In 5 not-so-simple steps. A frank guide to language learning by someone who barely speaks two…

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Picking up a second language is a piece of cake – HAHA notI don’t know about yourselves but I personally do not posess a language soaking sponge of a brain, and my journey learning Spanish has been one of constant frustration. My viaje en español started 3 and a half years ago in Cusco inside a small academy called Mundo Antiguo, where I took a total of 6 private lessons. Prior to this my experience with languages was limited to some very basic Japanese and Russian in year 7, 1 hour of French a fortnight in high school, and an intensive Beginner’s Latin course at university WHICH I failed (miserably).

In Peru, I realised that although I’m slow to grasp grammar, when it came to speaking and listening I wasn’t half bad, and the immersive learning environment suited me more than chanting verb declensions and writing translations.

Having read the Irish Polyglot’s ‘Fluent in 3 months‘ I moved to Spain beaming with optimism, but by Christmas,  I was pessimistic as ever. Even though I lived in the country and had native speakers left, right, and centre of me, I failed to reach fluency in a few months – in the end, it took me 2 years. TWO. YEARS.

I have several theories as to why it took me so long. My favourite is to blame Spaniards themselves for using me at every opportunity to practice their English (thus eating away at my precious hours to improve my Spanish) but that would hardly be fair…

Others theories include:

  1. I’m old – or at least I am for language acquisition, and I’M GOING GREY (true story).
  2. I’m dyslexicalbeit mildly, my brain does not compute language as well as others.
  3. I’m shy – It takes a certain level of confidence to sound like a caveman & own it.

It took a lot of trial and error but in South America, I finally reached the level where native speakers tell other native speakers that I speak Spanish “very well” – and if it’s good enough for them, then IT’S GOOD ENOUGH FOR ME.

So here are 5 things you can do to learn a language based on my experience learning Spanish. I reference the CEFR levels a fair bit out of habit so if you’re not familiar with those then see this. If you’re looking to study for a particular exam this may still be useful to you, but this is aimed towards people like myself who want to learn a language just because they fancy it. You know, just cus…

#1 Exhaust Online Resources

So you’ve decided you want to pick up a second language, but you’re not dedicated and/or rich enough to fork out for a real language course? Not to worry, Duolingo is here! Its green, its free, and it will teach you such odd sentences that there is even a twitter account dedicated to it. You’ll learn to say “I am a penguin” and “The bee writes a letter” before the much more necessary stuff like “How are you?” or “Where is the toilet? IT’S URGENT”. For a free resource, it is OK, and you’ll find the little dings addictive as you try to earn enough lingots to download the Flirting extension (or was that just me?).

If you feel like Duolingo is teaching less sweet nothings and more literally nothing and you want to take yourself more seriously, then move on to Babbel. No, it is not free, but yes it is worth it. Babbel is like the coursebook of your dreams that you can access on or offline through their handy App or from your computer. Honestly, I should be earning commission by now I’ve recommended this to so many people! I’ve even bought subscriptions as gifts because I think it’s that good. If that wasn’t enough, unlike other applications that usually only teach the basics, Babbel’s course content goes up to B1 (lower intermediate) level AND it also dings! Win-win ding-ding.

Other useful sites include:
FluentU – for listening practice and articles.
Youtube – for language teaching vlogs.
Lyrics Training – for learning through music.
BBC Bitesize – for all basic skill practice.

#2 Immerse Yourself at Home

After you’ve taught yourself the basics its time to put it into practice. In the digital age, immersion can start in the comfort of your own home. Change all your phone, computer, and social media settings to your target language – your auto correct will drive you up the wall, but it’ll give you one more opportunity to remind everyone just how cultured you are. Watch TV, read, and listen to music made in the language: Netflix, Youtube, and Spotify have made this easier than ever.

To make things easier try take a trip back in time and start out with the baby stuff – I watched some cartoon called Gomby (that I’m pretty sure was aimed at three-year-olds) then later progressed onto classic Disney. If you’re not up for going cold turkey: start with English subtitles and later transition onto subtitles in the target language, then onto nada.The likelihood is you’ll understand sweet FA and all enjoyment will be sucked out of said activities, but if you give it a few months eventually things might will start to make sense because your brain wants it too. There will come a time where you find yourself laughing at jokes without even having to think word for word what they actually mean – it is a major milestone and hell yeah it is brilliant.

#3 Immerse Yourself Abroad

Whether it’s for a holiday, to au pair, study a course, or simply to travel, being surrounded by native speakers can only help… According to the polyglots of this world, the trick is you CANNOT, no matter how tempting it may be, speak in your native tongue from the moment you land or cross the border. Try making friends with the locals when you can just about mumble your likes and hobbies in the present tense. On a serious note: when attempting to make friends with native speakers it is paramount to your linguistic success that you start as you mean to go on. What language you form the friendship in will set the tone for the rest of your relationship.

“I like cats… & more cats” miau miau

To spice things up you can always try Tinder: mention you want to practice your conversation skills, and wait for the matches to rooooooll in. Sooo most will be looking to exchange a little summin summin more than just a language, but you’ll definitely pick up some handy vocabulary that you sure won’t find in a coursebook.

After a few weeks the osmosis should kick in and you’ll be fluent in no time…OR the whole immersive experience will make you feel totally isolated and alone, and will suck a lot before it feels worth it. In my humble opinion “jump in the deep end” style of immersive learning it is overrated and is definitely not as magical as it can be made out to be for adults. It takes a long, long time before you’ll be able to build relationships with any depth, and even longer before you feel like you can really be yourself. I personally believe it is most effective if you’re already at a lower-intermediate level and have a solid a foundation to build from. Luckily if you follow steps 1 & 2 first then you should be off to a better start than I was.

#4 Forget Fluency

This sounds counter-intuitive, but hear me out: not one person can agree on what the heck fluency even means. That Irish Polyglot I mentioned earlier defines it as levels B1-B2, and others that are harder to please say to be fluent means you have got to sound like a native. One guy I met in Paraguay even went as far as to claim himself to be fluent purely based on the fact he’d almost finished Duolingo…

~ Abstract ~

My level of fluency in Spanish changed depending on what time it was, where I was, and who was talking too. I felt like the freaking Reina de español in the taxi ride home after a margarita or four, but the morning after I could barely muster up the courage to ask for a coffee. Furthermore, when accents and dialects are thrown into the mix what you think is right in one place may well sound wrong or downright stupid in another (see this video).

Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR)

Concentrate on actual levels instead – I personally go by the CEFR levels because that’s what I work with as an English Foreign Language teacher. Alternatively, you could forget the levels altogether and just learn a second language for fun, go along for the ride and see where you end up.

#5 Learn to Laugh Out Loud – at Yourself

If (like I was) you are shy, a little introverted, and worry too much about making a good impression then oh boy taking that step away from studying to actually using your chosen language is going to be an emotional roller coaster. Learning a language, in this sense, is kind of like puberty. Not being able to express yourself to people like you’re used to makes you feel incredibly vulnerable. People will laugh at you, and tell you that you are wrong, and sometimes won’t even give you the time of day because listening to you is that unbearable. Unfortunately, you are BOUND to make silly mistakes, have a funny accent, and you will generally sound less intelligent than you actually are for an extensive period of time.

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“Hahahaha how silly I am!”

It is tough, but the best way to get through this is to learn to laugh with them because heck, saying anus (ano) instead of years (año) is pretty damn funny. My favourite translation blunder was when I washed my lovely black clothes with perfumed bleach instead of washing detergent, and as a result turned my favourite Zara jeans into jaffa cakes. I also spent about 6 months confusing the word maquillaje (make-up) with mantequilla (butter), and once told hostel guests to come up to the second plate (plato) instead of floor (planta or piso).

I learnt this valuable lesson from my favourite student in one of our English classes when she handed me over my dinner (cenar) instead of my money (dinero). It became our little in-joke and she owned it – so why couldn’t I do the same? Every month I spent worrying about this stuff was a month of progression wasted. Once I learnt to take my hilarious mistakes it in my stride I improved. Simple.

So there you have it: my five not-so-simple tips to language learning. I should also mention I have also taken three Spanish courses, but that seemed like a no-brainer so I didn’t go into it. The academies I have been through are:

Escuela Oficial de Idiomas: 3 month beginners (A1) course
La Aventura Española: 20 hour intermediate (B1) course.
Sucre Spanish School: 20 hour intermediate (B2) course.

If you have got any tips to add or (even better) some thigh-slap inducing translation fails to tell, do share them in the comments below!

– MW.

2 thoughts on “How to Learn a Language

  1. So I’ve been learning Spanish since I was 11, have a degree in the subject and now make a living from it and I am as far from fluent as they come! Watching TV/films has always helped me big time, and it was always a pleasure when someone would see me in front of the TV and say “shouldn’t you be doing uni work?” to respond with “this is revision”. Couldn’t have compiled a better list myself – and number 5 is so so so SO important!
    Also, funny thing about your mantequilla/maquillaje situation…I had a similar thing happen with butter! When I was in Peru back in 2011 I was staying with a family for the month and it was a little before WiFi became a thing over there. So every couple of days I’d waltz on down to the internet café in town and politely ask what I thought was “Can I please use a computer?” Turns out what I was actually saying was “Can I please use the butter?” The first few times the attendant sort of looked at me all confused and just nodded, then after that every day she’d have this big huge grin on her face when she saw me coming. It wasn’t until my very last week there that one of my students (I was volunteering as an English teaching assistant) who happened to be in the café when I walked in told me what I’d been saying. Turns out ‘maquina’ and ‘mantequilla’ are not one and the same haha.

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