I’m standing in a sales booth at a local craft fair pretending to examine the mixed media sculptures on display. A cacophony of noise surrounds me: live music from the stage up the block combined with beer vendors hawking their wares and dozens of conversations between artists and customers. I reposition myself awkwardly, straining to focus on one conversation above the din, trying to soak up the cadence and the conjugations like a thirsty sponge.
“Yo creo que esto es perfecto porque…”
“Y ellas me dijeron que…”
I can’t quite catch what they’re saying, and I’m afraid that I’m being conspicuously awkward, so I move along. It’s not that I’m interested in overhearing the juicy details of a stranger’s personal life; in fact, from what I managed to catch, their conversation seemed mundane. Instead, I’m testing myself: trying to see how much I can manage to decipher from an authentic conversation between two native Spanish speakers.
It’s funny: I couldn’t have been less interested in the Spanish language when I was high school age; I opted for Latin instead. Spanish seemed pedestrian to me for some reason, maybe because all of my peers were learning it at the same time. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties and traveling in Latin America that I realized how damn useful it is to have some Spanish in your back pocket, especially as an American who loves budget international travel. As it turns out, Spanish is the national language in almost every close, cool, and affordable international travel destination. (We still love you, Brazil!)
Ever since that realization three years ago, I’ve been working off and on to become conversational in espanol. Much like my time as an unschooler, my Spanish education has been cobbled together from myriad sources and a lot of trial and error. I’ve collected a few tips about language learning along the way; I hope they help you to learn more efficiently and avoid some common mistakes. While my experience (and some recommended resources) are specific to learning Spanish, my advice can be applied to the acquisition of any language.
Tip #1: Break Language Learning Down into 4 Separate Skills
When you work to acquire a new language, you’re really working on four distinct skillsets: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Depending on your natural strengths and abilities, some of these skills will come more easily to you than others. (I’m very visually oriented, for example, so reading things written in Spanish feels painless, but I have more difficulty with auditory comprehension.) It’s easy to only concentrate on the aspects of the language that you’re naturally good at, but it’s vital that you work on all four of these areas. My favorite Spanish video blogger recommends trying to read, speak, listen, and write something in your target language every day.
Tip #2: Consistent Practice = Consistent Progress
Polish pianist Ignacy Paderewski once said, “If I miss one day of practice, I notice it. If I miss two days, the critics notice it. If I miss three days, the audience notices it.” As it is with perfecting a musical instrument, so it is also with acquiring a new language. If you want to see improvement in your abilities, daily practice is essential, even if you only have 10 or 15 minutes to sit down and study.
For a while I was trying to practice Spanish for an hour every day; if I didn’t have a spare hour I would often skip that day’s session. I eventually noticed a (negative) change in my comprehension after taking even a couple of days off; since then, I try to squeeze in a few minutes every day, even if it’s just to review verb conjugations or watch a 5 minute youtube video.
If I find myself strapped for time, I’ll often sneak in some language practice while I’m doing something else, typically working out or commuting. I like to listen to spanish podcasts in the car or watch Spanish youtube videos on my phone while I’m running on the treadmill or riding the stationary bike. Nothing feels more satisfying than finishing a workout knowing that I’ve just run four miles and completed 40 minutes of language practice.
Tip #3: Be Obsessive
Consider for a moment the number of hours that a child logs learning her native language before her 5th birthday. She achieves language fluency because adults talk to, about, and around her for hundreds of hours a month and thousands of hours a year. While lots of programs promise “fluency in 20 lessons,” the only real way to rapidly improve your language abilities and be able to understand and communicate with others is to spend countless hours obsessively reading, listening, speaking and writing in your target language.
If you want to see rapid improvement, seek out your target language wherever you go: find newspapers written in Spanish, or search for youtube interviews of French actors, or listen to German podcasts, or pore over verb conjugation charts until you could recite them in your sleep, or try to translate conversations you’re having. (I recommend doing this last one silently, in your head. For some reason, people tend to find it odd when you start speaking to them in a language they don’t understand.)
Tip #4: Immerse Yourself
For the most efficient way to log a large number of hours practicing a new language, seek out an immersion experience. By traveling to a place where everyone speaks your target language, you’re forced to practice your skills during most of your waking hours. If you can arrange lessons at a language school or one-on-one with a native speaker while you’re there, all the better.
My Spanish skills improved dramatically after four weeks of traveling in Buenos Aires. I spent three of those weeks in Spanish school hammering core language concepts into my brain, and I found that those concepts were reinforced outside of school as I translated street signs, asked for directions, ordered in restaurants, purchased shampoo, watched television, and chatted with locals.
I would recommend spending several months to a year studying a new language at home before organizing an immersion experience for yourself. That way, you can make sure you like your chosen language and you can develop some beginning skills to build on during your trip. Acquiring the very basics of a new language is fairly simple; it seems silly to me to fly to Central America to learn how to say “como estas?” However, once you’ve reached a low intermediate level and you’re ready to tackle more complex topics, working with a native speaker can help you rapidly upgrade your abilities.
Language Learning Resources
Below I’ve created a sort of “language learning resource” cheat sheet, starting with resources that will help you nail down the basics of your new tongue, and progressing to more challenging content.
Before you begin, check out this excellent blog post by Tim Ferriss and polyglot Benny Lewis for some expert language learning advice.
Duolingo is my favorite resource for beginners: it’s free and user-friendly, and the gamified elements spur you on and encourage fast progress. Furthermore, it incorporates all four language skills: reading, writing, listening and speaking.
Discover Youtube Language Channels for both grammar lessons and general conversation. My favorite Spanish youtube channel is Lightspeed Spanish, but many others options exist. You can find a list of Youtube language channels here.
Read young adult fiction in your target language. Harry Potter is my top choice: it’s been translated into 68 languages, and it’s written for adolescents, so it’s simple to understand. Order a copy in your chosen language and a copy in English so you can follow along.
The Italki website connects language learners with language teachers worldwide via Skype, and the strength of the dollar means that you can often find quality language instruction much more cheaply than you could in the United States. Many teachers offer 30 minute trial lessons; sample a few of these until you find someone you click with.
Listen to news podcasts: I’ve recently become obsessed with the Spanish version of CNN; most of the newscasters have excellent diction, unlike many native speakers, which makes it easier to understand what they’re saying. Furthermore, the fact that they’re discussing current events means that I’m often already familiar with the subjects they’re talking about, making them easier to follow.