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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: As a teacher, I was gentle with students when I told them how easy it was to learn English. Then I arrived in Chile in July 2010 knowing the only words hello and friends. Would what I told the students to do work for the other half of the language learning experience?
Come with me while I live, eat and talk about what I preach.
I rearranged my life so that Spanish became front and center. The formula for learning a language is that you can read quickly and follow what is happening. Context helps even if you don’t understand every word. Next, you’ll get a better understanding of what people are talking about. As you progress, you may begin to speak like an 18-month-old, but vocabulary will develop. Writing is the hardest part. Even people who speak a language extremely well rarely write like native speakers.
So how do I live Spanish? When I get up in the morning, I tune into RTVE radio and/or television from Madrid on my laptop. No commercials and the announcers speak in a clear, crisp voice. If the people you are listening to speak well, it will be much easier to follow the conversation.
And if you really listen, you start to hear how many words are actually the same as English, but with different pronunciations. English emphasizes the first syllable; Spain’s penultimate.
Another advantage is that the newscasts are repeated, so what I miss the first time, I catch more of on the second round. My normal station is 24 hours radio exterior – en direct. I learned economics because 23 of the 24 hours are devoted to discussing the Spanish financial crisis.
For television newscasts, watch the announcer’s mouth. Remember, deaf people are learning to speak now, so pay attention and imitate. Sports broadcasts are also good listening exercises as vocabulary is limited.
Now I only listen to Spanish music. And watch only Spanish movies. Subtitles – which makes it a waste of time since you’re reading in English rather than listening in the target language – are not a problem on RTVE. If your family and neighbors complain about the gongs and wails of the Chinese opera you’re listening to/or watching, get some headphones and tune them out.
In the first few months – when I was reading the news on the BBC in Spanish – I really didn’t know much about what was going on in the news. But when I was able to follow it, I realized that I wasn’t missing much anyway. But my reading skills improved.
I have been keeping a diary since August 1981. So I force myself to write a little in Spanish every day. It’s not great literature, but it’s funny to read it again after a few months and pick out the mistakes. When reading or writing, I try to focus on the verbs. More on this topic later.
Also check out local food festivals, multicultural events, language exchange programs, and online deals to live the language. Even if you want to learn fairly obscure languages like Khmer or Inuit, there are online resources ready and waiting.
Learning Spanish – and living the culture – is a lot more fun than having a glass of sauvignon blanc from Chile in one hand and tapas in the other. The same goes for steak and Malbec at midnight. In fact, after a few drinks Piso Alto vino I get quite familiar.
While at the bookstore, pick up a cookbook in the target language and prepare a few dishes. If in doubt about the ingredients, check with a translation program because you don’t want to add sugar to a cup of soup. Then turn on the music, pour a drink, light a few candles and mentally transport yourself to the country of the target language.
Once you’ve gotten past the scrubbing stage in one noun, it’s time to tackle verbs so you can talk to people. While memorizing verb conjugations competes with getting a root canal, all languages revolve around these stubborn little creatures. No verbs, no action. The end of the story, so get on with it and take verbs as your friends.
Turn learning verbs into a fun activity to say a sentence in the present, past, and future tenses. Then reward yourself with a sip of saki as you learn Japanese. Read the passage and underline all the verbs.
Also note what tense they are in: past, present, future. Suddenly there is a “eureka” and patterns begin to emerge. It’s all starting to make sense. And when that happens, go eat at a restaurant in your target language. Hopefully the waiters at the Korean cafe can talk to you.
To learn to speak well, you need to practice every day. When I started teaching at the University of Waikato, I practiced my lessons in front of a full-length mirror. By observing myself, I found out how I presented to about 400 bright sophomores in the auditorium. Now I do the same things with Spanish. And that’s a good thing too because I live in Phnom Penh now and Spanish speakers are not readily available.
I would pour a glass of wine, pull up a chair in front of the mirror and review my day. The topics are what I did and what I will do tomorrow. Sometimes I just wander and talk about whatever. I bring my Spanish book with me so I can refer to it when needed – especially the verbs.
Okay, this may sound strange, but trust me, it works. Another option is to put yourself in a video. If you’re worried that other people might think you need a mental health evaluation, tell them you’re trying out for a part in a Ukrainian play. As long as you have a cover story, no one will ever ask.
Learning a second language is mental gymnastics. The more you practice, the better you get. All in all, live, eat and talk and it’s more fun.
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