How do you speak, eat and live in a language that you are learning?
From teacher to student
To be clear, I’ll confess: As a teacher, I was a bit self-righteous in telling students how easy it was to learn English. Then I arrived in Chile in July 2010 and the only words I knew were Hello Y friends. Would what you had been telling the students to do work on the other side of the language learning experience?
Come with me while I live, eat and talk about what I preach.
I rearranged my life so that Spanish became the center of attention. The language learning formula is that you will quickly be able to read and follow what is happening. The context will help you even if you don’t understand every word. Then you will be able to understand more and more what people are talking about. If you keep going, you may start talking like an 18-month-old, but the vocabulary will develop. Writing is the most difficult. Even people who speak the language very well rarely write like native speakers.
So how do I live Spanish? When I get up in the morning I tune in to the radio and / or television of RTVE from Madrid on my laptop. There are no commercials and the announcers speak in a clear and crisp voice. If the people you are listening to speak well, it is much easier to follow the conversation.
And when you actually listen, you will begin to hear how many words are, in fact, the same as in English, but with a different pronunciation. English emphasizes the first syllable; Spanish the penultimate.
Another advantage is that the news repeats itself, so what I miss the first time I will see more in the second round. My usual station is 24 hours outdoor radio – live. I started to speak economics fluently since 23 of the 24 hours are dedicated to discussing the financial crisis in Spain.
For television newscasts, look at the mouth of the announcer. Remember that deaf people are learning to speak now, so pay attention and imitate. Sports broadcasts are also good listening exercises, as vocabulary is limited.
Now I only listen to Spanish music. And just watch Spanish movies. Subtitles, which makes it a waste of time since you are reading in English instead of listening in the target language, is not a problem on RTVE. If your family and neighbors complain about the gongs and wailing of the Chinese opera you are listening to or watching, get headphones and unplug them.
During the first few months, when I was reading the news in Spanish on the BBC, I really didn’t know much about what was happening on the news. But once I was able to follow it, I realized that I hadn’t missed much anyway. However, my reading skills improved.
I’ve been keeping a journal since August 1981. So I force myself to write a little bit in Spanish every day. It’s not great literature, but it’s fun to reread it after a few months and spot the mistakes. When I read or write, I try to focus on the verbs. More on this later.
To experience the language, also visit local food festivals, multicultural events, language exchange programs, and Internet offerings. Even if you want to learn some pretty obscure languages, like Khmer or Inuit, there are online resources ready and waiting.
Studying Spanish, and you have to experience the culture, is much more fun with a glass of Chilean sauvignon blanc in one hand and some tapas in the other. The same goes for steak and Malbec at midnight. In fact, after a couple of glasses of High floor wine I get a lot talking.
While at the bookstore, grab a cookbook in the target language and prepare some dishes. If in doubt about the ingredients, check with a translation program, as you don’t want a cup of sugar in your soup. Next, put on music, pour a drink, light some candles and transport yourself mentally to the country of the target language.
Once you get past the growl stage on a single noun, it’s time to tackle the verbs so you can talk to people. Although memorizing how to conjugate verbs rivals getting a root canal, all languages revolve around these stubborn little creatures. No verbs, no action. End of story, so go ahead and accept the verbs as friends.
Make verb learning a fun activity to say a sentence in the present, past, and future. Then reward yourself with a sip of saki if you’re learning Japanese. Read a passage and underline all the verbs.
Also write down what time they are in: past, present, future. Suddenly you will have a “eureka” and patterns will start to appear. Everything will start to make sense. And when that happens, eat out at your restaurant in the target language. Hopefully, the waiters at the Korean cafe will be able to talk to you.
To learn to speak well, you have to practice every day. When I started working as a teacher at the University of Waikato, I used to practice my lessons in front of a full-length mirror. By observing myself, I learned how I presented myself to the 400 radiant sophomores in the auditorium. Now I do the same with Spanish. And it’s also a good thing, since I now live in Phnom Penh and Spanish speakers are not readily available.
I would pour a glass of wine, pull up a chair in front of the mirror, and review my day. Topics include what I did and what I will do tomorrow. Sometimes I just walk away and talk about whatever. I take my Spanish book with me so that I can consult it, especially the verbs, when I need it.
Okay, it might sound a bit strange, but trust me it works. Another option is to record yourself. If you are concerned that other people may think you need a mental health evaluation, tell them that you are trying out a role in the Ukrainian play. As long as you have a cover story, no one ever asks.
Learning another language is mental gymnastics. The more practice, the better you will get. In short live, eat and talk and it will be more fun.