“Outdated facts are mental fossils that are best abandoned.” – Adam Grant in Think Again.
¡Hola! Estoy aprendiendo Español.
My interest in languages was triggered by a funny incident. My colleague and I were visiting Paris on a work trip and we happened to visit a Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) outlet near our hotel. KFC is a popular American fast food restaurant chain, the second largest in the world after McDonalds. While ordering a chicken burger, we were amused to see the blank faces of the KFC staff who could not understand us. There were at least four staff members, including the manager, trying to decipher what on earth we were asking for. We found the commotion amusing as ‘Chicken’ is part of the KFC brand name. Anyways, a bilingual person standing next to us came to our rescue and told us to ask for ‘pollo’, and saved us from further embarrassment. It’s funny how language can break barriers and at the same time, not knowing it good enough to survive, can make you go hungry in a foreign land.
When you learn a new language, you not only develop a new skill but you also create opportunities to meet new people, learn about other cultures, and expand your world view. Language learning is also an excellent way to keep your brain sharp.
Learn from others but create your own path.
I strongly believe that you can learn from other’s journeys but you will always need to create your own path. Each one of us has a different learning style, and copying someone’s method blindly will never feel fulfilling. I am sharing my experience of learning Spanish as a foreign language and I hope that you find some of these ideas useful. Please feel free to adapt them as you deem fit.
I started learning Spanish last year. After reviewing tons of advice from online forums, I find that the following methods have worked the best for me.
1. First Principles Approach
Use the Five Whys method as a starting point. Learn to form questions starting with Who, What, Where, When, Why and How.
In most languages, a small set of words and phrases do most of the heavy lifting. If you focus your efforts on learning these basics first, it will significantly speed up your learning process. The First Principles approach helps us understand the basic building blocks of any language – questions and answers.
The Five Whys method is a good way to think about questions. Learn the integral elements by figuring out how to ask Who, What, Where, When, Why and How.
It’s also a good idea to start from a position of strength. You already know the words in English and learning words that are similar in your target language would instantly give a boost to your vocabulary. Words that Spanish has borrowed from English are called cognates. Here is a good list of cognates that you can start with – English-Spanish Cognates.
Start speaking from Day 1. After you you have learned to form basic questions and developed a vocabulary using cognates, start making small talk. You might sound silly to yourself – but to a native speaker, it’s a joy to see someone trying to learn their language and communicate. You might end up making new friends instantly.
2. Modular Learning
I structure my learning process into different modules that are designed around context and situations – again using first principles thinking to deconstruct complex real-life situations and the vocabulary needed. This modular approach helps me set small achievable milestones and track my progress.
Contextual learning is highly effective for understanding and retention of a new language.
One of the first modules i created using the Five Whys method imagining that I am meeting someone for the first time. Some of the questions I formed include:
- What’s my/your name?
- Where do I/you live?
- Where do I/you work?
- Who is my/your favorite singer?
And then I tried to answer them. I hope you get the idea. Some examples of other modules I designed include visiting a coffee shop, being in the library and asking questions, and being stuck at the train station.
Context-based learning is highly effective in improving understanding and retention. It’s also one of the reasons why I do not depend solely on apps like DuoLingo and Memrise – learning words without context makes you forget them quickly.
3. Spaced Repetition
A big challenge in language learning is to remember all the new words that you are learning. This is the most important part of language learning.
I use spaced repetition techniques to cement the new vocabulary into my long-term memory. You can use any spaced repetition method you like. I find Anki app best suited for my needs. Anki is cross-platform and it’s very easy to use. You can create your own list of words and add it to Anki.
I also use mnemonics and picture associations to help me remember words. I have tried using memory palace techniques but I could not apply them effectively. I have found that the weirder the picture association for a word , the longer I remember it.
Most people recommend listening to music, news and podcasts, or watching movies in the new language you are learning. These activities are useful but they are passive – the same way learning a language on your own is.
The best way to immerse yourself in the new language is through regular practice with a native speaker or someone who knows the language. You will practice your listening, comprehension and speaking skills – all at the same time. I cannot recommend language exchange apps enough. I have found iTalki and Tandem apps to be useful in finding native speakers and engaging in interesting conversations with them.
Another great way to improve your learning process is by teaching the language to someone else. It has dual benefits – their questions will challenge your thinking and at the same time, you will be training a language partner who you can converse with in future. I would recommend you start with the basics and then build on that foundation using advanced vocabulary and grammar.
Whatever your preferred language of interest and learning method, enjoy the process. As it’s popularly said, the journey is always more exciting than the destination. Keep learning!