It's a bit cheeky of me to be giving tips about language learning. You might as well ask Donald Trump to teach you how to dance the ballet. I've never been good at languages. It was the only thing I failed at school and after nearly twenty years of speaking Spanish I'm still far from fluent. That part of my brain that processes language just doesn't seem to work very well in me.
However, having tried all sorts of things to improve my Spanish I am perhaps in a good position to say what has worked for me and what hasn't. Classes haven't. I think classes may have been the reason I struggled at school. Classes are the exact opposite of one to one' learning. My mind tends to wander when not engaged. I don't think I'm alone in that. I distinctly remember at school, there came a point after three years of French where there were one or two swats sitting at the front doing all the heavy lifting with the teacher while the rest of us were really just marking time until the next lesson, completely disinterested as to what was going on. I don't really blame the teacher for this, I just don't think a language should be taught to thirty or so people at a time.
Looking back on it, making the decision to learn a language and promising myself I would stick to it was the crucial turning point. I'd had what I'd later heard Tim Ferris describe as a Harajuku moment, an enlightening self-realisation arrived at by defining a fear rather than a goal. I'd always dreamed of retiring to Spain one day and the fear that I faced up to was that this was unrealistic unless I knew the language, and that learning the language becomes harder as you get older. Therefore I drew a line in the sand and promised myself to do a little language learning every day. This was November 1999. To this day I still engage in a daily activity to increase my knowledge of the language.
I dug around on the Internet and found a few resources. In those days courses were nowhere near as plentiful on the web as they are today but the BBC had a Spanish course as did Manchester University, both of which were free. Neither however were very effective in getting me started on the road to speaking the language. The turning point came when I discovered the Michel Thomas method.
The Michel Thomas method is an audio course that places you in a conversation between a teacher and two other students. Questions are asked and both you and the students offer your replies. Often the mistakes the other students make help you understand the correct answers. The course relies heavily on pointing out the similarities between English and Spanish, for example drawing your attention to word endings and giving easy to use formulas for converting between one language and the other (a technique that had been pioneered in the books of Margarita Madrigal's Magic key to.. series). The amazing thing about the course is that it enables you to start forming quite advanced sentences comparatively quickly because one learns rules for generating words, rather than lists of words themselves, thus building confidence. After completing the course I felt I'd really turned a corner and became quite thirsty for more Spanish resources.
I was still living in England at the time, though certain Spanish media were available online or via satellite. Euronews was a TV news channel that had audio streams that could be changed to a number of European languages. The stories would rotate every 10 or fifteen minutes or so and I found it useful to watch a story in Spanish, then rewatch in English to see if I had the gist. Spanish football was also available with Spanish commentary, so I started to follow that. Soon I was learning the words for corner, goal, penalty and chants like "estas ciega" when asking the referee if he was blind. The most revered word in football of course is 'goal', which is shouted long and loud by the commentator when someone scores. I was listening to a program on the wireless one day called 'Radio Estadio' that was broadcasting an important game featuring Real Madrid. At six o'clock the programme was interrupted briefly for the evening news and there had been a grave incident somewhere in the north of Spain with loss of life, so Prime Minister Aznar was making a solemn statement to the nation. He'd only managed to get a few sentences out when the commentator interrupted shouting "Gooooooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaal a Real Madrid". Clearly nothing is more important in Spain than a ball hitting the back of the net!
In an attempt to build vocabulary, still back in 1999, I bought a Spanish newspaper and a highlighting pen. Each day I would read a story, highlighting any words I didn't know and looked them up. I found this a valuable way to build vocabulary and one learns a little of the culture and current affairs of the country. Over time I found if I learned about ten new words a day that was about right. More than ten was hard to remember. Less than ten and I felt I wasn't making any progress. Later on I realised there is only a certain vocabulary of reported speech in newspapers that is quite different to how people speak in real life, but it is still a good way to learn words.
I love music so I also sought out Spanish songs. The Columbian artists Shakira and Juanes were popular at the time so I got hold of the lyrics to some of their songs and learned to sing them. This was very good practice for pronunciation, as to be in-time with the music it is often necessary to enunciate faster than one would do by speaking, thus giving the mouth and tongue a workout. It also came in handy years later in Spain when belting out the Gypsy Kings Bamboleo at Karaoke as I'd already learned the words! Learning to speak fast is quite important. Try to plan what your're going to say in your head then say it as quickly as possible. People hearing you speaking slowly start thinking "Oh he's a foreigner, he won't understand me" then freeze like a rabbit in the headlights!
The wife and I finally made the move to Spain in the Autumn of 2003. The town we moved to had only a small number of maybe a few dozen Brits out of a population of 16,000 so my wife argued, quite correctly as it turned out, that we should avoid the English speaking community and only speak Spanish. This we did for over a year, making lots of Spanish friends in the process. It was during this time that I battled to make the transition from speaking textbook Spanish to that uttered by people with local accents, as described in my previous blog post the Gargoyle Folk. It was an important time that cemented everything together. I didn't speak to another English person other than my wife until over a year later, when a woman trying to arrange a delivery in a furniture shop turned to me and asked 'How do you say when in Spanish?' Seeing how far behind me in learning the language she was, I delighted myself in how far I had come.
During our year in isolation we made many Spanish friends. Though we lived in the countryside and some of the owners of the neighbouring properties only visited at weekends, they were nonetheless keen to get to know us and invited us to all sorts of social events, which really helped develop conversational skills. One to one learning is much more effective than a classroom situation. A good way to go is to find a Spanish friend who is keen to learn English, then meet up and do a half hour conversation in each language.
We also watched Spanish television during our first year, mainly in the afternoon. There was an extended weather forecast was on at 4pm which was great for beginners like us, because the weather uses small vocabulary of words that are repeated most days like cloud, rain, sunshine etc so these soon become imprinted on the brain. We also watched Telenovelas which are like ultra-melodramatic mini-series. In one 'end of series' cliff-hanger I remember there was an evil step-mother who pushed a baby in a pram into the middle of a bull-ring then released the bull! God knows what was going on there!
These days there are so many more online resources than when I started to learn Spanish, many of which are free, ranging from language exchanges to online courses like Duolingo. I won't go into detail about any of these as there are already a million blogs telling you all about them. Instead I'll end with one last tip which helped me a lot in the early days. Don't worry too much about tenses. Tenses confuse beginners and can seem like a mountain of complexity to learn. The fact of it is though, Spanish people are much more accepting of the present tense than we are in English. It's perfectly OK to build a sentence like "I go to the shop tomorrow" where the tense is present but you use the word tomorrow to specify the future. I go to the shop yesterday would also be understood. Being understood is far more important than being correct. This is my motto for getting by in Spanish!