Reflections on rapid learning of Spanish24 Nov 2017
Two years ago, I spent my winter break living in Kibbutz Neot Semedar, a kibbutz in the Negev of Israel. One day I was tasked to design the electrical circuits with Dan, an Israeli-Argentinian 22 year engineer who recently finished his military service. One that day, something clicked. I took Spanish courses years ago, but always treated it as a class rather than a language. I never understood or could speak a thing. Dan had started teaching me Spanish from the perspective of a Hebrew speaker. In that one day, I learned more Spanish than I did in 4 years of courses, and began to develop a theory on how one ought to learn a language. These last two months I’ve been living in Argentina, and successfully tested this theory.
This post is not about “why” to learn another language, but rather my “how”.
To preface, there are of course different levels of fluency. As it turns out, every Spanish speaking country has their own dialect. I speak Argentinian Spanish, due to my travels in Argentina and enamoration with Argentinian culture. I still have a ton to learn, and sometimes words just don’t come out for me. Regardless, to provide perspective on where my level of fluency is:
- Most who come from outside of Latin America tend to perceive me as a local Argentinian.
- Argentinians tend to think I’m European, usually someone from France/Brazil who learned Spanish with ease, or someone from another part of Europe who has Argentinian parents. I’ve met several English teachers in Argentina, who all found it easier to communicate with me in Spanish than in English.
- The other day, I met two Chileans and hung out with them for a while. An hour in to our encounter, an Australian came and asked us a few questions in English. I answered, and was then complimented by two Chileans on how well I speak English. I tried to convince them after that I was in fact, not from Buenos Aires, but this was to no avail.
Obviously, there’s room where I can grow. Nonetheless, I think and speak in Spanish effortlessly. What I hope to distill is how I’ve been approaching new languages.
The theory for everyone
Try to remember when you first learned your first language. Do you find it hard to remember exactly how you initially learned? Very well. Try to remember how you learned in grade school. Perhaps the first time you learned that “will not” isn’t abbreviated as “willn’t” but rather as “won’t”? Or even in middle school, where you learned to use more advanced words, craft paragraphs, and the like.
Now, in these cases in your youth, do you ever remember consciously translating into another language or symbols of sort? Of course not. What you learned was just building off what you knew before, which you learned subconsciously by being listening and seeing. For verb conjugation, I’d be willing to guess you subconsciously learned the pattern and didn’t think to yourself “oh, I’m talking in the past tense and hence will now use the impreterite”.
Or even currently, if you encounter an unfamiliar word, do you translate it? I’d be willing to guess you either learn by carefully reading into its context or by using a dictionary.
When I met Dan, the Israeli-Argentinian backpacker, I realized I always sought to translate Spanish to English. It took someone translating Spanish into Hebrew to realize how wrong this is. Spanish isn’t English, nor is it Hebrew. Spanish is Spanish. Whatever language you want to learn is its proper self, not the language you already know. And as such, when you start to translate is when things start to go wrong.
This is a key point. You should avoid translating at all costs. Instead, seek to build complexity off of what you already know - in this fashion you will both learn new things and reinforce what you already know most naturally. You should seek to find yourself thinking unconsciously in your target language.
Assuming you’re reading this, you likely speak English at a very high level. Congratulate yourself! English is one of the most spoken and most useful languages in the world. Furthermore, you also speak a language of Anglo-Saxon and Latin roots, which makes it particularly easy to learn European languages. This is a huge advantage - you didn’t have this as a baby! For instance, you can instantly know that “resentimiento” in Spanish means resentment, without needing to go through the years of grade school Spanish education. This is your advantage to learning even faster.
Now, you did a few advantages as a baby. You weren’t really thinking at all in words and had mental silence. Research shows the incredible neural plasticity of babies. You had in a sense infinite time due to a lack of responsibility and more patience. And more than anything you had the necessity and desire to communicate.
While you can’t unfortunately regain the neural plasticity you had when you were a baby, you can simulate everything else. Learn to listen or shut off the voice in your head. Once you do this, you can start really listening to the new language. Then you can start thinking and speaking. This can also be trained by meditation.
Learn to have patience with your studies. Easier said than done, but try to view language learning as something without a deadline. Do a trip if you can, but if you can’t, find fun native speakers.
In the anthropological community, it’s common for anthropologists to go to a new area with an unwritten tribal language and become fluent in it. If you move somewhere where you don’t speak the language and have an intense interest in communicating with others, your chance of success will increase substantially. Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus at University of Southern California, refers to this as “comprehensible input”. I went to a talk of his at LangFest 2018 and loved it - leaving a short summary of his take here.
So in summary.
- Build a base as fast as possible. This can be done fairly well with children’s movies - think Dora the Explorer or what you watched as a kid, but make it as compelling and interesting as possible. These shows are especially good, as they’re inherently immersive and take a long time. Duolingo, classes, can also be effective in building a base as long as you aren’t treating it like a class.
- Afterwards, don’t translate.
- always be thinking about the language if you’re thinking at all
- Ask questions. People will notice if you really want to learn to interact with them and will gladly teach you.
- Reread things you’ve read before in a new language.
- Be super interested in the culture. This can’t be overstated. Have a necessity to speak. On this note, listen to music in the language. You’ll get the accent better, etc. Spanish has a ton of different music, from cumbia to reggaeton to bachata to salsa.
- Accept corrections, if you don’t get corrected you don’t improve :)
Additions for bilingual speakers
I grew up in a Hebrew speaking household in the US. As such, I’ve spoken both languages fluently since I was young. You may have something similar if you’re reading this section - perhaps one parent is from a different country, perhaps you took French courses since your youth, etc.
What you don’t know is that as a result, you have an increased facility for language learning. This isn’t just because “you’ve done it before”.
When I first started learning Spanish, I chose to initially think of it as a mix of Hebrew (grammar, accent) and English (latin roots). I thought this approach could be sensible due to the map below - Spain is sort of in between Israel and England, where Hebrew and English emerged.
There’s perhaps some more logic to this, as Arabic influenced both Hebrew (due to proximity) and Spanish (due to the Moorish period). If I had to absolutely had to translate a word, I’d make sure to always translate into Hebrew, my less dominant language. I figured eventually I’d mentally separate Spanish from the two in my mind.
Although English + Hebrew doesn’t allow you to instantly pick up Spanish the way Hindi speakers may pick up Urdu, knowing both gives you an improved base to build off of. Take for instance the word “ya” in Spanish. In English, the concept of “ya” is a bit complicated to explain. Take these three sentences as an example:
- Ya fui al supermercado - I already went to the supermarket.
- Ya no sé qué hacer conmigo - I don’t know what to do with myself anymore. (This is also the name great song by Uruguayan band Cuarteto de nos)
- Ya vuelvo - I return soon.
Translating these directly into English causes immediate problems. In the first sentence, “ya” means “already”; in the second, “ya” means “anymore”; in the third, “ya” means “soon”. In Hebrew, on the contrary, “ya” is exactly the word “כבר” in these common contexts. Or take the difference between “conocer” and “saber” which is confusing to explain in English but instantly translatable in English to “להכיר” and “לדעת”. I’d be willing to this triangulation to a new language applies beyond just Spanish.
What I did + resources + suggestions
- Watch Naruto with Spanish subtitles/dubs when available. If I didn’t understand a word I’d keep going in effort to subconsciously pick up new words - I already knew the context and general theme of Naruto.
- Language exchange with a great friend and polyglot who was looking to learn Hebrew and already spoke fluent Spanish.
- Listen to a lot of music in Spanish. Listening attentively and singing along slowly improved my pronunciation and accent.
- Try to talk to everyone in Argentina (works best in non-touristy areas). To me, I was (and still am) with the culture and language in Argentina. Hence, every opportunity speaking to someone was an opportunity to learn more. People at stores. Bus drivers. Store owners. If you really make an effort to try to know them and speak their language, they notice.
- Couchsurfing! With Couchsurfing I stayed in the homes of 10-20 people, each of whom not only showed me their culture but also were willing to correct me as I spoke to them in their native tongue.
Learning a new language has completely changed my life. Beyond simply the intellectual challenge, it opens a pathway to make millions of new friends from all over the world. My life would not be the same without the wonderful friends I have made in Argentina. To anyone learning - I hope my take helps, stick through the process as it becomes incredibly rewarding in the end.