“Un día muy frío un grupo de erizos que se encuentran cerca sienten simultáneamente una gran necesidad de calor, para satisfacer su necesidad buscan el calor corporal de los otros pero cuanto más se acercan más dolor causan las púas del cuerpo del erizo vecino. Sin embargo, debido a que alejarse va acompañado de la sensación de frío, se ven obligados a ir cambiando distancias hasta que encuentran la separación óptima.”
OK, I think that by now everyone knows that I’m Serbian and that Spanish isn’t my native language. That is why I get many questions about how did I manage to learn Spanish so well. First of all, I prefer the term ‘’study’’ rather than ‘’learn’’, because as a philologist I don’t really believe that it is possible to ever entirely learn a language, not even your mother tongue. A language is a thing that is constantly evolving, changing and progressing and as soon as you start to see your knowledge as something you don’t have to upgrade anymore, you lose your ‘’touch’’ with the language. It happened with my English when I started learning Spanish and I’m still trying to get my English mojo back so… Don’t make that mistake. Every language requires constant practice. That is the truth.
Now, let’s cut to the chase. How? Well, there are many different ways and we all have to find the one that suits us best. My forte have always been the languages, I have always hated working with numbers and I used to fail my Math exams A LOT. So yes, some of us have the natural talent when it comes to languages. The others will just have to compensate the lack of talent with some extra work, that’s it. Studying a language is basically not giving up. Because, like most things, once you have a foundation it gets easier and easier to built on it. That is why you have to make sure that the foundation is good and strong, or you’re risking that the entire project crumbles down as you go. So, let’s start with…
When taking up a new language, I like to assess my level of that language first. Sort of an own placement test, per se. How well do you understand it? Are you able to make a conversation or you just know some random words? Have you ever had any contact with the language? You have no clue what so ever? Whatever it is, it is very important for you to be realistic about the knowledge you possess. When I started studying Spanish, I had a years long experience of Latin-American soup-operas behind me. I loved watching them as a child. Combine that with the talent I have for languages and you have a very good starting position right there. I was able to understand quite a lot before I even tried to get into studying it. However, I lacked the knowledge about grammar. So, you can’t say that my foundation was the previously described ‘’good one’’. I had to go back to the beginning and start with some pretty basic stuff before I could continue building up on what I already knew. I know people who study only the grammar in the beginning. I personally think that kills all the fun. I love grammar but a language is so much more than some conjugation rules. Now, I’m learning Italian and I’m following my old Spanish program… Which kind of combines basic grammar and a bit more advanced vocabulary since I’m not a total beginner. If you are, I strongly advice to get to at least A2 level buy investing some money. My vote always goes to presential courses over the internet based ones- I would only choose the latter if I wouldn’t have the time or the language I want to learn offered in the centers nearby. It is very important to start off on the right foot, it will definitely pay off later on and you will be able to continue studying on your own in no time. If you do have some basic notions about the language however, feel free to make the plan that works best for you.
It is important, I’m not going to lie. A lot of people claim to love learning languages but they hate the grammar. Without the grammar, it is impossible and if you try to avoid it in the beginning it gets harder and harder to catch up as you keep advancing. I’m against certain methods that claim that the best way to learn a language is learn all the grammar in the beginning and get to the fun part later. Many people give up trying to do it like that and it is more than understandable. So, like I said in the paragraph above, what works best for me is combining some basic grammar with some more advanced vocabulary (because I have always had some knowledge of the language when I would decide to officially start studying it). What do I mean by basic grammar? Well, you can choose what is important for you. I do it like this:
1. The tenses: I start with the most used present, past and future one. Then I do the imperative. Then I deal with the more complicated ones as I go. Reading the texts (especially the newspapers) you can get quite a good idea about which of them is used often and which one is kind of a more ‘’formal’’. If you read poetry you will often find some archaic forms of speech that you should probably leave for latter on. So, start simple. Don’t go into the subjunctive the first time you see it. Remember, a good, strong foundation and later you can build as many floors as you want. A weak, bad foundation and it will come crumbling down eventually.
Extra tip: learn the irregular verbs by heart. Don’t put it off. Make a list and read it at least twice a day and practice by writing it down. As sooner as it gets automatic, better.
2. The gender and the plural: I like to do these two together. I learned it like that in school in both Serbian and English, so I kept that practice. These two features you will be using a lot in everyday speech so you might as well get it over with right away. I’m kind of focussing on the languages that descended from the vulgar Latin, because in English the gender will not represent a problem… But it is kind of a big deal in Spanish. It is relatively simple and logical, with some exceptions. The plural is always easy. The plural is our friend.
3. Interrogative pronouns: I insist that many people have no idea how important they are when it comes to language learning. I have learned 30% of my current Spanish by asking ‘’What is that?’’. It is very important to know how to ask the right question.
4. The pronunciation rules: for now, Spanish seems easier than Italian in this aspect. It is obviously very important to know how to pronounce correctly in order to be understood. Learn the rules. Read aloud. A LOT. Record and listen to yourself. Be impartial. Another thing I like to do: install the keyboard of the language you are learning if you have a smartphone. You should have the option to dictate to your phone unless you’re learning a language like my native one xD But with English, Spanish, Italian, Russian etc. you’re covered. So, ‘’dictate’’ to your phone and see if the words that it’s writing down are the once you think you’re pronouncing. You’ll be surprised. But it’s a very good exercise.
5. The linguist typology: ‘’The phrase making’’ is how I call it. When you read, pay attention to the order of the words in the phrase. It might not be like you would order them in your native language or some other language you know. And of course, knowing to make a sentence is very important.
These are my priorities. You can follow them or you can choose your own. There is a lot of good material on the internet to use, but make sure it is reliable (not a forum etc.). When you are ready, get a good grammar book written in language you’re learning. Have a notebook and write everything down. You memorize your own handwriting better than a printed text.
Tends to be the fun part. You can learn and expand your vocabulary in countless ways:
1. Movies and TV shows
The basic one. Start with the subtitles in your own language or another one you understand well. Move to the subtitles in the language you’re studying, that way you can also improve your writing. Again, make sure the subtitles are good because today anyone can subtitle a movie to make a few bucks. Of course, this way you also listen to the language so you work on your comprehension and your pronunciation. And the best thing is that it actually improves your vocabulary.
A bit more relaxing and a great way for your ear to ‘’get used to’’ the language you’re working on. Analyze the lyrics. I had the luck when it comes to my Spanish to have by my side a person who showed me (and keeps doing so) some great Spanish artists I didn’t know of (Love of Lesbian, Supersubmarina, Nacho Vegas etc.). He would also explain to me the meaning of the words, the context or the idioms we would find. So try finding a cute guy that is a native speaker of the language you’re learning because it might turn out to be the love of you life :P If not however, you can find all the explanations on the internet.
3. Duolingo and similar apps
Yes, everyday we have more applications that promise to help you master any language. If you have to pay for them, I would say it is a wasted money. Money of them, however, are free to use. The one I like to work with is Duolingo. It will not make you bilingual. However, it’s quite repetitive so you’re bound to memorize well quite a few phrases and words. I’m still exploring it and I recently found quite a good forum on the Italian language there. There are photos for every new term you learn, so you will be able to memorize it that way also. Quite a few tests. You practice some basic translation also… And you work on it everyday. So yes, I recommend using these apps as reinforcement of sorts but not as a basic learning material.
4. Books and articles
To start with, you should go with some recent newspaper articles. You can get a lot from those. Choose a topic you are interested in, read it out loud dictating to your phone to check your pronunciation, write down that unknown words and search for them in the dictionary, try writing a brief summary on what you read in order to practice your spelling… Later on work with extracts from books or books as a whole.
How much time will I need until I’m able to speak fluently?
I don’t know. Depends on your capacity, the time and effort you are willing to put into it. For some it’s six months for some it’s two years but if there is something I’m sure off is that the hard work pays off, big time. Don’t get discouraged if there is something you’re less good at when it comes to learning a language, it is always just a small part of what is remaining to learn. Study a different area and then go back when you’re ready. Don’t be shy to speak. Speak whenever you can. Ask people to correct your mistakes. Listen and absorb like a sponge. Learning a language is not quick nor easy and it is not supposed to be. But it’s sure as hell worth of every minute you put into it.