How Can I Learn to Understand Spoken Spanish?

You may have heard of Spanish immersion classes. They involve hearing and speaking only the target language in class. As a concept, it seems like it must be effective, since the language is heard and seen all of the time. Regardless of how it seems, I have heard from some students in immersion classes that the classes were frustrating for them: they “didn’t understand anything the teacher was saying”; they didn’t retain the language, and, ultimately, they ended up believing they could never learn Spanish. What a tragedy! Everyone who can learn English as a native language can learn Spanish if they want. What was the problem?

In the last post, I mentioned that you need a large amount of exposure to the language, but not all language exposure is created equal. To learn from the Spanish that you see and hear, you have to be able to understand it as you see/hear it. When you understand what you are hearing, even if you are hearing it for the first time, you will benefit. When you don’t understand it, it does you no good. So, immersion can promote fluency, but only if the language being used is given in a comprehensible way.

How is it possible to understand a foreign language if you have never heard it before? In an educational format (e.g. a face to face classroom, an e-learning program, etc.), the translation needs to be visible, and the words need to come at a speed that is slow enough for you to translate and comprehend everything. It also should be given in the form of a relatively engaging story or information that is relevant for the learners. There is more, but this is a good beginning.

This positive language exposure, the kind that you understand, is called comprehensible input in educator lingo. Comprehensible, because you comprehend it. Input, because it is going into the learner’s mind.

Regarding the many ways that foreign languages can be taught, Stephen Krashen says “the best methods are…those that supply ‘comprehensible input’ in low anxiety situations, containing messages that students really want to hear.” Hearing and reading Spanish are good for learning only if you are understanding what you hear and read.

If you are trying to learn Spanish, but aren’t currently receiving the comprehensible kind of input, I invite you to subscribe to my blog. The first e-learning lesson using this methodology will be ready soon. I would also love to receive your comments and suggestions for improvement. In the meantime, subscribe for more posts about language acquisition principles and research findings.

¡Hasta pronto!

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).

Is It Possible to Learn Spanish Naturally?

I was exploring different Spanish language programs online the other day, as I do from time to time, and came across a fairly new player on the mega-product market. On their website was a sample lesson. In the lesson, the company co-founder made a statement that grabbed my attention. You know that I claim my teaching methodology enables you to learn in a way that works with how your brain is naturally wired to learn languages. That’s why it surprised me to hear the following comment from someone who designs language learning software:

“We don’t believe there is such a thing as natural, or easy learning…Anybody tells you differently is just selling something.”

I had to chuckle because of the humanness that she was showing. Her comments were intended to sell the viewer on her language system. So, I suppose that it could truly be said that if someone tells you there is no such thing as natural learning, they are trying to sell you something. She clearly believes in what she’s doing. If she is devoting her energy to creating her product, she should passionately believe it is the best. I also believe that it takes consistent effort to become fluent in a language, and that there is no “easy” way, although some ways are easier (more natural) for your brain than others. Nevertheless, I believe that she has no idea of how incorrect she is about learning Spanish naturally.

A distinction is needed here between the terms “learning” and “acquiring”. When I say “Learn Spanish Naturally”, I am really describing the process of acquiring Spanish, and I think that most people understand it this way. But, in the language teaching community, learning and acquiring a language are two very different things. What’s the difference?

Stephen Krashen, linguistics expert and publisher of more than 350 books and articles, states that, “Language acquisition does not require extensive use of conscious grammatical rules, and does not require tedious drills.” Research by Krashen and others proves that learning about a language by practicing formal grammar drills is completely different than acquiring a language. Learning about a language is what most schools accomplish. That’s why students can’t speak the language very well when the semester is done, even if they get an “A” in the class. Language learning and language acquisition are mutually exclusive. You can’t become fluent in Spanish or any other language through a conscious process of learning about the grammar rules.

In contrast, acquiring a language is what I want to do if I’m going to travel to another country, or talk with a Spanish-speaking co-worker, employee or friend. When Spanish is acquired (not “learned”), you are understanding what a native speaker says, and you know how to reply without needing to consciously scan your memory to review conjugations and verb tenses before stuttering a self-conscious reply. Click here to see a short video from my last post that shows Krashen demonstrating this concept.

Is there a place for understanding grammar rules? Yes, but it is secondary, at best. As we are acquiring language patterns in Spanish, it can help to know what grammar patterns exist in the language (but with little or no detail about the specifics of the rule). After we acquire a specific language form, it can help to understand rules about how the pattern consistently works. As long as it helps us fit the bigger picture together of what we have already acquired, knowing a grammar rule can be helpful. But, if we learn rules too soon, acquisition of the language is hindered.

It’s kind of like someone trying to figure out in advance all of the different angles and possibilities of something before actually just trying it. My dad used to tell me, “Don’t overthink it.” That was wisdom. That is also how language acquisition works. You are able to just naturally reply in conversation without overthinking all the rules and conjugations. Isn’t that what happens when you speak in your native English? You acquired the language first, and later you learned (or didn’t learn) the grammar rules in English class at school.

Spanish can be acquired in a way that naturally works with the way your brain is designed to pick up languages. You don’t need grammar drills or memorization of large vocabulary lists. You need a large amount of exposure to the language, hearing and reading it in a focused way that enables your mind to understand everything it hears and/or sees. It also helps to see how the language is used in a scenario that is relevant to your needs.

Have you tried learning a foreign language? Do you agree with the difference between language learning and language acquisition as explained above? Please leave a comment to share your thoughts.

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).

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).


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).