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How Do You Talk, Eat and Live in a Language You Are Learning?
From teacher to learner
To set the record straight, I will confess: as a teacher I was a touch sanctioned about telling students how easy it was to learn English. Then I arrived in Chile in July 2010 on the only words I knew hello and friends. Did what I told the students to do work on the other side of the language learning experience?
Come with me while I live, eat and speak what I preach.
I rearranged my life so that Spanish came front and center. The formula for learning the language is that you will quickly be able to read and follow what is happening. The context will help even if you don’t understand every word. After that you will be able to increasingly understand what people are talking about. Move right you can start talking like an 18 month old, but vocabulary is developing. Writing is the hardest. Even people who speak the language very well rarely write like native speakers.
So how do I live Spanish? When I wake up in the morning I tune into RTVE radio and/or TV from Madrid on the laptop. There are no commercials and the announcers speak in a clear, clear voice. If the person you are listening to speaks well, it is easier to follow the conversation.
And when you really listen, you will begin to hear how many words are, in fact, the same as English, but with a different pronunciation. English stresses the first syllable; Spanish penultimate.
Another advantage is that the shows are repeated so what I missed the first time, I will catch more in the second go round. My normal station is 24 hours outdoor radio – live. I became fluent in economics as 23 of the 24 hours are devoted to discussing the financial crisis in Spain.
For TV news broadcasts, look at the mouth of the announcer. Remember this is now the deaf learn to speak, so pay attention and imitate. Sports broadcasts are also good listening exercises because the vocabulary is limited.
Now I only listen to Spanish music. And only watch Spanish movies. Subtitles – which make it a bit of a waste of time when reading in English rather than listening in the target language – are not a problem on RTVE. If your family and neighbors are whining about the gongs and whining in the Chinese opera you’re listening to/or watching, pick up their phones and hook them up.
During the first few months– when I was reading the news in Spanish on the BBC– I really didn’t know much about what was going on in the news. But once I was able to follow it, I realized I wasn’t missing much anyway. However, my reading skills have improved.
I have kept a journal since August 1981. So I force myself to write a little bit in Spanish every day. It’s not great literature, but it’s fun to re-read it after a few months and pick out the mistakes. When I read or write, I try to focus on the verbs. More on this topic later.
To experience the language, also check out local food festivals, multicultural events, language exchange programs and online offers. Even if you want to learn a rather obscure language – like Khmer or Inuit – there are online resources ready and waiting.
Studying Spanish – and one should live the culture – is much more fun with a glass of sauvignon blanc from Chile in one hand and a tapas in the other. The same is true for steak and Malbec at midnight. In fact, after a couple of glasses Piso Alto vino I have become well acquainted.
While at the bookstore, pick up a cookbook in the target language and whip up some dishes. If in doubt about the ingredients, check with a translation program because you don’t want a cup of sugar in your soup. Then put on some music, pour a drink, light some candles and mentally transport yourself to the country of the target language.
Once you’re past the grunt-in-single-noun stage, it’s time to tackle the verbs so you can talk to people. Even though memorizing how to conjugate verbs rivals is getting a root canal all language hinges around these stubborn little animals. No verb, no action. End of story to continue with it and embrace verbs as your friends.
Make learning verbs a fun activity to say a sentence in the present, past and future. Then reward yourself with a short saki course if you are learning Japanese. Read a passage and underline all the verbs.
Also note what tense they are in: past, present, future. Suddenly you will have a “eureka” and the patterns will start to appear. It will all start to make sense. And when that happens, treat yourself to a meal at your target language restaurant. Hopefully the waitresses at the Korean Cafe will be able to talk to you.
To learn to speak well you must practice every day. When I started working as a lecturer at the University of Waikato I used to practice my lessons in front of a full length mirror. Looking at myself I learned as I presented to the 400 or so beaming sophomores in the auditorium. Now I do the same with Spanish. And it’s a good thing, too, as I now live in Phnom Penh and Spanish speakers are not easily available.
I would pour a glass of wine, pull up a chair in front of the mirror and review my day. Topics include what I have done and what I will do tomorrow. Sometimes I just go and talk about whatever. I take my Spanish book with me so I can refer to it – particularly the verbs – when I need to.
Okay, so it may sound a touch strange, but believe me it works. Another option is to video yourself. If you’re worried that others might think you need a mental health evaluation, tell them you’re trying out for a part in the Ukrainian play. As long as you have a cover story no one ever asks.
Learning another language is mental gymnastics. The more practice the better you get. In short live, eat, and talk it and it will be more fun.
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