I’m not going to lie to you. It’s not easy. You can’t just sign up for a class and expect to be fluent twelve weeks later, or even twelve months later. You have to do most of work on your own. It helps if you are generally obsessive; that is, if you enjoy the process more than the result, you can learn any language you want.
I started learning Spanish about two years ago, I guess, when my Russian teacher went back to St. Petersburg. I can now read almost anything, understand the radio and television, and speak freely. I can’t understand the guys in line at the taqueria or heated discussions on the bus, unless it’s on a cell phone, because people on cell phones tend to speak loudly and slowly. This would be annoying for most, but it’s ideal for the eavesdropping language learner.
These tips aren’t the end all be all, but maybe you’ll find them helpful.
- Start with Pimsleur language CDs. Yes, they’re expensive, but maybe you can find them in your local library? Or maybe you can find a used set on eBay. These lessons are 100% oral. There are some “reading lessons,” but my use of quotes is no accident. But it really is amazing how it all works. You start by building sentences, where each one grows from the last. After all ninety lessons, or whatever, you’ll find yourself thinking in Spanish. Granted, it’ll be limited Spanish. But once you get over wondering why you’d ever need to know how to order personalized napkins, if you do all the lessons you’ll at least impress your gringo friends. You’ll even have decent pronunciation.
- Get a good dictionary, the best that money can buy. My recommendation is Webster’s New World Concise Spanish Dictionary.
- Get a good book on grammar, the best that money can buy. My recommendation is A New Reference Grammar of Modern Spanish by John Butt, Ph.D. and Carmen Benjamin.
- Get a copy of SuperMemo. It’s cheap and it’s the most important part! It’s flashcard software that uses a spaced repetition algorithm so you only repeat flashcards as needed.
- Find a kind-hearted native speaker who’ll tolerate your limited vocabulary and your requests for personalized napkins. Pay him or her if you must! I found my teacher on Craigslist. We’d meet once a week and babble on like school girls. We were terrible! But it was so much fun. And then she’d make a list of new words and expressions to help me express my thoughts. I put them all in SuperMemo. Unfortunately, I think she’s moving back to Spain soon, so the lessons have stopped. I am reluctant to find a new teacher, because after a year with her, I think I have a nice Madrigingo accent and I don’t want to lose it.
- Read. A lot. Put all new words in SuperMemo.
And so now I’m going to recommend some decent sources for reading (and listening), because starting with a novel might be too much. And again, enter all unknown words into SuperMemo.
- Puntoycoma audio magazine. What’s crazy is you can just go to the website and get free .pdfs and audio files there. I think this might be advanced, but what I like about it is that it covers not just Spanish-speaking world themes, but the arts, music, science, film, you name it. I make it a goal to learn every single unknown word in the magazine.
- NotesinSpanish.com. These are weekly podcasts about fifteen minutes in length that come in intermediate and advanced levels featuring the adventures of Ben and Marina in Madrid. You can buy a transcript of each podcast for under $2.00, and each comes with a glossary and exercises. They’re lively and entertaining. Lately, however, due to time, I’ve just been reading their blog, as in they and their readers have been creating fun webcasts.
- Lomastv.com. You get three new webcasts per week. Unfortunately, I rarely have the time to watch the videos, but they also send weekly free lessons via e-mail. I put all unknown words and phrases into SuperMemo.
- WordReference.com.Yes, you need a good dictionary, but let’s face it, looking up every word can be a huge pain in the bum. WordReference also provides plenty of sample sentences with many word entries. I enter the lot of them into SuperMemo.
- My teacher’s blog. I didn’t start reading Natalia Durou’s blog until right after she told me she was moving back to Spain, and I have no idea why I waited ’til then. After all those lessons, I thought I knew Spanish, and then I read her blog. Her written vocabulary is, like, totally different. She uses big words. Artistic words. I put them all into SuperMemo. I do the same for all the user comments. I even added a comment or two of my own, an act of bravery on my part. I’m clearly la gringa of the group. Will my accent be obvious? Will it turn out that I’ve had no idea, really, of that they’ve been talking about?
So if I have to make one thing clear, it’s this: you have to use SuperMemo, or something similar. I mean, if you’re serious about this. Make two cards, one Spanish to English and the other viceversa. And then, you have to practice every day.
As you practice, say the sentence out loud. You get a chance to grade yourself, from Bright (excellent response given without hesitation) to Null (zero recall). I doubt you’ll cheat because the worst thing that can happen is you’ll have to repeat the word again. And it’s not like anyone’s going to know. As you go though your daily cards, SuperMemo records your score, and that determines when you’ll review each card again. You’ll find that each day, proceeding words magically stick. You’ll find yourself using these words in conversations without thinking about it, or understanding words you thought you never knew. It is fascinating.
Now, if you need some motivation, you’ve got to read this guy’s account of how he learned English in Poland. If you want to be thoroughly freaked out, listen to his sound files. He sounds like he’s from Texas! For more inspiration, read this.