Learning another language

There's a great discussion going on at MetaFilter about why English language speakers are horrible at learning other languages. Lots of excuses there - I'll have to remember them, the best and shortest being "America/Canada/Australia/NZ are geographically isolated and Britain and Ireland are islands." Yeah. Right. Here's MY thoughts on the subject from an American perspective.

Very simply the system to learn new languages in the U.S. is incredibly flawed. Foreign languages are all taught to young adults and teens instead of young children and the classes invariably use the same horrible "immersion" techniques that someone thought up in the 60s that JUST DON'T WORK. Basically every teen in the U.S. has sat through several years of a babbling high-school foreign language teacher, gotten nothing out of them, and then went on with their lives. And then everyone wonders why a large portion of Americans only speak English.

First, how many ridiculous things do you always hear about learning another language? How there's going to be a magical point where you just suddenly understand! How you'll one day cross this line and suddenly, you're dreaming in the other language! How great! All you have to do is spend an hour a day, five days a week for 9 months listening to a droning teacher babble on in the other language, a few vocabulary drills and some grammer homework and POOF! You're chattin' like a native! Or, I love this one, the only REAL way to learn another language is to live in another country so you're surrounded by it. Then you'll just "pick it up" quickly because it's everywhere. You'll be "immersed" in the language, it'll be so easy!

Take it from a once-monoglot who just spent the last two years learning Spanish that all these things you hear about learning other languages are all just complete lies. There's nothing magical about learning another language, believe me. It's hard-ass work. I actually believed all the crap you see above and it really hindered my ability to learn Spanish. I bought "The Idiot's Guide to Learning Spanish" if you can believe that. If you bought that book (or any like it), you're thinking the wrong way about languages.

I finally am fluent Spanish. Not native by any stretch, but I was just relaxing with my wife reading a novel in Spanish, so I'd say that qualifies me as knowing the language sufficiently well. My experience with Spanish before living here in Spain was two years of Spanish in high school (I flunked both years... seriously. I wasn't a very good student.) and then in 1998 before a big trip to Europe, I decided to "refresh" my Spanish by buying the Pimsleur's learning tapes (which are pretty good actually) and going through them while I was stuck in traffic in L.A. That and studying some books. This gave me the capacity to know a few words, count to 100 more or less, and to be able to say a few phrases in Spanish. It was only after I got here in Spain that I started taking Spanish lessons with a private tutor and started really studying.

Are you ready? Here's my 30 second introduction on how to learn Spanish:

First, we'll start with a word in English. Do you know what the word "carapace" means? It's today's Word of the Day on Dictionary.com. Click on the word to see what it means (and if you already knew that word, find another one that you DON'T know). Okay. Now are you back? Good. If you didn't know that word great! Now you do. Memorize it. Tomorrow you should be able to remember both what the word was and what it means. It's ONE word, you can do it. Can you feel yourself memorizing? Watch yourself as you memorize this English word.

Now, do the same for this word: "la voz". It means "the voice". Don't try to just remember half of it ("voz") you need to remember the article "la" too. Spanish speakers have trouble learning English because words in Spanish are always pronounced like they are spelt. There's NEVER a question. There's no such thing as a spelling bee in hispanic world - it would be ridiculous. So the Spanish have to learn both the word AND the sound it makes in English and it drives them nuts because many times they don't match and the sounds don't makes sense. Be thankful you're not learning something as esoteric as a sound and just memorize the article of the noun. The "la" and "el" on Spanish words don't make sense. There's no reason fighting it, just learn it. Memorize it. Do it the SAME EXACT WAY you learned the English word above. "La voz" is now in your head just a synonym for "the voice".

There you go. You are now on your way to learning Spanish!! Woohoo! Go get yourself a study guide and get to it. There are some other tricky things you'll have to get over but for the most part if you got, for example, 1000 words under your belt, you'll do pretty well.

What are some of the other things? Well, while I'm thinking about this, you'll have to unlearn how to pronounce words. Spanish vowels have one and only one way to pronounce them. You'll have to unlearn the 30 ways you can say the letter 'a' in English (long, short, cut, nasal, etc.) The rest of the pronunciacion is short and sweet rules that if you learn well once you wont have to do it again ever. Otherwise you'll just keep saying words with a horrible accent. Also, there are 17 verb tenses in Spanish compared to the 6 in English. That's a bitch. It means that one word, "comprar" can have a zillion different forms. Learning 500 verbs actually means being able to recognize (500 verbs x 6 forms x 17 tenses =) 51,000 word forms. That's pretty much a pain in the ass. It's latin based, so there's a pretty nice system to break it all down, but still at first it seems like you'll never get it (especially when you pick up one of those thick 501 Spanish Verb books). But you will.

Okay, that's all. This blog will now return to it's regularly scheduled tech topics.


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