The way to learn a foreign language: use every tool available…

July 29, 2017

I’m preparing for my fourth trip to Spain. And I am brushing up on or continuing to learn Spanish.

One of course does not have to learn Spanish to go to Spain or the native tongue of any country to visit it. But I learned way back in 1968 when I was stationed in Germany that you miss out on so much when you do not know the language.

But of course if you have little to no interest in learning another language then really there is no point in trying to I think.

But the reason I am even mentioning this today is that I just wanted to comment on methodology of learning language.

There is an ongoing argument over how best to master a new language — such as traditional classroom/book learning versus immersion versus, well I don’t know what. I mean I myself am not up on the nomenclature. I know there is such a thing as the audio-lingual approach, but really I don’t care what it is called. My opinion or observation from my own life is that one needs to use anything and everything he or she can.

I did not get serious about learning Spanish until I was in my 40s and re-entered college. I had attempted it in high school but dropped out early — just could not comprehend. But I was serious and motivated the second time around and did well in the three semesters I managed to take. But could I then speak Spanish well enough to carry on any kind of conversation or to even read notices in Spanish? No. A little bit of knowledge can get one into trouble too. So, knowing just a little Spanish is probably useless and even dangerous. Miscommunications can either get you lost or punched in the nose.

And I did not go on to use my language learning for many decades. Oh, I had a brief encounter with it at a newspaper job I worked at. I actually used some in an interview I did. All came out well, but I was just lucky. I should not have ventured there.

And then I went into truck driving and encountered Spanish everywhere it seemed. But that was 22 years ago, and it was only in more recent years that I tried to get back into the language. If I had begun in earnest 22 years ago I might be fluent today. But even though I think it is fun it too is a lot of work. And there are always more pressing matters in front of one — everything from work responsibilities to family responsibilities.

But about four years ago I resumed my Spanish study. I have come along, although I am not at fluency — but I can use simple Spanish and I even know some of the verb tenses, so I am not always speaking in the present tense. I am not saying I go to Modesto when I mean I went to Modesto (voy a Modesto, yo fui a Modesto). And I can use the imperfect tense to say I was in Modesto (but not pin it down to a certain time or down to the minute): yo estaba en Modesto esta semana. Or if I want to be exact: yo estuve en Modesto a las dos de la tarde (I was in Modesto at two in the afternoon) .

However, I am still not getting to the point of what I want to say about learning Spanish or language. You have to use every resource at your disposal. You listen to the language, even when you comprehend almost nothing. You kind of tune your ears to it. You read texts. You read news articles in that language (hint: read ones you are up on in your own native language and you will begin to see words repeat themselves and will get familiar with them in that way). You talk about it and use your new language with native speakers or other language learners. And you have to dare to use your new language and not be afraid of being misunderstood or worse laughed at (it will happen from time to time) — however you might take care to avoid bad words, including innocent ones that in some contexts are bad — I know tough and impossible to avoid sometimes.

My father spoke some Spanish. He had studied it is school (just high school I think) and had used it somewhat when he was a reporter on a newspaper in El Paso, Texas; part of his beat was the city of Juarez, just across the Rio Grande. I first heard him use it when ordering a meal at a Mexican restaurant. And then another time I tagged along with him on a news assignment and he interviewed a family — well actually he had made a photo and I guess was just asking them their names perhaps — ┬┐como se llama usted? (literally: how are you called).

He told me at one point that he really did not know a lot of Spanish but on the other hand when I was taking Spanish in college I would use the language with him and he seemed to understand.

Oh, and I noticed a woman in my truck driving experience at a truck stop fuel desk who seemed to speak Spanish fluently but did not appear to be Hispanic (although all native speakers do not necessarily match our non-Hispanic idea of what appears to be Hispanic). She said she learned the language from watching Spanish TV soap operas (telenovelas). Well it sure seemed to work for her.

I’m not going to go on with this post much longer. But what I think is the first requirement for learning a foreign language is to be really interested in it. Then you use every resource at your disposal and as you progress you find out that you reach back, way back sometimes, to things you picked up along the way.

And one final thought about Spanish. Yes, there are many different dialects and geographical versions. One word or phrase in one place may not be used in another or have a totally different meaning — and this is sometimes fraught with peril. Trying to catch a bus in Spain may mean trying to have sex in Latin America. But when I hear someone say, well that Spanish you learned in school won’t do you any good because the native speakers don’t use it, I say that is a crock. You will be understood in most cases — but yeah, you do have to learn some of the tricky words that change meaning as I already alluded to. But really that’s part of the fun.

And then there was this hair cutter here in the U.S. who when I mentioned I was going to Spain asked me:

“What language do they speak there?”

(Well admittedly Spain does have different languages and several dialects of Spanish, but I mean Spanish is like the main language — it was derived from Latin of the ancient Romans, but Spain is the origin of Spanish — go figure.)


I guess I got the notion to write the above after reading a criticism of a free on-line program I use (as part of my leaning effort) called Duolingo. I think the writer was saying that it was too mechanical. I agree, you cannot depend upon machines or computers. But I would recommend Duolingo to anyone — it works (along with other types of study — or might be a good jump start). But do not, I repeat, do not, depend upon computer translation. I will never forget when I was trying to do a German-American blog and me with little to no formal instruction in German trying to use it via a computer translation. I got an email from someone identifying himself as a native German in Germany imploring me to cut it out, my German did not make sense.