The Real Way to Learn a Language

Most language learning resources I’ve seen make the same mistake: They start out teaching you how to say things like “hombre,” “mujer,” “Hola, cómo estás?” and “Dónde está el baño?” This is fine if you plan on going on vacation to Spain and just want to get around for a week or two. But if you want to actually, say, learn Spanish? It’s a good way to start out with a poor foundation. Really, how often do you really need to say “I am a man, you are a woman” in your daily conversations? Is that really the first thing you should learn?

It would be interesting if truth in advertising was actually enforced. Instead of “Learn Spanish in 15 minutes a day” you’d see things like “Learn how to say ‘I am a man, you are a woman’ in Spanish in 10 days!”

And now for a funny video:

I’m not saying it’s not possible to learn a language by starting out learning fun little phrases. I am only saying it’s not the best way to go about it.

On August 1st, 2001 I entered what is called the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo, Utah. As the name implies, it is a place where you learn how to be a missionary. As the name doesn’t imply, it’s a place you learn how to be a missionary for the LDS Church (mormon church). New missionaries go to a MTC for a period of 2 weeks to 3 months, depending on whether or not you’re learning a language and which language you’re learning. To learn Spanish you stay for 2 months. To learn Chinese you stay for 3 months. I was learning Spanish so I was there for 2 months.

In my very first Spanish class ever the first thing I learned was how to pronounce the vowels: a e i o u. Then I learned how to pronounce the rest of the alphabet. Once I learned the basics of pronunciation they started teaching basic grammar. The only vocabulary I learned at first was associated with learning grammar. Once I knew some basic grammar I started learning vocabulary. The vocabulary was useful because I knew some basic things to do with the words. The rest of it is all kind of a blur, I just remember learning tons of grammar and lots of vocabulary on top of it.

After 2 months in the MTC I was sent to Cincinnati, Ohio where I was then to somehow teach people the gospel of Jesus Christ in Spanish. Oh yeah, and I was supposed to understand what people were saying to me. Wheee! I don’t think I understood much of anything for several months. I continued studying Spanish every day and pretty soon I was able to talk to anybody and understand anybody. After about a year I had a hard time convincing people I wasn’t a native Spanish speaker. It’s now been 4 years since I returned home and I don’t sound like a native anymore, but I get along pretty swell.

Oh, I almost forgot. This post and my last post about learning a language were spawned by livemocha.com. I really like the social aspect that they have for learning a new language, but their lessons are frustrating to me. I don’t want to be taught how to say “The man is poor” or “the woman is fat.” Seriously, those are some of the first things you learn on that site. Ugh.

Anyway, in summary…

Do not: Start learning a language by learning phrases.

Memorize the Spanish in that YouTube video.

Do: Learn the pronunciation.

Learn lots of grammar.

Learn vocabulary that you can use with the grammar you know.

Read. Read a novel in the language you’re learning. Read it out loud. This will help your understanding of the language and also your pronunciation. The quality of my pronunciation is probably directly proportionate to how much I read out loud (I would read the Book of Mormon out loud every day). DailyLit has books available in French, German, Italian, and Spanish.

Listen to people speaking the language.

Talk to people in the language.

Spanish, Education, Language