There are 2 very fundamental, primary points, that one needs to contend with when setting out to learn Spanish.
1) Learning a 2nd language is HUGE! We think: “This is taking so much longer than I thought! I must be slow.”
2) “It is harder for me than for (person X)”, or
“I have a deficiency that doesn’t allow me to learn a 2nd language”.
The problem with these 2 points is that, they are not true. When we experience how hard it is, and how long it takes, we are inclined to think that we are different than others and that it is due to a personal deficiency that it is so hard. We think it is easier and faster for others. “It’s me.” “I’m simply not gifted with the ability to learn a 2nd language.”
How long should it take to get conversant in Spanish? This is subject to a number of variables. As a rule of thumb, it’s kind of like building a house. Take whatever length of time you think that it should take, and then double it. Or, better yet, do what I did, put it way out there in the future so that you can get that monkey off your back and set about learning the language. I decided that, should I still be alive in 5 years, I can either be speaking and interacting in Spanish, or not. With the 5 year objective, and the clear desire to be speaking Spanish rather than not be speaking Spanish, there should be a feeling of relief that one is doing fine with regards to self-imposed time constraints.
A side note for expats living in a Spanish speaking country:If you choose to use my 5 year suggestion, do NOT start from the time you arrived to your Spanish speaking country. Start from when you start diligently, and for real, learning Spanish. I have taught a number of expats who have lived in Costa Rica for up to 20 years, and they have just recently decided that the functional, and very ugly, way that they have learned to “get by” during all these years, is no longer OK with them. Such ones are still in danger from these same 2-Killers-of-Learning-Spanish. But you may be even more vulnerable to the “I’m so stupid. This is taking too long” syndrome (ISSTITTLS for acronym lovers)
If we can clean these 2 points out of our heads and press on, we’ll increase our chances of success in learning Spanish. However, there is another point that needs to be mentioned. And it’s a problems that likely plagues other areas of our life from time to time.
To learn to speak a language, we have to pass through the goo-goo gah-gah phase of our toddler days yet again, but this time as an adult. It was much easier when we were 16 months old; everybody expected our incompetence. But now we are mature, intelligent, have a respected career, and are really quite sharp intellectually.
Pride kills a lot of efforts to learn a second language. We need to get comfortable with not being fluent, and with not talking correctly, and making with mistakes. Sometimes this is to the point of saying something embarrassing, but so what? One of the things we forget is that we are the ones with the really strong accents now. It may be that in our homeland, prior to moving to a Spanish speaking country like, say, Costa Rica, we would occasionally hear a foreigner making every effort to formulate a sentence in English. And it was nearly unintelligible due to border-line correct grammar and that accent! So strong that it was nearly impossible to understand him. We understood with him (or her) that they were learning, so that got a huge pass. This applies to us now, in our foreign land. We are the ones learning and making mistakes. And they are the ones appreciating our efforts and wanting to encourage us in any way that they can.
What I am calling the pride thing is also appropriately, the shy thing. We don’t get involved in conversations because we aren’t sure that we understand the topic under consideration and what we say may be a non-sequitur. These are the pains of learning Spanish, or any language for that matter.
The Ticas (female Costa Ricans) are probably the worst at this. Ironically, they are also some of the most humble people I’ve ever known. So one might wonder at why I call this a problem of pride. Over my years of living here in Costa Rica and being asked on innumerable occasions to help Tica (female Costa Ricans) friends with their English, I have seen, on a regular and consistent basis, many lovely, humble Ticas, unable to overcome their embarrassment, feeling that they need to speak perfectly before they’ll let anyone hear their limited level of English. I give them (as a group) the prize for those who suffer from the malady of “pride”, but certainly, not exclusively. This affliction is quite common and pernicious.
Ya Gotta Make Mistakes
It’s the only way. You try this, and it doesn’t work, so you try that. If you’re wrong, you find out by doing. It’s the Thomas Edison rule of achievement: “I didn’t fail 10,000 times while inventing the light bulb. I uncovered 10,000 ways that a light bulb doesn’t work.”
If a person can’t, or won’t, speak the language until such time as they can actually speak it, they simply will not learn the language. Learn this point. Let go of the pride. Stick your neck out, and learn the language.
There is actually some empirical data backing up this point: The process of learning a language involves making many mistakes. If we aren’t sticking our necks out and forcing our tongues to make the strange sounds of our new language, we won’t learn the language.
Think in finite numeric terms: Let’s say that there are 9,523,923 mistakes that have to be made before you can be conversational in a language. Get busy. After a week of serious effort, you can have the number whittled down to a mere 9,523,759.
OK, so I think with that we’ve covered the 3 main points of clearing our own garbage out of the way so that our brains can get on with the business of learning the language. So now that we understand that
- It’s really hard – for everybody.
- It takes time – for everybody
- We’v got to be humble and speak it. Make mistakes, and keep trying!
This is the meat & potatoes of the whole thing; the secret to learning Spanish…
Get Involved With the Language
We have decided that we are going to learn Spanish and so learning Spanish is what we now do. We eat, sleep and breathe Spanish. We live in a Spanish speaking country, and so now, instead of avoiding Spanish situations, we seek them out and we bathe in them.We endure the awkward times where we’re all standing around with polite, confused looks on our faces wondering if we understood what was just said, or wondering if we just said something really stupid. (Every man that learns Spanish has to go through the “estoy embarazado” experience one time. We think we’re saying “I’m embarrassed” when we’re actually saying “I’m pregnant”.)
Here’s the Boring Stuff: Verb-ology
There’s more to this than just setting all pride aside and floundering about until we find ourselves conversant in the language. What we want to do is minimize memorizing, which is no fun, and is probably one of the primary reasons that we stopped studying Spanish in school. It’s still necessary to a mildly painful extent but we’ll prune it down to the bare minimum.
Spanish is all about verbs, as are all of its Latin-based cousins (of which English is not one. It’s Germanic, in case you were wondering.) French, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Italian and Romanian all rely heavily on the conjugated verb to get a sense across. The tentative, definitive, softened, or demanding tones come from choosing the tense that we’re going to apply to the verb. This is a little tough on us English speakers because our language uses other non-verb means for these things.
Here is where we start into the “cheats” or Guerilla Spanish, as I like to call it. We’re not overly concerned with being accurate. What we want to be able to do is to communicate – to convey ideas – get the point across.
Get the book 501 Spanish Verbs. I wore out 3 of them along the way ad am on copy #4. It’s a little cumbersome to carry around, but just go on and get it. (Since first writing this article technology has progressed to where there are various versions for phones & tablets that are not nearly as cumbersome. Despite being a Kindle fan for reading, I still prefer paper paper & ink for study.) I’ll be posting a brief guide on how to make the best use of this book on the website below.
Get Madrigals Magic Key to Spanish. It’s a fairly comprehensive course that gets you involved with the language right from the outset with Ms. Madrigal’s own version of cheats. The book was written in the ‘50s and is illustrated by Andy Warhol.
The “Practice Makes Perfect” series of Spanish tomes has also been immensely helpful: Practice Makes Perfect Spanish Verb Tenses, Premium 3rd Edition (Practice Makes Perfect Series)
For more advanced students of Spanish, I recommend: Practice Makes Perfect Spanish Pronouns and Prepositions, Premium 3rd Edition