I’m writing this in English only because I have quite a bit to say and I don’t want any of it to be confused or lost in translation. Mainly, this is my personal guide on how best to study a foreign language. Obviously in my case it’s Spanish, but I think my ideas are valid for learning any language. Of course before continuing I should add that these are only my personal tips and nothing I say is based on anything more than my own experience. Many of these ideas are simply things I have heard passed along by others over my years of studying, and this is what has worked for me. While I welcome any and all comments, this is primarily for me to use as a personal kick in the ass to keep working and stay motivated. OK, enough rambling, let’s go.
As almost all of us would certainly agree, the four main subjects to focus on when studying a foreign language are reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Of course some people are content to only focus on one or two of these topics, however I personally feel that to be considered fluent, you have to at least attempt to work on all four aspects.
When it comes to reading, these days many of us are lazy about it, even in our native language. With almost everything available to us in video format, reading has almost become obsolete. However, in my experience, reading plays a huge role in expanding my vocabulary as well as learning how to put words and phrases into context. Here’s how I suggest we go about reading in a foreign language as a means to learn. First, it should be fun. Pick something to read that is at your level, but also something that interests you. Unless you work on Wall Street, reading the Wall Street Journal probably won’t appeal to you (in any language!). When I first attempted to read a novel in Spanish, I looked for something at my level and that would hopefully keep me interested I want to reveal a little truth about me here, I am honestly NOT a huge Harry Potter fan, but it was immensely popular during my first years of studying Spanish and you could easily come across the novel in almost any language. I was so excited to receive the first Harry Potter novel in Spanish, I could barely wait to open it. Now, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. I’ve discovered that it takes me roughly twice as long to read something in Spanish as it would take to read in English. That meant a 300 page novel would feel more like 600 pages. Additionally, there were a lot more unknown words than I expected. That’s not to say it was beyond my level, it just meant that I had to really focus on understanding the context if I was going to succeed. I certainly found myself rereading entire pages after realizing I hadn’t really understood what I had just read. Of course this can be discouraging so how can we continue without giving up? Limits and goals. Instead of saying, OK, I’m going to read this novel, it’s better to say, Ok, I’m going to read ten pages of this novel every day. To some that sounds like a lot and to others nothing at all, so pick a number that’s good for you. The new trick I just gave myself to try to stick to this goal is to place my bookmark on the page I want to finish on for the day. This way, if the going gets tough, I know how much further I have to go and it won’t seem so bad. You can either place your bookmark ahead ten or so pages, or for the more adventurous, place it at the end of the chapter, guiding you to read a chapter a day. Ambitious, sure, but worth it. Also, don’t spend your time looking up every word you don’t know. I keep a pen and paper nearby but I only write down a word I don’t know if it appears several times in one sitting. Also, notice I said pen and paper and not Smartphone. Physically writing down the words you don’t know helps you to remember it better and even pronounce it better. One final note on reading. Some adults feel like they have to read War and Peace when in fact, there’s nothing wrong with reading something aimed at a slightly younger audience, and I think you’ll get more out of it. Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, anything by Roald Dahl, any of Dan Brown’s novels, are just a few examples of books I have read in Spanish, and I have been pleased at how well I did. Unfortunately, I am not as familiar with contemporary native Spanish authors, but I am hoping to find some to read very soon.
I like to write. Some people hate it. When it comes to writing in Spanish, it can be tricky. I started this blog eleven years ago and I still feel like my writing comes across as juvenile when I write in Spanish. Many people make the excuse that they don’t know what to say or they don’t know the vocabulary necessary to express themselves. Solution? Start small. While I tend to be very verbose in my blog, there’s no reason not to start with a small goal such as 50 words a day. Surprisingly, 50 words really isn’t all that much. And what should you write about? Anything that interests you. Start with an introduction, as I am sure all of us can do in Spanish at this point, and go from there. Talk about what you plan to do today, or what you already did yesterday. Suddenly you’ll be forced to use those evil verb tenses we all try to avoid.Several years ago I made it a goal to write one blog entry a day for as long as I could keep it up. It lasted over a year. (It started June 6, 2012 and it ended October 13, 2013) I’d like to start that goal again. (This one doesn’t count, it’s in English) Ten minutes, fifty words, you’ll be amazed at how much you improve. And don’t cheat. I use Google translate, but I still write everything in Spanish first, then I look to see how it translates to English, not the other way around. If it sounds basically correct, I know I’ve done well, but I certainly still post my share of mistakes.
Listening is hard for me. No no, I can listen, and I even understand what I am listening to for the most part. What’s hard for me is staying tuned in. I often find that after listening to something in Spanish for more than ten minutes or so, my mind begins to wander and I end up lost. My solution now is to find a podcast or YouTube video that isn’t incredibly long (no more than 30 minutes), put on my headphones and hide from the rest of the world. I want no distractions when I am trying to work on my listening skills. Some people suggest having Spanish music on in the background when you are not actively studying, or other forms of passive listening, but as much as I enjoy Alejando Sanz, that’s not my preferred way to improve my listening skills. If it works for you, great, but it’s not helpful to me.
OK, I obviously saved the best for last. As much as we love speaking Spanish, this one is the hardest to practice. Why? Because we’re scared, that’s the honest truth. We’re scared of sounding dumb, saying the wrong thing, or being misunderstood. What makes it even harder, for me at least, is that I am a naturally timid speaker as it is. I am hesitant to talk to strangers in English, what makes you think I can do it in Spanish? I think maybe I picked the wrong hobby. No, no, none of that, we’re staying positive here. I know, we’ve all heard the ways we can go about finding language partners or intercambios, but what if that’s really not your style and you still want to practice speaking? One of the ways I came up with but haven’t been as dedicated to doing as I should is to speak out loud to myself for a minimum of five minutes a day. That has actually been my New Year’s Resolution for the last several years, but I always manage to fail by making bad excuses for not doing it. Yes, it can feel awkward talking to yourself, especially if you are not home alone. Surely my wife would think I was losing my mind if she overheard me rambling on to no one. I haven’t figured out how I am going to overcome this one, so any suggestions are appreciated. Some people suggest recording yourself, but while I did try that, I never listened to the recordings as I hated hearing my own voice. Get a stopwatch, set it for five minutes, and go. If you can successfully do this, share how with me. If you really can’t think of anything to talk about, I recommend reading something out loud. If you want to combine it with your reading studies, you can read four or five pages of a novel out loud to practice pronunciation and all that. Again, something I promised myself I would do and have failed at miserably.
Anyway, these are just a few ideas on how you can improve your four basic aspects of Spanish without feeling like you are studying for the Bar Exam. Mostly, this was meant to encourage me to get back on track, but if I can help anyone else, I feel even better about this. Let me know what you think. Now, back to Spanish.