Thursday, February 24, 2011

Language Learning: Live the Language

In my last post, I wrote about how memorable experiences in a new language help us learn and retain the language. I suggested for those learning a new language, such as Spanish for foreigners in Mexico, that they find a teacher whose methods create those kinds of learning experiences.

Of course I am writing from Mexico and talking about Spanish, but all of the following ideas are applicable to learning any language, in just about any environment.

Finding the right kind of teacher is a good first step. Unfortunately, many American and Canadian expats here in Mexico comment that while they dutifully go to classes and study, it's hard to learn Spanish. Some conclude that they are too old or that their memory is no good. There are those who seem to find it difficult to make a satisfying amount progress, eventually give up studying, and limp along with a rudimentary vocabulary and basic phrases.

I think one reason for this is that many treat Spanish as a course, and not as an integral part of their lives. After Spanish class most students return home, where they proceed to watch English-language TV, read English newspapers, books and internet pages, watch English movies, and socialize primarily among other English-speaking people. Many expats in Mexico even go to English-speaking dentists and doctors, and hire English-speaking plumbers, electricians, handymen and household help. [They also often pay a stiff premium for needing these services in English, but that's a topic for another day.]

The best way to learn a new language is to make it part of the daily routine and incorporate it into life in as many ways as possible. Formally studying a language you would like to learn is important. But really learning the language requires that you use it, and use it a lot.

Here are a few suggestions for creating a richer Spanish-learning environment for yourself, no matter where you live and no matter what your learning goals may be.

Set the language preferences for your computer system and most-used applications to Spanish. Since you already understand how these work and probably utilize them almost instinctively, you already have built-in vocabulary support. As you use your computer, you will begin to notice and understand the terminology. The next time you go to an Internet cafe, computer store, or try to explain a problem to a technician in Spanish, you will be surprised how much easier it is to describe what you need or ask questions.

While you are at it, change the operating language of your cell phone and other devices that you regularly use. It's the same idea as with the computer. You can still send messages and communicate in English. Only the prompts and labels will be in Spanish.

Then, find a Spanish-language radio station that plays music you like (there are many streaming online if there are no broadcasts in your area). Listen to it, DJ's and other talk as well as music, every day. You don't have to listen attentively all of the time; just leave it on while you go about your day. Try to sing along. Watch Spanish television, a
telenovela (soap opera) or something with action, even if you don't understand much of what the characters are saying. Rent or go to movies that are in Spanish.

Learning to hear a new language and distinguish phrases, words and chunks of words is a critical part of beginning to understand. As you learn to hear the spoken language, it will cease to sound so "fast," and individual words and phrases will begin to pop out of the blur of sound.

These are just a few proven ideas that speed up the language-learning process and make it easier and more fun. There is a lot more you can do. I'll publish more ideas in future post


  1. What a good idea to change language preferences on the computer. In some arenas I can hold my own pretty well now, but others are challenging. Recently was called to the fire department to help with translation for some foreigners who wanted to fix the lancha for the bomberos. My mechanical Spanish was pathetic.
    Good post, I would only add that living in a Mexican neighborhood has been invaluable for me and sitting out on the curb in the evening with my neighbors is a fine Spanish class.

  2. Trailrunner: I'm glad you got something useful out of the blog. I have been enjoying yours as well. Yes, the neighborhood, vecinos, the corner store, etc., are great places to learn real life Spanish. In fact, that's the topic of another post about language learning that I am working on now. Stay in touch.

  3. These are excellent suggestions, Marc. Can't wait to try them. Gracias!

  4. what great suggestions marc! i am always amazed at how so many people move to another country yet make very few attempts to learn the language. life is made much easier when people can at least speak some of the language in their adopted countries. hope many will use your suggestions. i'm a native spanish speaker so when i lived in sicily it was easy to learn italian. some people have a knack for learning new languages while others don't, but at least they can try.

    take care,

    teresa in lake stevens

  5. After Tom headed back to Victoria yesterday I decided it was time to get back to work on my Spanish. I followed your advice. I turned on the hotel television. The news felt oppressive after a while so I switched to the happy domestic world of cooking and crafts and home decorating on Utilisima. Right now Monica Patino is making tarts and profiteroles with chocolate ganache. I think your language-learning tips could have some unintended consequences.

  6. Teresa, I agree with you that it's a shame that so many people don't make a real effort to learn a language when they have chosen to live in an area where their language is not dominant. They certainly miss out on a lot.

    Debbie, I am glad you like the suggestions. I hope they work for you. Sounds delicious...the key to making these strategies work is that they are easy and you can tailor them to your interests. If you like chocolate you are learning something and enjoying at the same time.

  7. I'd like to suggest another avenue, for the music addicts out there: Use iTunes, add the lyrics, and even the translations. Some of the CD's include lyrics, and occasionally even the translation. Otherwise, try a Google search for the 'Lyrics "Song title--enter it in parentheses)", and you might find them that way. OR, try to translate the Spanish lyrics yourself, or with an instructor or friend. All this becomes quite interesting in itself. (Again, one must be a bit compulsive, a lover of music and such, but…..)

    I'm about to try a new Spanish instructor, and one thing I may ask is that he help me with this effort. I remember a lovely moment with a doctor here once--I'd been describing my efforts, mentioned a particular song, and he began to sing it as I was leaving the office. I'll never forget it.

    And there are amazing nuances out there to be learned this way: For instance, I could NOT understand the usage of "cielo" in a wonderful Roberto Carlos song. I even asked a Mexican whose English is excellent, but that did not help. I kept wondering what that "cat in the sky" meant. And then, one day, I stumbled upon a YouTube interpretation of the song, with the author's own photos entered, sort of a visual translation. THEN, I "got it!"

    (The "cielo" was not "sky" but "heaven.") Now, THAT will stick. (Here's the link to that lovely song by Cuevas: )

  8. Alinde, thanks for the link to that great song.

    I am in complete agreement with you about the use of music and songs to learn language. In fact, I was working on another post (to follow some day soon) which includes a little about listening to music and singing as a way to learn vocabulary and especially to gain fluency. It really works, as you suggest, and it's fun. Thank you for the comments.

  9. Cool Blog! I followed a link from Tales of Zapata Street I believe, or Steve Cotton's Blog.

    I have personally found music a great way to improve my Spanish. Every morning in the shower, I sing in Spanish, and F says it has really improved my pronunciation. And while it's tough understanding songs at first, listening closely and transcribing the lyrics is GREAT exercise for your ear. But I'd recommend beginning by looking up the lyrics on line.


    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where some of our neighbors must think we're Mexican. NOT! LOL...

  10. Kim, I agree with you, it will help to take a look at the lyrics. In the past when I was buying CD's, I loved to read along with the lyrics printed in the insert. It's just as easy to look them up online. After listening and reading along a few times, you really pick up (or at least pick out) words. Singing along helps with verbal fluency. And, it's all FUN.

    I am glad you enjoyed the blog.

  11. Language is so subtle! We are ever translating, even if we're communicating in our native language — we translate sound or visual signals (even body language!) into meaning. So it's not a skill set we've forgotten. We simply need to stretch ourselves to go beyond what we already know. There's always more to learn and practice!



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