What comes to mind when you think about learning the Spanish language? Is it long lists of vocabulary, verbs, conjunctions and unfathomable grammatical rules? Or is it a fun and challenging experience routed in dialogue, speaking and listening?
Chances are it’s the first option. Unfortunately, our recollections of language teaching and learning still tend to be based in the classroom with all its associated emphasis on grammar, preparation for exams and rote learning of vocabulary lists.
It is a shame that so many people seem to have had a love of language learning knocked out of them at an early age. It’s particularly unfortunate when you have chosen to take up residence in another country where a different language is spoken.
Spanish is not a particularly difficult European language to learn. However, it beats many of those who migrate here and make an effort to learn it. Why?
The problems of language learning
There is no doubt that the best way of learning a language is to be immersed in it from a young age. Even if the language spoken at home is different from that of the native speaker, a period every day when a child is hearing and is required to speak a second language should lead to some level of fluency.
Put a child in a school where Spanish is spoken by everyone around them and the child has no option (provided they are not surrounded by other speakers of their mother tongue) but to learn. In most cases, this type of immersion is not available to those who are older.
Added to this, our receptiveness to a new language decreases as we age. This doesn’t mean we should use age as an excuse but that we can recognise that it will take determination and persistence if a second language is to be learnt.
For most people there are limited opportunities to really mix in a Spanish-speaking environment. It’s perhaps also true to say that some people don’t seek out the opportunity either.
Many of the urbanisations where those retiring to Spain spend their days are populated largely by other non-Spanish speakers. Socialising suddenly no longer offers the opportunities to pick up the vernacular in the way that it might.
Segregated in this way from the Spanish community there are few ‘natural’ opportunities to learn Spanish. Perhaps a few sentence in the local corner shop or a ride in a taxi. Good intentions are soon overtaken by the practicalities and another potential Spanish-speaker bites the dust.
For those wanting to learn a language more formally, there is no shortage of opportunity to study. Language learning is big business and with the increase of technology available to all, the methods of accessing it have increased. Options include:
Perhaps ideal for those with time to spare and a real drive to get started. Progress at weekly courses can be slow and feel like two steps forward, one step back. A month of daily lessons gives you less time to forget what you’ve learnt and perhaps this greater commitment will continue after the course is over. Make sure you plan your exit strategy from an intensive course. How will you keep it going once the daily input has stopped?
These could be one-to-one, in a group or a class. They could be once or twice a week. If you’ve come to live in Spain you will find a variety of people offering to teach you Spanish in this way. At least one local bar usually offers some form of lesson, with variable quality.
If you opt for one-to-one then, of course, it is more adapted to your level and there is no alternative but to contribute yourself. Some groups can degenerate into being the preserve of a small minority. However, it can also be good to work with other people, try out your dialogue with them and share tips for language learning.
You will probably follow a course book and may even have some homework. The work you do in between the lessons will be just as important as the lesson itself.
If you lack the time, or simply find it difficult to arrange any regular lessons, then online courses and interactive media can be a good alternative. There are a number available. Some include tutor-time which can benefit those who are less self-disciplined and need some one-to-one nurturing.
Other self-regulated packages can be accessed whenever you want and for however long you want. The difficulty is maintaining the determination to continue. If you have no feedback about what you are doing you can soon start to lose interest.
If this is the only practical alternative for you, then take it, but do try and set aside some time for yourself which you will stick to and perhaps engage in a dialogue with someone else following the same course or materials. Knowing that you might have to tell another student what you’ve been doing, could provide that extra nudge when your motivation is low.
What’s right for you
In the end your personal circumstances and preferred learning styles will determine what you choose. However, there are some tips we might give:
- It’s good to have a boost to start with – an intensive ‘launch’ can provide momentum that will help build confidence
- Try and surround yourself with as much Spanish as possible – it is unlikely that one method alone will work. Try listening to the news, the radio, Spanish music, reading Spanish papers – absorb as much as you can from your environment – take every opportunity
- Don’t get too hung up on the grammar – basic language teaching can still tend to operate as though you were working towards a degree in the subject. It is likely that a Spanish person will still understand you even if you get your endings slightly wrong
- It is practising that matters – do try to create opportunities if you can to put your language learning into practice – only by speaking and listening will those words learnt in the classroom stick
- Don’t give up – many people become disillusioned with the length of time that learning a language can take – it is worth it and you’ll be disappointed with yourself if you abandon the chase
It really is worth persevering, whatever approach you take. Understanding the language will enable you to feel more a part of the country you’ve chosen to live in. Not only that, but various mental health benefits have been publicised too. It has been claimed that learning a second language keeps your brain ticking over, especially in old age. Another good reason for forgetting those failed language lessons at school and finding the method that’s right for you.