Posts Tagged ‘learning’

Be Realistic, Learning Spanish Takes Longer Than Six Weeks

Sunday, July 14th, 2013

People often sign up for a six week Spanish program and are shocked when they complete the course and cannot communicate with aplomb in Spanish. If this statement sounds like it holds just a grain of truth for you, then you need to be realistic. Learning Spanish takes longer than six weeks. Think about this: I bet it took you longer than six weeks to learn English. Am I right?

Toddlers and young children who are flung into new situations and have to learn a completely different language learn fast and easily. But even these guys with their sponge like brains take longer than six weeks to decipher the ins and outs of Spanish.

Unfortunately adults are much slower at picking up languages. We are no longer producing new brain cells and making connections between neurons is a lot more difficult. We also have many years of using our own language to fight against. Adults sometimes have a tough time accepting that sentence structures may seem backwards to what we are used to, or prepositions don’t always translate across from English to Spanish.

The truth is that different languages structure communication differently to English. Often, as is the case with English too, there is no logical reason why something is the way it is, it just is and you have to accept it. This can be a bitter pill to swallow for people who are accustomed to wanting to know the whys and wherefores of things. Asking questions like “But why is it a regular verb in English and it is irregular in Spanish?” or “Why does mano end in ‘o” but has la as its definite article?” will hinder you in your language learning. There are certain things that you have to accept with childlike credulity when learning a language and then get on with it.

In my experience as a language teacher, there are people in this world who are more pre-disposed to language acquisition than others. Some people find it easy to untangle the web of Spanish grammar and can ram it into their brains with relative ease. Others struggle to remember how to conjugate the present tense. If you belong to the former group, then you are lucky; if you belong to the latter, then you are not alone and with persistence you will make it.

Another reason it takes us English speakers longer than six weeks to pick up a language is that by and large we are not very good at it. I know this is a terrible stereotype, but since English is so widely spoken, there is less motivation and necessity for us to master other languages. It is true than you can generally find an English speaker anywhere on the globe. As such, we do not grow up learning different languages in the way that other cultures do and the languages taught at school are not compulsory into the upper reaches of secondary school, nor are they taught with a communicative focus.

With realistic expectations you will be able to become a great Spanish speaker. It will take you more than six weeks; in fact if you are serious about it you will continue learning for the rest of your life. Just as we learn new words or phrases regularly in our native language you will continue to do so in Spanish too. After six weeks you can reasonably expect to have mastered some of the basics of Spanish that will form the foundation for the rest of the language to flourish in your brain.

Part 4 – Learning “Parrot Fashion” or Learning Spanish grammar?

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2013

In my last article I started to write about some of the first steps I took when I decided to learn the Spanish language. In this article I want to talk about two different approaches to learning a new language that you may want to think about before you dive head long into a text book or start trying to memorise hundreds of Spanish words.

The way that people best absorb and retain information differs from person to person but generally speaking our brains work better if the information we are trying to absorb is presented to us in a way that is informative and interesting. If the human brain attempts to learn by being continuously presented with factual information it will very quickly suffer from Neural System Fatigue; that is, our ability to remain interested in what we are trying to learn will quickly be lost.

New information is best absorbed by the human brain if it triggers our human emotions. Learning facts anecdotally is one method of achieving this. The key is to provide the brain with stimuli. It is far more likely that the brain will absorb new Spanish words for example if those words can be related to something else or if they forms part of a small list of other similar words. Trying to learn hundreds of unconnected words at once is likely to be less effective. I will talk more about learning vocabulary in later articles.

So what stimulus works best? How does the human brain react to different types of stimuli? Well, this of course is what differs from person to person. We are all different. Something that interests me might be the most boring thing in the world to somebody else!

Often you will see teachers and text books trying to teach Spanish by following two different general approaches. The first approach is what I like to call, teaching “parrot fashion”. This involves the student processing and remembering new Spanish words and phrases and then simply repeating them our loud. Certain words and phrases can be associated with different topics. The student can simply learn a particular word and remember that that word is only used in particular situations without necessarily understanding why.

The second approach to learning is more methodical. It requires the student to learn a new word or phrase and then to understand why that word or phrase is being used in the way that it is. What we are really saying here is that the grammar of a language is important. We can learn Spanish by trying to understand some fundamental points about the structure of the language.

So which method works best? The truth is that you are unlikely to be able to learn Spanish effectively without having some understanding of Spanish grammar. In reality it will probably take you far longer to learn Spanish if you simply rely on trying to remember when certain words and phrases are used in speech.

A good example of how useful learning Spanish grammar can be is when trying to learn different verb tenses. The way verbs are formed in Spanish is very different to the way they are formed in English. I will talk more about this in later articles. The great thing is that if we learn certain rules about how one particular verb should be formed in one particular tense in Spanish then quite often we can apply this rule to hundreds of other verbs too.

By learning Spanish grammar we can form words and sentences without necessarily having to learn hundreds of words individually. Following grammatical guidelines and applying rules will ultimately allow us to learn new words more quickly.

The problem is that learning Spanish grammar for many is quite boring! It essentially requires that the human brain absorbs technical and factual information. Without varied stimuli learning Spanish grammar might take a very long time.

To avoid losing concentration and becoming board it is probably best to mix both approaches to learning Spanish. This is especially true at the early stages of the learning process. By learning Spanish words and phrases “parrot fashion” at least the student feels immediate satisfaction by being able to communicate. Learning the basics using this method is probably best. It doesn’t take much for anyone to learn how to say hello and introduce themselves!

I mentioned in my last article that when first learning Spanish you shouldn’t get too bogged down with how different words and phrases are formed. The point is that you want to feel enthused about learning. However, if you are serious about learning Spanish then at some point you will need to learn Spanish grammar. Don’t rush it and make sure you provide your brain with the stimuli that it needs. In the next article I intend to talk more about different types of stimuli and how I managed to keep myself enthused when I first started to learn Spanish.

Learning Spanish – Part 3 – Taking Your First Steps

Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

In the last article I talked about mental preparation. If you are thinking about learning Spanish then it makes sense to think carefully about what you hope to achieve and how you hope to achieve it. This is because the learning process is likely to be a long one and full of trials and tribulations. It is wise not to underestimate yourself.

In this article I’m going to talk about what I did when I was first thinking about learning Spanish. That was about four years ago now. At the time I knew nothing of the Spanish language, so for me it was a case of starting right from the very beginning.

My concepts of how other languages worked were really very basic. I thought all I had to do was to take any English word and simply learn what the equivalent word in Spanish was. Therefore I could simply put the words together and hey presto I would have a complete sentence. It didn’t’ take me long to realise that this basic theory rarely works!

For example, “I always buy strong coffee”. In Spanish, “ siempre compro café fuerte”. In this sentence there appears to be no Spanish word for “I” and the word for “coffee (café)” comes before the word for “strong (fuerte)”. This is only a simple example but it shows how my basic theory falls down. The Spanish word for “I” is “yo”, but it is often not used in Spanish sentences because the construction of the verb it is used with already tells us that “I” is being referred to “compro = I buy”. Secondly, in Spanish, adjectives usually come after the nouns that they are used with whereas in English they usually come before them. “strong coffee = café fuerte”.

If you know nothing about Spanish as I didn’t then you might already be a little confused. At this stage it probably isn’t worth thinking too much about how the structure of the English and Spanish languages might differ. You will simply come to realise these differences as you progress through your studies. However, I think it is important to remind yourself right from the very beginning that learning Spanish won’t be as easy as simply matching English and Spanish words!

Of course if you don’t know any Spanish words then you are not going to be able to make any sentences, regardless if they are grammatically correct or not. You need to start learning some words and phrases. Try thinking about some of the most common every day phrases in English.

You could start by learning some common greetings for example – hello (hola) goodbye (adiós), good morning (buenos días), good afternoon (buenas tardes). In these examples you might have noticed that the translation of the English word used for “good” is both “buenos” and “buenas”. This is because one is masculine and the other is feminine!! If you are not sure what I am talking about then don’t worry. I will talk much more about gender in later articles.

The point here is that when learning new Spanish words or phrases you are probably going to notice differences in the way they are used that you don’t fully understand. If you are anything like me you will always be asking yourself “why?” My advice is not to get too bogged down in trying to understand these things too quickly. It will probably just frustrate you!

As well as learning useful words and phrases you of course need to make sure that you can pronounce them correctly! The only way you can do this is by hearing some examples. It is important to make sure you pronounce Spanish words correctly right from the beginning. If you don’t then you will pick up bad habits that will become more difficult to shake off later on.

Spanish pronunciation is something you will probably want to study separately during your studies. It is a good idea to do this early on. The good news is that Spanish pronunciation is far less complicated than English pronunciation. I will be discussing this in more detail in later articles.

So, you need to start learning new Spanish words and phrases whilst making sure that you pronounce them correctly. When I first started learning Spanish I bought a basic level Spanish text book. I had about a six weeks before I was about to embark on a long trip to Central and South America and my goal was to finish the book before the six weeks was up. One of the first things the book taught me was how to introduce myself by saying what my name was and where I was from. It came with CD’s so that I was able to check my pronunciation.

In the next article I will talk more about my early studies and some of the pitfalls I encountered whilst trying to plough through a basic level text book in six weeks. I will also talk about the different ways you might want to think about how learning Spanish best works for you. Buying a text book might not suit you. Maybe you would prefer to study online or entirely from audio CD’s! Whatever you choose get yourself started. Start learning some basics. Hasta luego…..