Learning Spanish: Make as Many Mistakes as You Can


 This article was published in the magazine “Montañas al Mar” in April of 2010. I have taken some author’s prerogative and made some changes to this posting.

In last month’s issue of Monaña Mar, we established a couple of points that help one stick with the formidable project of learning to speak a second language – namely, Spanish.

To recap:

1) It is a huge project that will take longer than you think.

2) It is hard for everybody (except for the extremely rare prodigy)

If we can clean these 2 points out of our heads and press one, we’ll be more likely to learn 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: pride.

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 intellectually advanced.

Pride kills a lot of efforts to learn a second language. Funny thing, it isn’t just the big, wealthy, fit, smart, beautiful ones that fail at this. Over the 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 effectively hamstrings any possibility that they will learn the language.

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.”

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

  1. It’s really hard – for everybody.
  2. It takes time – for everybody
  3. 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.

Guerilla Spanish

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.

Hot Tips

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

Living in The Zone, Costa Rica’s south pacific, since 1999. Working in real estate here since 2004. Loves to share the experience and help others with an interest in doing same.