If you read my previous post you’ll know that I’m having some Spanish learning difficulties at present. I study and study and I don’t seem to be getting any better and this has prompted me to undertake an investigation into the reasons for this lack of progress.

I’m sort of going over my life by shining a light on everything that worked for me in the past and seeing whether I can incorporate elements of past successes into my current Spanish studies.

Earlier this week I wrote about my sports training as a kid and how I now include some sports training elements into my studies, specifically short drills.

Today I’m looking at how I learned English as a kid so let me tell you a bit more about my upbringing. I’m a native Afrikaans speaker. It’s a daughter language of Dutch and as a result we can all understand Dutch and Flemish (talk about three for the price of one!). I spoke Afrikaans at home, at school and at church and about half my friends were Afrikaans speaking.

So how is it that I speak decent English? This is how:

  • When I was three years old the Faulds family moved in next door with Carmen, their 4 year old daughter. Carmen and I immediately became thick as thieves in spite of the fact that they were English speaking and in no time at all we were babbling away to each other in some sort of lingo that eventually morphed into English. That was a big help. Thanks Carmen!
  • I grew up in the predominantly English speaking Southern Suburbs of Cape Town so most of the kids in my neighbourhood were English speakers. Had I grown up in the Northern Suburbs it would have been an entirely different story.
  • Until well into my high school years South Africa only had one TV channel and this is how it worked: Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays everything was broadcast in English until 8pm followed by Afrikaans for the rest of the evening. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays it was the reverse and on Sundays it was a bit of one and a bit of the other. So, if you wanted to watch tele on a Tuesday evening you could choose any language you liked as long as it was English. As it happens, Dallas was on a Tuesday evening at 8:30 and during that hour South African streets were deserted. We used to have lots of American and German programmes dubbed into Afrikaans and after watching several series of Remington Steele it sounded odd the first time I ever heard Pierce Brosnan speak English! I digress, let’s move on.
  • At the time it was compulsory for all school kids to take English and Afrikaans as subjects during their entire school career so I had no option but to take English lessons for 12 years and we had to write exams about Shakespeare and Dickens and Animal Farm just like all the English kids.
  • When I was nine years old my parents took me to the Community Chest Carnival (a fair in aid of charity) one Saturday morning. One of the stands we visited sold second hand books and it was there that I got hold of my first ever Nancy Drew mystery – ‘The Mystery of the Old Stagecoach’. It was the first book I ever read in English and I battled like hell to get through it, but once I did, I never looked back. Afrikaans youth literature at the time was a bit limited – the language itself is hardly 200 years old and until less than 100 years ago everything was written in Dutch. Therefore, if I wanted to read a broad spectrum of literature it had to be English and to this day I only read English books.

I can feel you wondering why I’m telling you all of this. Here’s why.

My friends and I learned English without even being aware of it, it just happened for us, because we couldn’t avoid it. It was all around us in the TV we watched, the books we read, the friends we had and it was something we had to do at school.

A very important observation about this setup is that I learned English even though I didn’t speak it at home or with my broader family, at school or at church. I picked it up peripherally, so to speak. It wasn’t a case of total immersion, it just happened by-the-by.

This leads me to consider my current situation. I live in Spain, but:

  • My household is English – except my dog, I speak Afrikaans to her
  • I belong to an English golf society where we speak English
  • I watch English TV
  • I read English books
  • I have a two-hour Spanish class once a week
  • I’m studying Spanish through the Open University (but not very enthusiastically)
  • I’m doing bits of work on my own (in between bouts of laziness and procrastination)

As during my childhood, this is also not a situation of total immersion. In fact, the two situations are quite similar, but in my current life I’m just not learning Spanish fast enough. Why is that?

Can you spot the subtle differences between my childhood and my current life?

Here they are:

  • I only watch English TV even though I have access to over 40 Spanish TV stations. As a child I was forced to watch English TV every day, because there was no other option.
  • I only read English books even although I’ve already started to buy Spanish novels, but they’re just sitting on the shelf. I have started on the Spanish translation of a Patricia Cornwell novel, but I’m reading small bits every day for homework, not for pleasure.
  • Although I know most of my Spanish neighbours and people in the area, I don’t have any Spanish friends. As a kid at least half my friends were English speaking.

This analysis has highlighted areas where I can make changes in order to help me acquire Spanish in a more passive way, similar to how I acquired English. You see, I mean well and I try hard, but at the end of the day I’m as lazy as most people when it comes to studying.

None of my resolve and enthusiasm have waned and I’m still equally determined to learn Spanish, I’m just fed up with studying all the time. I need to get creative – hence the big investigation into alternative methods of acquisition.

So here’s the plan. In order to learn Spanish in a more relaxed (i.e. lazy) way I’m going to adopt some of the same methods I used to learn English:

  • Every day I’m going to watch at least 30 minutes of Spanish TV (with the view of hopefully increasing it over time). This may take the form of having the TV on for the morning news while I eat breakfast or simply watching something Spanish on YouTube. I’ll see how the spirit moves me. The only caveats are that it can’t be a dubbed programme and it can’t be a movie, because those are too long for effective learning. I’ll watch short snippets of stuff and really pay attention while I’m watching. It’s too easy to drift off in a movie and lose concentration, especially if it’s a dubbed English movie and I already know the storyline.  Oh, and no subtitles, it must be sink or swim.
  • For the foreseeable future I’m only going to read Spanish books, even if it kills me. I’m banning English books from my house. No matter how much I struggle and how much I have to get the dictionary out, I’ll read those damn books and that’s the end of it. Books taught me the bulk of my English vocabulary and it can do the same for me with Spanish.
  • I was obliged to study English every day at school, even if only for one 30 minute class so I’m going to force myself to do some daily Spanish study from Monday to Friday and let myself off the hook at weekends. This study will mostly take the form of short drills, as discussed in my previous post.
  • I need to join a club, society, hobby group or similar where everybody only speaks Spanish. I need to spend more time with Spanish speakers on a regular basis every week. I don’t have anything in mind for this, but I’ll let you know how this one pans out. For goodness sake, I live in Spain, I need to get out and meet more Spanish people!

I can guess what you’re thinking – just the other day I wrote about how I’m going to start learning Spanish like an athlete and now I’m going to learn it by assimilation like a lazy person. So which is it?

The short answer is that I don’t know. I’ve never had to learn a language from scratch before so I’m having to make this up as I go along. The internet has proven surprisingly unhelpful in this regard as most of the blogs I follow are from guys who each speak 8 and more languages and all they seem to write about is how to become fluent in 3 months by studying 10 hours a day or how to devise a daily routine that involves me learning flashcards on my phone while I walk to the shop. Stuff that, I want to smell the roses and chat to the neighbours while I walk to the shop. Their advice is much too intense for my taste so I have to devise something gentler that gets the job done, but doesn’t consume my life in the process. Also, something that suits the personality of someone who is essentially lazy and procrastinates a lot.

Therefore, I’m doing lots of research and experimentation and I’ll share it with you as I digest it and make sense of it. The intention is that, at the end of all this research and soul searching, a plan will have developed that will astound and amaze all of us. My thinking is that if I’m determined to learn Spanish, but in a way that doesn’t take over my life, and remains comfortably enjoyable and sustainable over the long term and is highly effective, then there must be other people who also want this.

If you’re one of those people then please bear with me and follow along on this journey of discovery as I’m convinced that there’s a pot of gold at the end of it.

In the meantime I’ll be testing the methods discussed in this post. I’ll start Monday…

Thanks for reading!