What is the Best and Easiest Way to Learn Spanish? (Part 2)

The Natural Language Learning Process

Think about how you learned your native language. You may not remember the details, but it went something like this: At first, the language was a combination of random sounds, maybe like listening to a symphony of words. It was impossible to figure out where one word ended and another one began. Current research says that around six months of age you started to know that mama and dada (or something similar) were the names of your parents. If we follow the symphony analogy, you were starting to be able to pick out the sound of one of the instruments (e.g. oboe, violin, etc…) once in awhile. At approximately one year you started to recognize that words represent things. You knew hundreds of words, but could only speak a few. At a year and a half, you probably understood entire sentences, and could speak in phrases of two or three words. You learned the language by listening to it, not by speaking. You understood it first, and speaking came later, naturally.

As you grew a little older, you were able to use English grammar without needing to know the written rules. You made many mistakes as you learned, but kept trying and improving with each error. After hearing the language spoken by people around you long enough, you were able to recognize when it sounded right. When you learned the grammar rules later, they sounded right (most of the time) only because you already spoke the language. You spoke first, and the rules came later. You became able to self-correct as you got older, and, still today, you can feel whether something sounds right or not.

Some Good News about Language Learning as an Adult

Have you ever wondered, “Can I learn Spanish as an adult? Is it worth trying, or am I just wasting my time?” Adults can learn a second language faster than children, according to research and personal experience. You simply need to receive a second language in a way that your brain can process efficiently. As an adult, the most effective method for learning a language combines the best of how you learned as a child with the improved mental capacity that you developed as you got older.

Your mind is still wired to learn language in a way that is similar to when you were a child, with an important difference. Your thinking abilities have been developed by your life experiences. This is a positive difference. You can actually learn to fluently speak Spanish in the same amount of time, or less, than it takes a child to learn. What do I mean by “fluently”? A fluent speaker can communicate confidently and understandably.

According to Stephen Krashen, Professor Emeritus at University of Southern California and author of over 350 papers and books, “It is true that those who begin a second language as children have a better chance of sounding native than those who start as adults, but years of research on second language acquisition have shown that older acquirers progress more quickly than younger acquirers in the early stages (older children are faster than younger, adults are faster than children). Most important, those who begin second languages as adults, given enough opportunity, can reach very high levels of proficiency in second languages” (Krashen, 2003, p. 26)

The key is making a foreign language understandable. Language teaching expert Blaine Ray, MA, a Spanish teacher for 25 years, well-known teacher trainer, keynote speaker, and author of several Spanish textbooks and novelas, points out that becoming fluent in a second (or third or fourth) language is accomplished by hearing and understanding it. He summarizes current research in the field: “If a person understands messages in the target language, s/he cannot prevent the acquisition of that language. Learning to speak a language comes from hearing it. Reading helps a person advance in learning the language and structures, but generally fluency comes from hearing” (Ray & Seely, 2010, p. 7).

Here is a short video of Stephen Krashen demonstrating this concept:

Even though hearing is the most important element in becoming fluent, reading has an important role, and cannot be ignored. Krashen expresses this scientific finding about voluntary reading in a foreign language: “There is overwhelming evidence for recreational reading as a means of increasing second-language competence. In fact, it is now perhaps the most thoroughly investigated and best-supported technique we have in the field of second-language pedagogy. Only one aspect of recreational reading remains uninvestigated: Why isn’t it used more frequently in second-language programs? (Krashen, 2003, p. 26)” The important thing about reading is that it be understandable and interesting to the learner.

In summary, you can learn Spanish best and easiest by hearing and reading something you understand in the language. And, contrary to the excuses made by failed popular language methods, adults can learn language faster than children.

I invite you to give it a try for yourself. Leave a comment below if you would like me to send you a link to Lesson One as soon as it is ready. I believe that you’ll like it, and will be surprised at how much beginning Spanish you understand after just one lesson.

Mark Mayo has an M.A. in Instructional Design for Second Language Education. He has lived in South America, but currently resides in Northern California with his family (and dachshunds).

References:

Krashen, S. D. (2003). Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use: The Taipei Lectures. Heinemann: Portsmouth, NH.

Ray, B., and Seely, C. (2010). Fluency Through TPR Storytelling. Eagle Mountain: Command Performance Language Institutes and Blaine Ray Workshops.

What is the Best and Easiest Way to Learn Spanish? (Part 1)

Truly a Frequently Asked Question
I have been asked that question many times. Often it’s asked by a friend who is thinking about buying one of the big-name language packages that cost several hundred dollars. They want to know if the purchase will be a good investment, or, like a typical piece of exercise equipment that looked so good in the infomercial, will it be gathering dust in a few weeks due to lack of use? Sometimes, a student in a course will ask, wanting to know if the time spent in class is worth it. After all, there are so many different good ways to learn Spanish nowadays. Or are there? What is it that really makes the difference?

The Teaching Method Makes the Difference
The thing that makes the difference is the method that is used, not the means by which it is delivered. It doesn’t matter a whole lot whether a lesson is delivered via internet video, face-to-face classroom teaching, or an expensive big-name language package. But, most of the existing efforts to teach foreign languages aren’t effective. I have taught Spanish to adults and youth using several different methodologies, used/analyzed dozens of Spanish textbooks, and tried many of the language corporations’ products. I have a had a continual drive to find out what works best to help language learners internalize a second language, so they can communicate confidently with native speakers of the new language. I have discovered many useful principles and a methodology which works better than any other. But, it may be useful to begin by looking at what doesn’t work.

Public Education Language Teaching
Textbook publishers are doing their best to design their books in a way that is appealing to students. They try to make all of the grammar and practice exercises relevant, and they insert culturally related material in an effort to engage students. But, if you (or someone you know) has ever taken Spanish in school using a textbook, here’s a little pop quiz for you:

1. By the end of the semester or school year, how well could you (they) communicate in  Spanish?
A. Like a native.
B. Not too bad.
C. Not very well.
D. Not at all.

Don’t feel bad if your answer was not at all. I feel your pain. I had a great middle school Spanish teacher, and one high school teacher that was good (then there was the Spanish 3 teacher that would have been better at teaching math, in my opinion). But, I didn’t learn to speak Spanish in school.

Big-Name Packages Don’t Succeed at Developing Language Fluency
Even though they are well known, the best-known language products don’t encourage fluency. How is that possible? Because they are built around obsolete teaching methods that aren’t designed for the way your mind learns languages. Current studies on human learning and language processing prove that the old ways are obsolete. It doesn’t matter what technology is used if it isn’t in sync with your mind’s amazing power to learn. Things have changed remarkably in the understanding of how the human mind works, and there is a better way for adults to learn a second language.

How Your Brain Isn’t Wired to Learn Language
Think about how your brain was wired to learn English (if English is your native language). Did your parents give you a list of vocabulary which was irrelevant to what was happening around you, and expect you to memorize the words? Did you learn how to speak in your first few years by hearing a random grammar principle being explained with no context, and then doing practice exercises or outlining sentence structures? The idea is ridiculous, isn’t it?

If you never truly learned a foreign language in school, it is certain that the problem was not in your ability to learn a language. Think about it. You are fluent in English right now. The reason probably wasn’t your teacher. The problem lies in the methods that teachers were taught to use when teaching foreign language. Doing things like vocabulary drills, memorization games, written exercises, speaking with a partner about a topic chosen for you by your textbook, and all of the traditional Spanish classroom activities, are not effective ways to learn a new language. You can pick up some vocabulary that way, learn a few phrases to ask about things like where the bathroom is, or how to introduce yourself to strangers. But, you’ll never learn how to communicate beyond a superficial level because your mind isn’t being taught in the same way it was designed to receive a new language.

What is the Best and Easiest Way to Learn Spanish? (Part 2)

Mark Mayo has an M.A. in Instructional Design for Second Language Education. He has lived in South America, but currently resides in Northern California with his family (and dachshunds).