There’s two words that will help you more than anything else in your quest to learn a language.
You ready for this? Here they are:
It should be obvious to everyone that the best way to learn something is just to do it as much as possible but I am amazed at the number of people that don’t seem to grasp this.
Contrary to popular belief you do not need a spectacular amount of talent, intelligence, natural ability or anything else to learn a language. If you can talk, you already learned one language and you already have all the qualifications you need. The hardware to learn a language is there in your brain already and has been honed by millions of years of evolution, your brain is extremely good at it.
Trust yourself, you have the ability to do this. But you MUST put yourself in an environment where you are surrounded by it. You must live, breath, eat, sleep and drink Spanish if you want to learn it properly. Taking classes occasionally and studying from books will NOT work.
If you put yourself into the right environment, functional fluency is easily achievable inside of six months and after a year you will be speaking and thinking in the language almost automatically.
Actually there is ONLY ONE qualification you need to learn Spanish effectively and rapidly, and that is a sufficient reserve of motivation and commitment. Learning a language is hard, check whether it’s something you really want to do first. If it is something you want to do, and you’re committed, then dive in and get it right from the beginning. This will save you a lot of headaches later on.
If I were to learn Spanish again from scratch, here is how I would do it:
- Book a ticket to Sucre, Bolivia (many other cheap South American cities would do).
- Stay with a Bolivian family in a homestay.
- Take four hours of grammar classes at a good school every morning (I recommend “Megusta” Spanish school in Sucre. Very personal, cheap and much better than the academy I went to in Buenos Aires). Get one-on-one classes or, perhaps better, classes with someone that is even more motivated than you are. This will push you.
- Take up an activity, charity work, job or sport where all the other people speak Spanish all the time and can’t understand English. Some kind of immersion activity like this is critical. Instead of doing this, I went out into the plaza every afternoon and spoke with random students for three or four hours at a time, but many people may not feel comfortable with this method.
- Take a dictionary and little workbook with you everywhere and whenever you encounter a word or phrase you don’t understand, write it down and then learn it later from flashcards.
- Watch movies and read books in Spanish. Even if you can’t understand most of it, it’s subconsciously sinking in. Every single minute of listening to the language adds to your skill level, even though you won’t realise it at the time.
- Most importantly, make a conscious and determined effort to distance yourself from English speakers as much as possible.
- Do this for three months. Congratulations, now you are conversationally quite capable. Three months more of this and you will be fluent.
The above will certainly cost you under $1000 a month in total and probably closer to $500. That’s less than $3000 for fluency. How much does three years of studying Spanish in university cost? Hmm…
How NOT to do it
Many people try to learn a language like this:
- Stay in a hostel full of people speaking their native language or English.
- Take four hours of classes per day and do the homework.
- Shy away from speaking Spanish outside of classes because they feel they aren’t good enough, or it´s embarrassing, or too hard.
You will NEVER make significant progress with this approach because there is no incentive to learn and you will always view speaking/learning the language as something painful and difficult.
Kicking your brain into gear
Here’s how it works. Your brain is extremely lazy. It will always take the easiest possible path to get its needs met. You, as a human being, have a natural drive to seek other humans for social contact. If you want to make any real progress, you need to tap into this.
Cut yourself off from native speakers. The first month will be incredibly hard. You will feel like an idiot for not understanding anything. You will feel as if you are making no progress. If you are doing it right you will feel very lonely because you have nobody to talk to properly. This is good! Subconsciously, your brain gets motivated because it knows that to fill your social needs, it has to learn the language, there is no other option.
You will go from subconsciously tuning out the language as meaningless babble, to desperately trying to decode the meaning of every single thing you read or hear. Your brain will take statistics on it and build the appropriate mental structures to decode it. This is what learning feels like. Communication and social contact is essential for humans, it is extremely difficult to survive without it. By putting yourself in the situation where the only way to achieve this is to learn a new language, your brain will fire on all cylinders until it has fixed it.
The language house
Learning a language is a little like building a house. First you need to lay the foundation. This is the initial “hump” of language learning and it sucks. You will see very little measurable progress for the first few weeks but it is an essential part of the building process. This is what happens in the beginning when your brain takes statistics on what it hears.
Second you need a scaffold to build the house around. Grammar rules are that scaffolding. Learning grammar is NOT learning the language itself, it is learning a skeleton of rules upon which to hang the language you learn. Learning grammar alongside practising the language every day will massively accelerate your progress.
After the main structure of the house is built you can throw the scaffolding away. You don’t need grammar rules when you have an intuitive grasp of how the language is constructed. At this point all that remains is interior design and embellishing, that is polishing the language and it just takes time hanging around native speakers.
You need to be motivated
Learning a language fast is difficult, embarrassing, painful and requires a phenomenal number of mistakes, which I am still making every day. You need to make NOT learning the language more painful in your mind than learning it, and the best way to do that is use your natural drive away from loneliness and towards social contact.
However, it does NOT require any special talents, intelligence or skills. Any person with a normal, functioning brain can learn Spanish as fast as anybody else. You just need the right techniques, and the right methods.
Join a great school. Cut yourself off from native speakers. Immerse yourself totally. Ten hours a day of Spanish exposure will have you dreaming and thinking in it within weeks.