Now that we’re in Mexico, it’s time to up our Spanish game. Between studying, hanging out with our bilingual friends, spending plenty of time doing our daily life routines in shops, running into our neighbors, and trying to get our landlord to forget the mañana attitude and fix some things for us, we’ve had plenty of opportunity to get our learn on.
We spent many years in Chicago – and we are American – so we naturally speak some Spanish and do have a grasp of the language. I personally have been studying foreign languages since I was eight years old, when my parents thought it’d be a good idea to send me to a German class. I’ve loved languages ever since.
I’ve spoken French for most of my life, as well as a smattering of other languages. I’m the kid who studied language books as a child instead of doing whatever it is that eight-year-olds do. We moved to Germany and learned German; we moved to Montenegro and learned (some) Serbian.
None of that makes me or us better than anyone else out there who learns languages. I told you the above because I have a love for it. I get off on learning languages because they connect me to another culture in ways that nothing else can.
I believe you must have the desire, or you must teach yourself to like it. You have to be excited about it and you have to be excited about the possibilities that exist for you when you do learn it.
We have a zillion stories that we can tell, in which the central focus is something that never could have happened to us if we had not tried or learned some part of a language. Even a few words will get you places you never thought possible. That’s a fact, Jack.
Of course, we could – and should – always be doing more. And being that we unfortunately spent a lot of our short time in Seville working on our ridiculously huge “Fabric of America” project, we didn’t focus a whole lot on ameliorating our Spanish.
I metaphorically kick myself for that, and occasionally want to actually kick myself for that. Especially after hanging out with Cat from Sunshine and Siestas, who dedicated a great part of her immigrant life to being a master of Castellano, and whose skills and accent will either motivate you or make you intensely jealous with rage. (Hopefully the former.)
So with that, I want to tell you how we are upping our Spanish game, and ask you how you go about learning your new languages.
As you will see below, we’re using a variety of tools to accomplish our goals. I’m not 100% sure that I like using all of these things, or if all of these things are even a good thing to do together. I often wonder if doing one thing takes me backwards in comparison to another; but I have continued on, just because.
I do feel that it is absolutely essential that you use more than one method to learn a language. One of these things – or one of anything – just isn’t going to cut it. I can guarantee it.
Also of note: At the bottom of this post, you’ll find a list with links of everything discussed here, and a few more. Enjoy!
Click on any bold title to be taken to each website. We don’t do that whole affiliate thing, so no worries about disclaimers here.
I obtained a copy of this at the tail end of our “Fabric of America” tour. I started doing it in October, and have faithfully been doing one 30-minute lesson per day since. I just finished the first section of 30 lessons, and I’m not particularly sure I like it at all.
I get it. I totally comprehend the method and why it is how it is. I’m just not sure that it advances quickly enough for me, or for any of you. It’s painfully slow, and at the end of 30 lessons, I can tell you that I most certainly learned more in about one tenth of the time using the next method.
The basic concept is that it uses timed memorization techniques throughout an entire section, repeating things you’ve learned in earlier sections and adding new phrases and words as you go along. It’s centered around conversations between two people. Sometimes, you’ll be a businessman looking for a restaurant. Other times, you’re calling your mom or asking friends to go to the cinema.
I do like how it slowly introduces more complex phrases and occasionally explains them to you; but again, I just feel that it’s too slow. 30 days to get to the tú form just isn’t good enough for most people. It also leaves out explanations about verb tenses that I feel are highly important for every learner.
I also feel like, for the amount of money you must spend, you could get much more bang for your buck by hiring a teacher. Then again, I doubt you can take a teacher in the car, or to the gym, or put him or her on your iPod.
Ang is also starting the Michel Thomas Method, which is a competitor to Pimsleur. She used it in Germany and is just about to give it a shot in Spanish. You can click here to read about how that works. I may or may not switch to it to see if it’s a better fit for me, but I’m including it here because I may try it out.
Ah, I love this. Both of us love this. It’s simply amazing. You will not become fluent using it, but it will up your game like nothing else. It’s a free program that’s available for iOS and Android devices, and is even more comprehensive if you use the online version on your computer. Ang has switched to the latter full-time because of how much more information is available when you do it on the computer.
It’s set up like a game, so you should have fun with it. It provides a huge range of lessons for many languages – some are more in-depth than others – and varies beetween typing, translating, speaking, and listening.
You get points for doing well in your lessons, and you’ll find yourself cheering or cursing when you get something wrong.
You can also repeat lessons and do practice lessons over and over again, so you’re not forced to move forward if you don’t feel that you’re ready. Additionally, you can follow your friends and make it a sort of competition to get more points or be notified that you’re “on a streak.”
This program isn’t the end-all, be-all of language learning. But I do think it’s one of the best tools out there and most definitely needs to be in your arsenal. They’ve also just announced that they’ll be crowd-sourcing new languages, so expect it to expand rapidly within the next year.
Duolingo is literally the only computer- or app-based program that has kept me interested or active for more than one day. I’ve been on it every day since I signed up in mid-October.
European Framework Books
The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is a system designed to streamline language learning in the EU. It follows a structure of six levels – A1 to C2 – and is used for all languages in Europe in order to give a frame of reference – I know, shocker considering its name – as to how one learns and how well one knows a language.
If you take official classes in a European country, you also have the option of obtaining certificates that confirm your mastery of a level. This is apparently helpful when looking for a job, obtaining a degree, etc.
We first used these when we were learning German. These types of books are the default choice of language teachers, even if they’re not teaching in a school. I love them.
You can usually get them in pairs: One book to be used in class, and one exercise book for homework. They also come with CDs, but we didn’t them regularly in our German classes; and if they even came with our Spanish books, we threw them away. 🙂
When we arrived in Spain, we made our way to the local librería and scooped up A1-B2 books for Spanish. Even though we weren’t taking lessons, the books are relatively easy to understand on your own, and you should have no trouble slowly making your way through each chapter.
And this is my favorite part, although you will probably hate it: The books are only in the native language. (Well, the ones we have are, anyway.) This is the best way to learn. It’s a waste of time to use a book written in your native language, only to learn a couple words in your new language for every page you read in your own.
Sure, it makes learning that much more intensive. But wait, isn’t that the point? It’s not like our German teacher in Germany spoke to us in English. We learned German with a German and never spoke a lick of English. (That’s how I feel it should be in foreign-language classes in America, but that’s an argument for another time.)
I actually like to go through each chapter and try to read the lessons. I circle all the words I don’t know, and I look them up and then add them to my vocabulary list. Once I’ve made it through a lesson – they’re only usually one or two pages – I tackle the exercises that are in the same book. (I don’t have the additional book of exercises.)
In German class, we did all this during class time and then completed our homework at home. If you’re learning solo, you can just use the main book and do the exercises yourself. All of the answers are in the back, so you can check your work when you’re done.
One of the best online dictionaries there is. I’m always shocked and surprised to learn that people don’t know about it, especially Germans.
It was originally started as a German-English dictionary, so one would think that everyone would know. Well, they don’t. Instead, they’re stuck on dictionaries I hate. I love the format and layout of the dict.cc website, and how concise each definition or translation is.
And even though it was originally German-English, new languages are being added all the time and I use it every day for Spanish. It’s also available as both an iOS and Android app, one which you can download the dictionaries for, so you don’t need to use it online.
A couple of bonuses…
If you’re interested in contributing, you are welcome to. Most people I know – including myself – don’t want to make time for such things. But I shall appreciate and preach its greatness as it blows most other dictionaries out of the water.
People are constantly updating it, with audio samples and up/down-votes on what the “most correct” definition or translation is.
You can also sign up for an account on the website, and either add other people’s or create your own flash-card quizzes. I love this and I used it extensively on a daily basis when we were in Germany. I’m planning to convert my vocabulary notebook (see below) into online quizzes for myself.
I used to always use the 501 Verbs series of books. I had one for years as a French speaker/learner, and I purchased a German one when we lived in Berlin. Barron’s kills it with these books, and I cannot recommend them more.
However, if you’re a regular mover like we are, then it’s kind of a pain to carry around a 5-pound book. If you don’t travel all the time like we do, you can grab them for a variety of languages via Amazon.
Since it’s not really realistic for us to have such things, I have started using Wiktionary. You’d be amazed at what you can find here. If a word or phrase – slang included – appears in the language you are studying, it’s most likely here.
There is no reverse-translation like a dictionary; but if you know the word/phrase in your target language, you can look it up.
The best part, though, is that every verb is conjugated. Every one I’ve ever looked up, anyway. It’s totally brilliant. While it’s not a book you can peruse at your desk or on the couch, it’s a great resource available to you as long as you have an internet connection.
I always buy a small notebook when I’m learning a language. It has to be small enough to fit in my pants pocket, and I grab a pen to go with it. Every time I learn a word – or sometimes entire verb conjugations – I write it down in my notebook with the translation to English.
Not only is this a good resource to have, but it provides extra, default learning simply because you’re writing down the word. You can keep it with you at all times, and write down new words whenever you learn them or come upon them and need to translate them later.
In addition, you can use it as a study guide when you’re on public transport, sitting at a café, or whenever you have idle time.
You can go for a fancy Moleskine or Field Notes product, or simply pick up a pocket-size notebook for a buck at your local store. Just be sure it fits in your pocket and becomes something you take with you by habit!
You gotta have a dictionary. While there are obviously plenty of online resources, a dictionary is something you can always carry with you (if you want to), and something you can easily reference while you’re learning or studying. I’m not really a fan of using my tablet or whatever to look up a word on the internet if I’ve got my face in a book.
I recommend a pocket-size one. Even if it’s too darn thick to fit in your pocket – as the one I have by Langenscheidt is – it’s still much more handy than a massive Word Bible.
There are plenty of good brands out there. Just be sure that whatever you buy has genders for each noun. I’ve seen some that don’t, which is just flabbergasting to me.
Italki (and Language Classes)
Italki is completely new to me. I don’t even remember how I found it not too long ago, but it’s brilliant. I’ve seen plenty of teaching/tandem/etc. sites, and I’ve hated all of them. Italki is totally different. It’s easy to sign up, and offers three different, invaluable options.
All of them use Skype, and most people use video, which I find to always be better than just using audio to talk. Seeing a person, their demeanor, and the words actually come from them is much more helpful when learning than just using audio, which is one of the most difficult things to do in a foreign language (i.e. the telephone).
First, you can find a teacher of your language, and the search function provides easy and comprehensive results for you. Professional teachers must prove their qualifications, and many of them provide introduction videos so you can see how they operate before you even hire anyone.
In addition, there’s a very comprehensive feedback system so you can see what other students had to say about each teacher. On top of that, you can schedule trial lessons if the teacher offers them, which are usually 50% of the price of a regular lesson. That way, you can test a teacher out before committing to a full session.
Second, you can find tutors for your language. The search/results functions are the same, but tutors are not considered professionally qualified teachers and their prices are lower. The downside to this is that most seem to not have any lesson plans or structure, but I can’t comment for sure since I haven’t tried one. You can do trial lessons here as well.
Third, you can find tandem partners for your target language. Oftentimes, they are native speakers of the language you’re learning, and they want to practice your language and let you practice theirs. I think tandems are a wonderful idea, and they’re common in many international cities where students are eager to learn English. Ang did a tandem with a friend of ours in Berlin, and they can work really well if you find the right partner.
When done in person, this can lead to great friendships. Online, you probably won’t make in-person friends; but you never know, you might find a partner in your own city. I immediately had a handful of people message me to practice after I signed up. Oh, and tandems (language partners) are free!
I recently found a professional teacher whose intro video and reviews I liked. I talked to her on the site and scheduled a trial session. It went really well and I like her style, so I scheduled a full lesson with her. I plan to do 1-2 lessons a week for now and see how that goes. She also sent me tons of online flash cards to use and the link to a book that I bought for Kindle, which are just more weapons in my language-learning arsenal.
Not to worry: You can schedule one session at a time, so you don’t have to commit to a ton of lessons – or money – when you start. This could be a bad thing, though, if you’re not fully committed to learning and aren’t forced to keep going with your lessons. Prices are very reasonable as well, which makes this whole thing even better.
Talk to People
This is probably the number one thing that’s going to get you places. As previously noted, even a few words can change the course of your day – or your life. It’s a common misconception that people won’t have patience for you, and it’s very easy to fall back to your native tongue (especially if it’s English). You’d be surprised at how much more receptive people are when you try, even if you’re screwing up.
Don’t worry about how bad you might suck. It’s part of the process. What, do you think someone’s going to believe you’re an idiot for not being fluent? Puh-lease. They are way more concerned with thinking people who don’t even try are idiots.
You will be rewarded and respected. And you might even make some friends and find people who care much more than you think they would.
So then…that seems like a lot, right? Of course it does. You do not need to do all of these things. I like doing them and I want to further myself as quickly as possible (without going insane, anyway). As I said before, I love it. But, you can just do a couple of these things and you’ll be fine. Below are my recommendations for learning a new language.
- Have Fun: I said it before and I’ll say it again. This is the most important thing you can do. Want it and do it and enjoy it. If you don’t like it and don’t have the drive, then there’s no point.
- Find What Works For You and Give It a Chance: Try out different things. They could be all the things we do, or something entirely different. Nobody says you can’t flirt with a dozen different methods before sorting out what you like best and what helps you learn the most.
- Don’t Be Scared: Just do it. Study and learn. And most of all: Talk to people! It doesn’t matter if you’re in North Dakota or Nepal. You can find someone that speaks your language. And if you can’t, you can damn sure find them online. There’s no excuse anymore, so don’t make them.
- Ask Questions: Ask the people you’re not scared of. Ask me. Ask the internet. Ask someone. Asking questions is a key ingredient to learning, so do it already. When it comes to language learning, there is absolutely no such thing as a stupid question.
It’s important for me to reiterate that I do not necessarily think you have to do all of this. Overkill, maybe/probably. I just like it oh so very much. Start with one or two things, see how you like them, and then add on or try something new.
Every single new word you learn is progress. Every single time you try to say even one thing to one person is progress. Learning a language is about creating possibilities, not about how perfect you are before you head out into the world.
Here’s a roundup of what I just wrote about, along with a couple extras for good measure. Click on any one of them to be taken to their respective sites. There are many more options out there – these are simply what we’ve used. Now, go out there and have fun with it!
So then, what do you do? How do you learn a language, and what works best for you? I’d love to hear it as I’m always looking for critiques and suggestions.
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