Some time ago I was having an interesting conversation with Umir, a friend of mine who I was helping learn Spanish. He was just getting started but he had an inquisitive mind and was curious about finding ways to make things easier and one of those things was learning Spanish.
He asked me this question:
“Miguel, how can I make learning Spanish easy and fun?”
I paused for a moment, and then started to share a few of the main lessons I had acquired over the years as I learned languages on my own and helped others do the same. This article is a summary of that conversation as well as a few additional notes. It is intended to be an overview that will include links to other articles with more information about specific topics. Feel free to click and explore, and most importantly, HAVE FUN!
Ready? Let´s get started.
First, Understand the WHY
What’s your goal? Why do you want to learn Spanish?
If the goal is important for you, it will keep you going when things get a challenging.
If the goal is important for you, it will keep you going when things get a challenging
- Is it because you want to make more money at work?
- Because you want a better job?
- Because you want to be called for job interviews that are currently out of reach?
- Because you want to make your customers feel welcome?
- Because you want to help customers, patients or students?
- Because you want to help your children learn Spanish?
- Because you want to make new friends?
- Because you want to travel?
Visualize yourself after reaching your goal and THINK how speaking Spanish would make you FEEL. Keep it in mind as you practice and throughout your day. If you keep it in mind often, it will soon become a reality.
The Secret: Keep it Simple and Focused
As with most things in life, there is more than one way to learn a new language and certainly, some ways are easier than others.
I want to help you by sharing what I have learned as a language teacher and a language learner so that your Spanish learning process is easy and fun (Yes, it is possible!)
The key is to keep things simple and focused in these three areas:
- Selecting an Effective Game Plan
- Focusing on Learning Useful Things
- Enabling Simplified Persistence
Now, let’s take a closer look at each one of them to learn what they are about.
Selecting an Effective Game Plan
As I said before, there is more than one way to fry an egg, so why not choose a way that allows you to make breakfast in an easier and faster way while making things fun? (nothing wrong with that, right?)
Imagine you had to learn to use a computer all over again, starting from zero (let’s pretend you have some form of a “happy temporary amnesia”)
How would you go about it? Would you start by reading the user’s manual from page 1? Or would you grab the mouse, ask a couple of questions to a friend and click your way to clarity? Probably the second one right?
The computer won’t break and if something doesn’t work the first time, you can try a different method until you get it right. Feels more natural, right?
If you had to learn how to swim from scratch, what would you prefer?
A traditional class (in a classroom with tables and chairs) were a highly educated professor with 3 PhDs in Applied Physics explained the principles of hydrodynamics involved in the process of swimming, where you’d have to take notes to pass a written exam at the end of the semester?
Or would you prefer to attend class in a pool where a qualified instructor explained a few basic techniques that would allow you to start swimming after a few minutes of practice so you can improve as you continue?
Probably the second option, right?
But, why is that?
Probably because swimming is a skill no different than riding a bike or playing the guitar. These are skills that require practice, that require you to make innocent and playful mistakes as you go along in order to get better (It works; I learned to cook that way!)
If you think about it, that’s how we learn many experiential skills during childhood and our adult life. All the way from walking, talking, writing, riding a bike, driving a car, playing a sport or using a computer.
After all, you don’t need to learn about the mathematical equations or the electronic principles that were used to design the device you are using to read this article. You only need to know how to scroll down. That’s it.
Learning a language is not that different. You only need to focus on what is useful and keep it simple.
The problem is that we often make things more complex than they need to be.
So, if learning a language is not that different than learning how to ride a bicycle (both require you to know the basics and make playful mistakes along the way as you practice and figure things out) have you ever wondered why languages are taught in a classroom where we are punished if we make mistakes in an exam? That’s a great question, I am glad you ask…
This is a good example of a paradigm, which is nothing else than a pattern or a way of looking at the world that is widely accepted even without questioning if it is useful or not.
It is similar to wearing sunglasses that have a certain “reddish” shade. If you use those sunglasses all day long, everything would look “a little red” even if things around you are not red at all (and after some time, you wouldn’t even realize you are wearing them!)
A similar thing happens with education, and that is why many schools teach languages using a style that resembles the one used to teach other “information centric” subjects such as geography or history. Tim Ferriss (a friend of mine and mentor, even if he doesn’t know about it yet) has an interesting point of view about this topic, and you can read it here.
However, that is not the biggest problem. The big problem is the negative mental associations most of us develop about making mistakes and learning a new language.
Most of us begin to learn a new language in a classroom, where mistakes are often punished with a “red X” as if they were incorrect dates in a history class.
Over time, this teaching style conveys the message that making mistakes when learning a language is bad (this often happens at a subconscious level) and we become afraid of not speaking a second language perfectly, which prevents us from using (practicing) the second language we are trying to learn and get better at it. This becomes a vicious circle of doubt and fear. A self-fulfilling prophecy that leads to temporary failure.
In other words, the fear of not speaking a second language well enough prevents us from practicing in order to be able to speak the language well enough. It becomes a never ending story.
So, what does all this have to do with “The Game Plan” you choose? Great question. Once again, I’m glad you asked.
This will help you realize why learning a new language is often seen as a boring, tedious and almost impossible goal. It’s all about the game plan.
If you had taken a 2 year class about riding a bicycle, without the possibility of actually riding the bike until you passed a written exam about the history and milestones of bicycle design and manufacturing, you probably would’ve never learned how to ride one, because like any 10-year-old you would’ve quit. If something is tedious, boring and useless, that is what most of us do, run away (I know that is what I did when I was trying to learn how to play the piano when I was a kid. The lessons were SO boring, I just gave up!)
However, there certainly are other ways to learn to ride a bicycle. Other methods that are more fun and engaging than attending a classroom for two years to learn about bicycle related facts and the different stages of the pedaling process.
That is the point of this whole thing. There are other ways to learn languages beyond the classroom, and as a matter of fact, you have already done it with your native language.
Let me tell you about Armin, one of the guys I helped learn Spanish over the years.
One of the methods we used to improve his Spanish was to read children’s books together so I could help him with his pronunciation and comprehension. He would read the book at hand out loud and he would stop and ask questions whenever he stumbled upon a word or phrase he did not understand. After asking a question, he would make a small note on the book so he could review it later.
In the beginning, Armin stopped to ask questions frequently, but after few weeks he barely stopped at all. His brain started filling in the gaps to help him understand the book. He started to recognize the verbs and words used most frequently; he recognized sentence patterns, common phrases and so on.
Now, the obvious question that comes to mind is:
“Among the MANY alternatives to consider, how can I select a good Game Plan to learn Spanish for my job?”
This website has been created to answer that question. So, you have come to the right place to get started.
Useful Relevance: Learn what is Useful
What is the point of learning the names of a bunch of things that exist in an airport, a hotel or a kitchen if what you really want is to speak Spanish for your job?
What is the point of learning verbs and conjugations that not even native Spanish speakers use in their daily lives? Why make it more difficult than it needs to be?
Instead, you can focus on the words and verbs used most frequently in everyday conversations, as well as the vocabulary you use most often at your job.
One way to accomplish this is to use the 80/20 Principle.
The 80/20 Principle
According to Entrepreneur and Author, David Koch; “The 80/20 Principle asserts that a minority of causes, inputs or efforts usually lead to a majority of the results, outputs or rewards” (David Koch, The 80/20 Principle, Doubleday Publishing)
In other words, what are the few things that matter most?
So, we can use the 80/20 Principle to determine what we need to learn in order to move faster. In this case, determine a segment (which is usually around 20% of verbs and words, but the specific percentages can vary) that are used most often in common conversations.
By focusing on that 20% you can get disproportionate results in the progress of your language skills, which often (but not always) is around 80%.
Breaking the Rules
Understanding the rules of the game in order to rewrite them (or break them ethically) is another important thing to keep in mind.
Also, identifying rules that are not rules but just paradigms. They are like “imaginary” chains that keep things in their place, when in reality, we are free to move around and explore.
Just because something is usually “done a certain way” is not a good enough reason to keep following a method that can be improved.
When it comes to learning languages, understanding how our brain works (neuroscience) can make the memorization process more effective and fun.
One way to do this is to use mnemonics, which are simple mental association techniques designed to help you memorize things faster.
Simplified Persistence (in other words “making things easy”)
What is the point of having the right plan and the right tools if you don´t actually use them?
If you wait for things to be perfect “l-a-t-e-r” you will not move forward NOW (which often ends up meaning “never”) so even if you are not entirely ready to get started; start today and get going!
As you start moving forward you will gain momentum and things will become easier. Just focus on making things work and keep moving. Action leads to action. Think things through, make a plan, and get started!
Two simple strategies have proven to be useful over the years both for me and my students when it comes to selecting study materials:
Recognize your predominant learning style. Some people prefer to read, others to listen, others like to watch videos and others prefer activities like cooking or dancing. What you choose to use doesn’t matter, what matters is that you use it to practice your Spanish often.
You can either take a test or try to determine your predominant learning style or try different ways to practice and select the one that feels easy and engaging. This will facilitate the learning process. It’s all about knowing yourself and understanding what is your predominant learning style.
Select learning materials about topics that interest you. I’m not talking about grammar books here, I’m talking about radio shows, audio books, TV shows, films, books or text articles in Spanish.
Find materials in Spanish about the topics that currently interest you in your native language.
Are you passionate about fashion, music, basketball or entrepreneurship? Then, use that interest to learn about these topics in Spanish. Your curiosity will facilitate persistence and motivate you to keep going. It’s like learning to cook a new recipe when you are super hungry. You will want to finish cooking the recipe so you can eat what you make. Your “hunger” will motivate you to cook faster.
So, if you enjoy learning about healthy living in English, and prefer audio over text; you could find free podcast audio files with tips related to living a healthy life in Spanish.
If you like reading magazines and feel interested about computers, then you could find online articles in Spanish about computers and things related to them.
If you’re an engineer, you could read articles about engineering in Spanish or watch documentaries in Spanish about engineering or manufacturing if you like visual content (with subtitles in Spanish).
It’s easy. Use materials in Spanish that talk about topics that interest you to practice your language skills and learn more about the topic of your choice.
Besides making practice interesting and fun, you will stumble upon words and expressions that are frequently used in that topic, and if the topic of choice is related to your job it´s even better.
So far, we have talked about choosing a solid Game Plan, selecting useful things to learn, and finding ways to facilitate simplified persistence.
Now, it’s time to bring it all together with the overarching themes that make it all work…
Simplicity and Focus
As you go along the process of learning Spanish for your job, keeping things simple, fun and interesting will help you practice consistently, and staying focused on learning things that are useful will help you move faster.
Now, I would like to close this with a question for you.
What is your biggest challenge when it comes to learning Spanish? Please let me know in the comments section available below these lines so I can help and we can all learn together.