We came, we saw, we conquered – the internet is rife with such stories. Stories of the polyglot who taught himself 9 languages and became fluent in Mandarin in just 3 months. Stories of the guy who travels the world collecting languages the way the rest of us collect fridge magnets. The story of the guy who taught himself Spanish in a month.
And then there are you and me and we are not finding their stories at all helpful and motivating. In fact, I read the stories and I want to hit these folks in the face with a chair and I’ll tell you why. I’ve always been clever and I’ve always known that I’m clever. People even tell me that I’m good with languages. Yet, after two years of high school German and 2 years of evening classes as an adult I can’t string a sentence together and after 3 months in Italy followed by 2 years of evening classes I can’t speak Italian worth a damn and my ego somehow never quite got over that. So how can I be a clever person who could memorise obscure history facts in high school, but I can’t learn a new language and some kid on the internet tells me he’s learned Mandarin in a month. It annoys me and it doesn’t motivate me.
Then I moved to Spain in December 2015 and I started to learn Spanish. I decided not to try and learn it the way I was taught German and Italian and 8 months later I can hold a conversation. In fact, I can now start telling people that I speak Spanish. It’s not even close to being perfect, I don’t know loads of vocabulary and the grammar is still all over the place, but when the fridge broke yesterday (why always on a Saturday afternoon?) I could phone the shop where I bought it and explain to them what’s wrong. When you can do that then you know you’ve cracked the language and the really hard part is over. Can you imagine how I feel? I can speak Spanish! At the age of 45 I’m no longer a linguistic loser and a failure and I have the ability to learn a foreign language – in 8 months! I’m on top of the world and it’s onwards and upwards from here on!
So here’s the thing. I’ve taken this business of learning Spanish quite seriously and I’ve been taking notes that I would like to share with you in this blog. I’ve compiled a guide that shows you how to learn Spanish relatively quickly and in such a way that it stays with you forever. It will show you the shortcuts and the tricks I learned and also what I had to learn about myself with regard to motivation and self-confidence. It took me 8 months to get where I am by figuring things out for myself and by living on Google and I would like to share this information and research with you so that you can learn Spanish even faster than I did.
Why we’re too stupid to learn a foreign language.
We’re not. We just think we are and the reason we think this is because we’ve been going about it the wrong way. We all have our past failures with learning French or Spanish or German and we’ve all had a go at language classes and we’ve all failed miserably and this has made us think that we can’t do it.
It’s normally at this stage that we then start with the excuses:
- Spanish is too difficult. All those conjugations and complicated sentence structures, you know.
- I don’t have a flair for languages or I don’t have the language gene.
- I simply can’t remember anything.
- I’ve taken classes and online courses and I’ve listened to CD’s and I have an app on my ipad, but nothing has worked.
- I’m too old. (This one’s my personal favourite).
Let’s explore these excuses:
- Spanish is too difficult. Read this carefully – Spanish is the second most widely spoken mother tongue after Mandarin Chinese. Yes, folks, more than English. So if nearly 500 million people could learn it and The Telegraph newspaper reckons it’s the 3rd easiest language for English speakers to learn then we really can’t use this excuse.
- I don’t have a flair for languages or I don’t have the language gene. While it’s true that some people seem to get to grips with a new language a bit faster than others there’s no such thing as a language gene and aptitude, or lack thereof, won’t stop you from learning Spanish. Think of it like this: we’ve all been able to learn how to ride a bike, but we’re not all professional cyclists. Learning Spanish works in the same way; we can all learn it, we just won’t all become Spanish teachers.
- I simply can’t remember anything. That’s because you’ve been trying to learn it the wrong way. More about this later on.
- I’ve taken classes and online courses and I’ve listened to CD’s and I have an app on my ipad, but nothing has worked. Same answer as above – you’ve been doing it wrong. Keep reading.
- I’m too old. Take a look at this article published in The Guardian newspaper. Research seems to agree that it may take a bit longer to learn a language as we get older, but then it lists all the benefits that this learning will give us. Please don’t let age hold you back!
Right, now that we have the excuses out of the way, let’s look at what we can do about finally learning to speak Spanish.
It’s been my experience that the following 3 factors need to be addressed before anybody starts to attempt a new language: motivation, the learning method we’re going to use and our self-confidence.
Spanish is the second most widely spoken mother tongue after Chinese.
Clever people distinguish between internal and external motivation. If you want to learn Spanish because your new boyfriend is from Barcelona or you’ve just moved to Buenos Aires and you want to fit in then you’re internally motivated, but if your reason is because it could lead to a promotion at work then you’re externally motivated. It’s considered that internal motivation is by far the stronger of the two and is much more likely to lead to success.
You can save yourself a lot of time, expense and heartache if you are honest with yourself about why you want to learn Spanish.
During my first two years of high school we were presented with our compulsory subjects and then we could choose any two of German, Accountancy, Music or Art. That pretty much left most of us between a rock and a hard place and the German and Accountancy classes were filled to the brim. Talk about external motivation! Had I known then what I know now I may well have chosen differently and the world could have been blessed with one more recorder virtuoso.
So ask yourself if this really is what you want to do. You’ve moved to the Costa Blanca where there are huge foreign communities and you can live here relatively easily without learning Spanish. So do you really want to do this or do you simply feel obliged? You know the enormous benefits of speaking the local lingo, but do you really want to bother? If the answer is yes, you really do want to learn Spanish, then this blog is for you and I heed you a hearty welcome, but if you’ve been honest with yourself and you realise you don’t care to do it then free yourself from it. Embrace the decision, stop feeling guilty about it and take up golf instead. And you know, once you’ve realised that you don’t want to do it and you’ve decided to let it go you’ll find that a weight has been lifted from your shoulders and you can move on with your life. Good luck! (you can stop reading now).
If you’re still here then there’s an important aspect of motivation that you need to know about. Motivation to sit down and learn will mean very little without the expectation of success. Write this down, it’s profound! If you don’t know in your heart that you WILL achieve your goal of speaking Spanish then the motivation to sit down and study is unlikely to sustain your learning efforts.
Motivation to sit down and learn will mean very little without the expectation of success.
What this means is that you will learn faster, more effectively and with greater consistency if you have an end goal in mind. Here you need to be specific. Saying ‘I want to learn Spanish’ isn’t much of a goal because it doesn’t draw a line in the sand.
Try this instead:
- I want to learn x number of new words by the end of the week.
- Then I want to learn how to use one form of past tense and one form of future tense by the end of the month (by the way, I’m going to show you these two tenses and they’re dead easy).
- I want to be able to write simple sentences by the end of next month (I’ll get you started on this as well and it’s also easier than you think).
Now you have a plan that you can follow and it suddenly becomes so much easier to focus your learning. Keep these goals simple and casual and DO NOT be unrealistic because that’s the absolute best way to guarantee failure.
Methods of learning
Now we get to the meaty bits, yay!
Put your hand up if you’ve ever managed to learn a new language:
- at school or university.
- by taking classes like evening classes.
- by listening to a language course on CD.
- by following a course in a book.
- by playing with a language app.
- by listening to a podcast.
- by reading a blog.
- by watching YouTube videos.
- by doing anything else online.
I’ve tried 3 of the above methods and I’m going to guess that you’ve tried at least as many. I’m also going to guess that, like me, you were a miserable failure and that’s why you’re sitting here reading the blog of some random South African, you’re that desperate.
No, you’re not a failure. Not one of the above methods, with the slightly possible exception of number one, will ever teach anybody a new language because they’re missing the vital ingredient. They don’t get you to talk. Yes, they get you to ‘repeat after me’ all the time, but parrot fashion repetition means very little. What you need to do is have CONVERSATION and you have to have lots of it.
Here’s an example.
You want to learn how to ride a bike so you buy a bike and a book. The book teaches you absolutely everything you would ever want to know about bicycles. There are detailed instructions on how to ride a bike, diagrams showing how to balance and photos demonstrating the correct posture for going downhill at 60km per hour. It’s very comprehensive and you become a bit of an expert. The day finally arrives for you to take your new bike for a spin and what happens? You know what happens. You fall on your backside. While you’re sitting there on the pavement trying to work out what just happened the neighbour’s four-year-old screams by on his little Raleigh and that just really pisses you off.
We can’t learn a language from a book or a CD or a YouTube video, we can only learn it by speaking it. We have to be like that four-year-old and get on the bike and ride. We’re going to fall off A LOT and we’re going to embarrass ourselves in public A LOT, but you know what, you get used to it and you will learn at a speed that will make your head spin.
Learn like a child. Speak first and leave the grammar for later. WHAT?? You’re thinking about all those hours spent memorising conjugations and sentence structures and all those classes where you had an A4 sheet of exercises to do. Yes, and how did those work out for you? We all did it and afterwards not one of us could hold a conversation. So try to keep an open mind about this.
Learn like a child. Speak first and leave the grammar for later.
I couldn’t learn German and Italian the traditional way, even after years of effort, but after 8 months of SPEAKING Spanish, even when I couldn’t say anything at the beginning, I’m now having long conversations with my neighbours in the street and I’m learning the grammar as I go along.
I’ll drip feed you snippets of grammar every week or two, just enough to move you along nicely, but not so much that it’s overwhelming and confusing. I wish I had been given this structure 8 months ago as it would have halved the amount of time it took me to get to the level where I am today.
If you don’t live in a Spanish speaking country or you don’t have someone in your life with whom you can practise conversation then I’ll give you tips on how to get around that.
Self-confidence. That evil little bastard who clamps our mouths shut when the lady at the till asks if we need a bag. If we don’t become the master of him then he’ll trample on our best intentions, spit on our best efforts and leave us sweating and insecure every single time.
English speakers seem to be the worst sufferers when it comes to lacking self-confidence to speak in a foreign language.
The long and the short of it is that if you can’t conquer this fear then you will find it very difficult to learn Spanish. Language is a thing that wants to be spoken and if you’re unable to do that then you’re making it very hard on yourself.
Keep an eye on my upcoming posts and I’ll be giving some useful practical tips on how to gain the confidence to start chatting away to people.
The way forward
You’ve read all of this and I can hear you saying: ‘so now what’?
Now what we do is to keep learning and soon we’ll all be speaking Spanish! Follow my posts over the next few months and please let me know if the methods I’m going to show you work as well for you as they’ve worked for me.
Have you ordered your copy of The Cooking Pot – Spanish / English Reader yet? It’s a brilliant book!
Go to spanishbooksandcourses.com for more information.