Thursday, August 6, 2009

How August Learned Spanish

I'm reposting this story from the Lenguajero blog.

My first experience with Spanish was in Ms. Rose’s high school class. I believe that I actually sat through two years of that class. Somehow I managed to get through it all by using a newly available tool called “an internet translator” something my 65 year old on-the-verge-of-retirement teacher had never heard of before. I graduated without knowing how to say a single thing in Spanish, and promptly forgot all about the language, after all I was a red, white and blue blooded American, why would I ever want to speak another language, let alone Spanish?

Flash forward six years. I am now a slightly less ignorant American, and want to spend some time traveling in Latin America. I decide that the year of Latin I took at university, and a few iPod learning lessons will get me up and speaking Spanish in no time.

Two months later I end up in Guatemala completely unable to say a word to anyone. I stare blankly at everyone who tries to talk to me. I am in awe of the British girl who takes pity on me and comes to the bank with me to ask them if they will exchange some of my US dollars. “Ustedes cambian dolares aqui?” seems like an amazing phrase, and surely anyone who can say such a thing must speak the language fluently.

I spent three months in Central America, took a couple of weeks of Spanish courses, and left still unable to actually speak the language, though I had some how convinced myself that because I knew about 250 words I spoke Spanish.

About six months later I got “serious” about improving my Spanish. At first this basically consisted of feeding a BBC Mundo news article into Google Translate once a day and pretending that I had read it.

Eventually I admitted to myself that I was completely unable to speak the language, and decided that I was for real going to learn Spanish once and for all. Along the way I discovered a few things about learning Spanish that I think apply to learning languages in general.

  1. Unlike other subjects you might study you can’t actually learn to speak a language from a book. You can learn grammar and vocabulary (obviously important), but you still will not be able to speak.
  2. Speaking and listening to the language is the best way to improve your ability to speak and understand the language.
  3. Don’t try to read The Old Man and The Sea in Spanish. It is just as boring as in English, but harder to understand.
  4. It’s easier to learn if you practice conversational Spanish everyday. I had to move to Latin America to make that happen (remember Lenguajero didn’t exist in those days).
Read the rest of the story...

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