Learn Spanish "Easily," "Quickly," "Effortlessly," and Other False Promises
Go to YouTube and type in “Learn Spanish” or to Amazon and type in “Spanish” and count how many entries there are for “easy,” alone. Did you find one promising you could gain “mastery” in one week or one claiming you could learn Spanish in 5 days? Maybe you found the “magic key” or the suggestion that you could learn Spanish in your sleep. Maybe you found “complete” only to realize there are several volumes or that the publisher has a disclaimer that they can “make no guarantees or warranties as to the accuracy, adequacy or completeness” of the work. Who do they think they’re kidding?!
Then there are the “methods” and the “approaches” types that tell you that the reason you aren’t as fluent as you’d like to be is because you haven’t tried their “method” or “approach." They have very creative and elaborate presentations outlining all the reasons why “traditional” methods (like whatever you had in high school or college) “don’t work,” which, by the way, is a ridiculous assertion given how many people there are out there for whom they do “work.” “Studying,” “memorization,” “grammar,” and “vocabulary,” among other terms, are used pejoratively, and once we find ourselves (they hope) nodding in agreement with their leading questions, they reveal their little-known or best-kept secret, the answer to all our linguistic prayers: their product. I know you know what I’m talking about. These people are no different from the ones that try to sell us on “break-through” diets and/or exercise equipment or the ones that promise “simple” and “easy” ways to finally gain financial freedom through their “proven” blah, blah, blah.
I’ve been actively (compulsively) studying Spanish for over 25 years and for more than 15 of those years, I have taught private lessons at coffee shops, as well as classes ranging from 12 students to 42 students in public schools at every grade level from 4th to 12th as well as at the university level. I have taught more than 1500 students over those 15 years, with each student achieving his/her own unique level of fluency. Despite their individual results, there are a few universal truths about learning a second language that my experience has taught me.
1. The only people who learn a second language to any useful level of fluency are those who actively seek out opportunities to learn it, enjoy the process of learning it, and see learning it as a life-long pursuit, not those who simply think it would be cool to be bilingual. You don’t get into shape by buying a home gym or by getting an annual pass to your local rec center; you do it by establishing a healthy lifestyle, based on expert advice, and sticking with it. You don’t become financially fit by attending a seminar or by buying a program on late-night television; you do it by working hard, putting in the time, ah, who am I kidding? I have no idea how to become financially fit, but that's why this article is about learning Spanish. Where was I? Right ... likewise, you won’t become fluent in a second language solely by signing up for a class or by buying a book series or car-audio program.
2. All “methods” and “approaches” have validity and all learning materials can be helpful, but individual interest and determination are far more important. Do you want to know what my most successful students do differently? They direct their own learning. First, they do everything I ask them to do: they study their vocabulary and grammar for each given unit, not by casually reading through the lists and explanations, but by forcing recall and by contemplating their possible applications in the process. They also do the corresponding written activities and actively engage in my lessons when we’re face to face. Second, and more importantly, they find their own reasons to learn it and, in most cases, a good friend who shares that same interest. They speak Spanish to each other at soccer practice, or in the break room at work, not only among themselves, but with native Spanish speakers as well. They speak Spanish to their friends at night while playing online video games or at the grocery store or other public places, and they do so without fear or embarrassment that someone might overhear them. As they put themselves out there to communicate, they realize they do not have the vocabulary or grammatical structures they need to express themselves, and, instead of giving up, they search for answers in a dictionary, in an online forum, or in my curriculum to which they already have access. No test or grade or other extrinsic motivator will push them to proficiency; the drive comes from within. If you want to become proficient in Spanish, do the following: get your hands on a comprehensive written program and follow it; watch YouTube videos on Spanish and videos in Spanish on whatever topics interest you; take a Spanish class or two and/or find a private tutor and do everything the teacher tells you to do; make friends who speak, or want to speak, Spanish (finding a local Spanish Meetup is a great place to start) and then, duh, speak to them in Spanish; write a daily journal in Spanish and when you can’t express what you want to express, look it up; listen to music in Spanish, learn the lyrics and sing along; watch TV shows or movies in Spanish; etc. There is no single method or resource that will get you to where you want to go; combine as many as you can and do them as frequently as you can. With what time, you ask? You’ve got the rest of your life – carpe diem! Which brings me to the last truth I’ll share with you.
3. “Fluency” and “fluent,” without qualifiers, are terms used by and for the people who don’t speak the target language. The rest of us know better. Becoming fluent is an ongoing process, a sliding scale of proficiency that only ends when we become satisfied with our level of fluency. With every year, we become more and more fluent in our native language – we take a class and are expected to learn specialized vocabulary or we take on a new professional role and we have to learn the relevant acronyms and other trade talk that go along with performing that role. For all intents and purposes, a five-year-old child is fluent in his/her native language, but we would all agree that we are more fluent now than when we were five. This is the same for learning Spanish now. Perhaps you just want to be able to do some touristy things in a Spanish-speaking country and successfully navigate a menu at a restaurant or the subway through the city. That’s one level of fluency. That’s a far cry from the fluency required to effectively perform your current job role in Spanish, though, wouldn’t you say? No matter how much you learn, no matter how proficient you become, know that you don’t know what you don’t know. Keep exploring the language with curiosity; there is always more to learn, always more boundaries to push, and, if we’re being perfectly honest with ourselves, we know there is nothing “easy,” “quick,” or “effortless” about learning Spanish and there is no “secret” or “magical” method or approach to mastery out there. As for “complete,” each individual resource or influence, no matter how comprehensive, is just one piece of the million-piece puzzle that is language mastery.