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.












I’m not just talking to myself, I’m practicing my Spanish…

August 13, 2016

This morning I was up early — estaba de madrugar.

It is my 67th Birthday (having been born on Aug. 13, 1949 in San Francisco, Ca. And by the way, my mom and dad would always tell me that you only have one birthday and that the rest are anniversaries of your birthday — I’ll stick with birthday; sorry mom and dad, rest in peace).

I thought to myself, partly in Spanish, about what I was going to do. I thought how I needed to conjure up as much Spanish as I could, and to some extent I even talked out loud to myself (come on you know you do that too, that is talk to yourself out loud, at least sometimes).

I’m scheduled to visit Spain next month (September) for the third time in my life. I think it will be a welcome relief from politics, which I write a lot about. Of course the people there have their own politics, but I don’t plan to get into that, except if I pick anything up I will be interested.

But I am going for the sights and the experience of a different culture and in my continuing quest to learn to speak (and write) Spanish, something that has become an obsession with me.

(And a quick aside here: I happened to tell someone I was going to Spain and hoped to improve my Spanish and the person suggested that they really don’t speak Spanish there — well maybe as the English don’t speak English exactly like we do, but pretty much that’s where Spanish comes from, Spain — Spain = Spanish, get it? And I know, in Latin America and in the U.S. it is spoken differently than in Spain — yada, yada, yada).

Learning Spanish is just one of the reasons for the trip or maybe I should say it is an added advantage, and it will enrich my experience to have more familiarity with the native tongue. Then again, Spain deals with multilingualism. I guess you would say I am learning mostly Castilian Spanish or castellano. But in some parts they speak Galician, and then there is Catalan, not really Spanish at all, and of course there is the Basque language, also completely separate from Spanish. Under the long-running dictatorship of Francisco Franco the Basques were forbidden to speak their own language. Catalan was once barred too. And there are other dialects in Spain as well.

As I already stated, this will be my third trip to Spain, having made one each the previous two years. My experience with studying Spanish before that was three semesters of college classes in the language. But unless one is exposed to it and goes out on a limb to speak it, one just does not reach anything even approaching fluency or even gain much utility value from it.

And I have read that one finds him or herself starting to understand some Spanish long before one is able to actually respond in a timely fashion or even at all. I agree with that — it can be very frustrating. And of course the big problem for beginners is we work up our nerve to actually say something and then we get a response, sometimes in what seems like a torrent of language we don’t understand or just in an accent that keeps us from deciphering the words and meaning.

Maybe a little alcohol helps at times (although it could also be disastrous too for a host of reasons). I was at a dinner at someone’s home a couple of years ago in Spain. Most of the several people there spoke little to no English. I found myself explaining the American fascination with guns and the Second Amendment (I did not bring up the subject, they did, as in: “what’s this thing Americans have for guns?”). I was not trying to defend or attack it, just trying to explain. Although I think my little presentation or my comments, as they were, were very basic, I thought I was pretty accurate. I got some polite but puzzled or unconvinced looks — not sure whether they did not agree with the premise or the Spanish.

I told of our right to bear arms. I think I said something of derechos tener armas (rights to have arms). As I recall my vocabulary was a little too limited to get into a detailed and nuanced discussion on the theories of a citizen defense force and perhaps citizens being able to protect themselves from an out-of-control government that would rob us of our rights. But the Spanish know all about things like that, having had their own civil war.

And more than once but once in particular I found myself in a conversation (kind of one-sided) in which someone who spoke no English but had a lot to say kept looking for a response from me. You see I had been introduced to the man and even invited to his place one afternoon where I and some others shared some wine and snacks — cheese and cold meats. Well sometime later while watching the events of the fiesta he came by and struck up a conversation with me. I could understand as much as he thought folks in his hometown ate pretty well (I agree with him there, well at least at fiesta time) and how great it was to live in such a fine place (and I could believe him there too). But from time to time (de vez en cuando) he would ask me direct questions, some I understood (which does not mean I could answer them well) and some not. But I was on the spot, and fueled by that wine no doubt he was insistent, so I did my best to respond politely. I could only hope my answers were responsive to the actual questions and that they were not rude in any way or simply the wrong answers. I survived. But that is how one must learn I think. And once you get some understanding or you have some success in communicating it is quite a reward — like an actor getting applause maybe. I was going to write like a comedian getting a laugh, but somehow I thought that might not convey the meaning I wanted. You can get inappropriate laughter at times when you goof up. And you’re perhaps lucky if it is only laughter.

I actually attended a Spanish language school for a month last year in Madrid — an intensive four-week course. And the paradox of it all is that I almost lived in a bubble, failing to get outside of it and into the real world, which is even more demanding but much more colorful and fun, as much as I would have hoped. Some of that was because of lack of time, but a lot of it out of my own timidity.

It’s do or die (well only figuratively I hope) this year. No school, except the school of the real world.

But I did try it on my own last year somewhat:

I bought a shirt at a department store but did not try it on. I did see the sign that said something about probar, which is a verb having to do with testing or trying on something or tasting (and don’t hold me to my Spanish here; I’m not a teacher or authority of any kind). Well when I got back to the place I was staying I realized it was too small. I took it back. I rehearsed the Spanish I would need, something like:

Por favor, necesito cambiarlo. No es una talla correcta. Not sure what all I said or how my delivery was, but the cheerful young lady at the counter responded in a helpful tone with the suggestion, spoken in perfect and very understandable English: “we can do this in English.”

But I am already practicing for this time — talking to myself a lot. That is in fact what the article I read the other day suggested. It’s sometimes easier to try it on yourself first, your Spanish, as well as your shirts (las camises), I would add.


And that kissing on the cheeks. I was not used to it but it seemed simple enough. But once I got carried away or lost you might say. I was introduced to a woman and proceded to kiss her on one cheek and then the other, she of course doing the same to me. But I guess I lost count or something and she backed away and said something I did not understand except that I had obviously made some kind of faux pas.

Another woman explained: Señor: ¡ solamente dos besos ¡

(Sir, only two kisses!)