the right motivation and tactics, you can be on your way to speaking like a native.
We’ve all heard the popular opinion that learning a second language is more easily accomplished during the critical learning period of childhood, ages 2 – 13. Which essentially means if we’ve passed that point we’re doomed to a life of unilingualism or an arduous road of learning a 2nd or 3rd language on our own terms. I beg to differ and here’s why. Studies show that there are alternative barriers that make language learning more difficult as we age, including an aging mind itself, competing demands of adulthood, and lack of confidence, but that the most significant advantages are the fact that we already speak a language, we have the ability to apply out-of-the-box methods for learning and, not to mention, our brain creates new neurological pathways that are much harder to confuse with the pathways of our native language. #science
The beautiful thing is that adults and children think differently and we should use our age and maturity as an advantage for language learning instead of an excuse. You have no excuse. Think like an adult and get to learning!
Set a Goal and Stick to it
Is fluency what you’re seeking? Want to add new vocabulary to your knowledge bank? Want to be able to hold a basic conversation? It’s important to know what your goal is before starting to learn a new language to help you keep motivated when times get tough or when you feel like giving up. This step is important and often overlooked. I’ve had many friends tell me that they’re learning a new language, kickstart it with an hour of study each day, and come to find out 2 weeks down the road they’ve moved on to something else or didn’t have the time anymore. With a goal in mind, you can begin to create a routine around learning that doesn’t disrupt your everyday life. If you are serious, start with just the amount of time you have each day (even 10 or 15 minutes) and hold yourself accountable.
On the Go? Try an App
Duolingo, Memrise, Busuu, Babbel, and Rosetta Stone travel app are all great ways to learn a language on the go. I started with Duolingo because it was free and my friends were already using it. With only 5 minutes a day, I made my way through the app from English to Spanish, then Español a Inglés to master the curriculum. The app includes a community thread that helps you answer questions about grammar or phrases that the app doesn’t address directly. It was also fun to compete with my friends week to week to keep each other accountable and see our progress.
Watch Netflix and Listen to Music
A fun way to learn a language is to watch and listen. Pandora, Spotify, Netflix, Hulu, and even live TV afford you the opportunity to consume quality content while following an entertaining storyline. I started out watching my favorite shows in Spanish with English subtitles. Then graduated to watching the shows in Spanish with Spanish subtitles (best when the audio matches word for word). Now, I’m able to watch in Spanish without the subtitles! The method here is to see and hear the language in context – the pace of the overall spoken words, the “filler” words characters use, and the body language to help better understand the conversation.
Okay, reggaeton and Narcos not your thing? When I told a coworker I felt stuck in my ability to hear the individual words Spanish speakers were saying, he recommended that I listen to the news. It was great advice, as I sought out different channels like CNN en Español, Buenos Días América, and Real Deal Spanish. These helped me keep the language in my ear on the go when I was riding the subway, grocery shopping, or even while cooking or cleaning. I also stumbled upon a Spotify playlist called Learn Spanish that includes vocabulary and grammar lessons. It’s become my favorite resource!
Read Books and Magazines
One extremely underrated tactic is reading. I’ve found this to be the #1 method for improving my comprehension and even my ability to think in the language. Most people recommend to start out reading children’s books because they are at a more basic level. If you’re into that, go for it. I found reading children’s books to be uninteresting and it was easy for me to lose motivation. I started with books about topics that I was interested in or simple stories that I’ve read before, like the Alchemist by Paolo Coelho and For One More Day by Mitch Albom. Accompany this with Google translate if you’re a beginner or push through and use context to figure out words you don’t know if you’re more advanced. Reading magazines or newspapers can also help you practice while keeping up-to-date on your industry or current events.
After a year of going about the language learning process on my own, I decided to invest in formal classes to further get grammar help and practice speaking. Of course, you can do this with a Spanish speaker for $free.99 (or at a Meetup for cheap) but I was willing to spend the money to take my learning up a notch. Living in New York City, there were a number of schools and programs and I started with Berges Institute. I highly recommend their school as they have a structured curriculum that they call the Graf Method and their teachers are great – patient, easy to understand, and they fully explain the concepts. I also took a couple of conversation classes with Fluent City and enjoyed their fun and laid back method of teaching. By meeting other like-minded students, I was introduced to a Spanish immersion program that I later enrolled in for the summer! The benefits go beyond the classroom.
The best advice I ever received about learning Spanish (from a self-proclaimed language learning hacker named Benny Lewis) is to get out of your comfort zone and fully immerse yourself. Language is, after all, complexly intertwined with culture and what better way to see and hear your new language than first-hand in the country where it’s written, spoken, and lived? I’ve traveled to Argentina, Peru, Spain, and Colombia and after each trip, I find my fluency improving more and more. Because the language is in living form in and around you, your mind begins to make connections with phrases and situations that remain in your memory. It’s also fun to experience how the locals are using the words you’ve learned, mimic them, and, believe it or not, to be corrected.
Keep in mind that travel doesn’t only mean a week laying on the beach. Opportunities like Workaway, Maximo Nivel, and GoAbroad can help you use your vacation days productively towards your goal of learning a new language.
What really changed my ability to speak Spanish like a native? Confidence. I learned this lesson from a Peruvian tour guide while hiking Rainbow Mountain. When our group reached the summit, the guide began explaining to us the significance of the site. He was speaking English words, but we couldn’t understand the meaning: “You see, the mountain gave sky that called wrong to public home. They was never eat happen for going above ground until peak cry for other. Still warriors sleep when ice llama carry…” Huh? What was so convincing was his confidence. He actually thought he was making sense. And, believe it or not, I questioned whether or not I knew English seeing him carry on with such self-assurance as we gave up on asking questions and confusion filled our exhausted faces. Moral of the story, confidence in speaking a language is key. Honestly, what’s so bad about making mistakes? There’s no improvement without knowing where your flaws are.
What other tactics have you practiced with success while learning a new language?
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