When someone discovers I know Spanish, usually the next thing they say is, “How did you learn it?”. I have always struggled with a proper response, because learning Spanish (or any language) is a detailed process involving many components. Spanish is like a computer software program for your mind that has to be built. It will take deep study, and persistent action over time, but it is very possible to achieve.
If you want to learn Spanish, but feel lost, oblige me as I share the story of how I laid the foundation for my success with Spanish.
In middle school I took a foreign language class. I can remember the teacher writing on the whiteboard and explaining simple exchanges like ¿Cómo te llamas? / Mi llamo Cody, watching cartoons in Spanish on the classroom television, and doing reports on Spanish-speaking countries. (Mine was Argentina.)
There was something about this new way of arranging letters that captivated me. I can remember thinking how strange it was that one group of people all agreed that the letters to spell “cat” were C-A-T, while this new group all agreed that they were G-A-T-O, gato. The fact that they were both correct was thought-provoking.
Except for buenos días (good morning), buenas tardes (good afternoon), and buenas noches (good evening), I forgot everything I learned, and it would be four years before Spanish would enter my life again.
Spanish was reintroduced to me in high school. I had a good friend from Mexico, and was very impressed that she knew this language that was completely separate from mine. As I came to spend time with her family, I would hear entire conversations which I could not understand. It was in these moments that the conceptual idea of other languages existing in the world would merge with the concrete fact. For the first time, I witnessed the presence of an alternate reality to the one I had known my whole life. Spanish was like a superpower that granted one access to another dimension. The idea fascinated me. Soon I became hooked, and started learning all I could.
Understanding the Possibilities
In the beginning I did not know many Spanish speakers, but there was one Chilean man I would see weekly at the church I then attended. I decided to share my enthusiasm for learning Spanish. He was very happy to help, and graciously lent me a set of spoken-word CDs containing greetings and simple phrases. I can remember hearing the word usted (the formal form of “you”) for the first time, and thinking how cool it sounded. I would use it all the time, even when there was no precedent.
As I progressed with the CDs, we would practice occasionally. The defining moment of my Spanish language career occurred one night as we spoke. We began with the usual Hola, ¿Cómo estás? / Estoy bien. As he continued talking to me, where I would usually falter, I did not. I understood what he was saying. Moreover, when asked questions, I could reply. This was unreal; I was actually doing it. I was so surprised, so happy, that I began laughing and was unable to stop. Tears came to my eyes, and I thought, “Wow…this is amazing.”
Improving My Spanish
Although I now knew I had the ability to learn Spanish, I was not sure how to proceed. It took me a few years to pinpoint a successful strategy. During this time, I tried different methods which have all served me well:
NOTE: As I rotated these, I found that I improved significantly each time I returned to one.
At home there was one Spanish television channel, Univision. It was my direct line to real native speakers, culture, current events, sports, programs, and more. I watched Primer Impactó, La Fea más Bella, El Chavo del Ocho, El Chapulín Colorado, Sabado Gigante, soccer matches, or whatever happened to be broadcasting at the moment.
NOTE: I also rather enjoyed the short-lived skit by talk show host Conan O’Brien, Noches de Pasión con Señor O’Brien.
I love music. Furthermore, I have always been keen on music performed in other languages. There are many great Spanish-language artists who go largely unnoticed in the English-speaking world, such as: Selena Quintanilla-Perez, Julieta Venegas, Fanny Lu, R.K.M. y Ken-Y, Juanes, and others.
The first artist I was introduced to was Julieta Venegas. Her music became an instrumental motivation for my learning Spanish. The spirit of delivery, the quality of lyrics, and topics covered in songs are all very good. The great thing about finding an artist you like is that you end up spending a lot of time with their music and internalizing things like new vocabulary, patterns of speech, and pronunciation with minimal effort, all while enjoying the music.
I have always been one to keep notebooks, and have found that they are quite useful for Spanish. I have heard so many horror stories of people taking notes on their phone, only to have everything become lost at some point. Using a physical notebook allowed me to avoid this. I recorded new vocabulary, copied down phrases or sentences, wrote periodical journal entries for tracking my progress with Spanish, compiled lists of words I wanted to know, and organized and planned out my studies.
Podcasts are a great tool that help me to maintain a connection with Spanish, no matter where life takes me. My favorite podcast for Spanish is SpanishPod. This podcast is now available through the company OpenLanguage under the name “OpenLanguage Spanish”. The podcast features lessons on individual topics that are given in the form of a dialogue which is presented, translated, analyzed, and commented upon by the two hosts. These lessons made Spanish come alive to me and always kept me wanting to learn more. All the hosts are very likeable and fun. The presentation of the Spanish language in this podcast is unmatched. Anyone who does not use it will definitely be missing out.
In the United States there are a number of Mexican restaurants, and to a lesser extent Cuban cuisine and other varieties. As the staff in these establishments are largely Hispanic, I thought it a good place to practice my Spanish skills. Frequenting restaurants allowed me to branch out from the basics and start having real conversations with other speakers. I learned how to place an order, personalize an order, request items like straws, napkins, boxes to-go (take away), and the meal ticket. Servers and owners would ask things like where I was from, how I was learning Spanish, and what my hobbies were, so I learned how to speak on these topics as well.
From perfecting greetings and small talk, to developing the skill of inquiry, and beginning to have deeper conversations, restaurants became an essential part of my recipe for Spanish.
Talking to Everyone
Over time, with my abilities improving beyond the scope of a restaurant, I sought opportunities to use Spanish elsewhere. I enjoy meeting new people, especially if we share something in common. I knew that I could not wait around for Spanish speakers to come to me, so I actively looked for people to strike up a conversation. I talked to everyone I could find. If I thought there was a chance they spoke Spanish, I introduced myself.
I was amazed at the warmth, hospitality, generosity, friendliness and interest people showed towards me. I have met many great individuals over the years, had many memorable interactions, and learned a lot of Spanish.
NOTE: Not only have I met Spanish speakers in this way, but also people from Brazil, China, Italy, Russia, Laos, the Philippines, and other countries.
The Spanish Journey
I am not completely fluent in the Spanish language, and honestly, would not even consider myself fluent in English, my native language. I continue to learn new things every day. What has been covered herein is only a start. Learning a language is a lifelong endeavor. There is sufficient depth of content in any one language to keep a person occupied for as long as they wish. Fortunately, it does not require a lifetime to obtain the rewards of knowing a new language.
If you have ever considered learning Spanish, know that it is possible; you just have to start.
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Thank you for reading.