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Learning Principles
(Principios de aprendizaje)

If you want thin thighs in 30 days or
Spanish fluency in 3 months, 
you need a magician.

Regardless of what program, school or approach you take to learning Spanish, I think you’ll find these principles helpful. All of the photos are from a trip to Pátzcuaro in the state of Michoacán, Mexico.
  • Know why you want to learn Spanish.
Ancient petroglyph found around Lake Pátzcuaro. My guide calls him ET.
antiguo petroglifo encontrado alrededor Lake Pátzcuaro.
mi guía lo llama et
- Do you just need enough to recognize signs and travel safely and comfortably?
- Do you want to talk to your neighbors and service people?
- Do you want to understand the culture and have life conversations with Spanish speakers?
- Do you want to read great Spanish literature and write poetry in Spanish?
- Do you want to work as a translator?
Each of these requires a different level of commitment and effort. Decide on the level that's right for you.
  • Focus on acquiring language; avoid translation.
Dried charales in Pátzcuaro
charales secos en Pátzcuaro.
Break your reliance on English (or your native language). Translation is a cold, mechanical way to get from one language to another. It loses the richness that comes with acquiring a language with all its cultural uniqueness.
Watching Spanish movies and videos with English subtitles is an exercise in translation and a very slow way to learn as your brain automatically tunes out stuff it doesn’t understand. YouTube and some videos allow you to change the subtitles to Spanish which gives you a chance to hear the language and see the connected words.  … However, most computer-generated subtitles are bad. Period. A punto
Focus on "comprehensible input," a second-language acquisition concept developed by the linguist Stephen Krashen who says it is the only way we acquire language. British Council’s Teaching English describes comprehensible input as: 
Comprehensible input is language input that can be understood by listeners despite them not understanding all the words and structures in it. It is described as one level above that of the learners if it can only just be understood. According to Krashen's theory of language acquisition, giving learners this kind of input helps them acquire language naturally, rather than learn it consciously.
 Idea: Take a 3-5 minute Spanish audio segment with a Spanish transcript. Listen, read the transcript. Repeat as needed until you can listen to the segment and understand it even if you don't understand every word.
After you feel comfortable with the segment, you can put the new words into your Anki flashcard deck. (more about this later)
Try some of the stories in The Spanish Experiment for a fun way to move toward acquiring the language.
  • Create a plan that fits YOUR goals and YOUR life.
Mural in Yácatas Restaurante in Tzintzuntzan, Lake Pátzcuaro
Like everything else that requires time and effort, having a plan and sticking to it is more effective than waiting for the urge to study or practice. Make sure it’s your plan. Rather than just putting a 60-minute block of time on your calendar, you might want to break it up into the main components of learning a language: listening, speaking (or recording yourself speaking), reading, writing, reviewing your word list or practicing pronunciation and ear training.
Every day doesn’t have to be the same … it’s your plan; do it your way.
  • Focus on pronunciation.

Skirt seen at a wedding in Ihuatzio, Lake Pátzcuaro
La falda vista en la boda ...
No matter how much Spanish you know, if you don’t know how to accurately pronounce the words, you will never be able to communicate with others. This is not as easy as it sounds. While Spanish is relatively straightforward, there are sounds that are difficult for English speakers. It takes time and practice to train our mouth and tongue to reproduce those sounds.
Using forvo.com to learn to pronounce new words is a great practice ... and it is simple to add those pronunciations to your Anki vocabulary deck (more later).
  •  Get a coach.
Boys at the wedding at Ihuatzio
los chicos en la boda en Ihuazio
 Regardless of how disciplined you are, it helps to have someone in your corner rooting for you, giving you feedback, showing you better ways to accomplish your goals. Fortunately in our electronic world, it’s easy to find exactly the right coach for you. Italki is an amazing resource for finding teachers or just people to talk to, if that’s what you want. 

When I finally realized that classes weren’t working for me, I reached out to find a private teacher. The first one didn’t work out but when I went to iTalki, I found dozens of teachers that met my specifications. I wanted someone from Mexico who had good English. I’m one of those people who needs to know why something is the way it is and someone who understands English can really help me over some of those hurdles. Most of the teachers have videos so you can get a sense of them long before you connect with them in person. 

I found a great candidate and scheduled a half hour Skype session. We mainly talked in English so I could express what I was looking for. It turned we were in sync and I am finding our sessions invaluable … at $11 per hour with no travel time or costs, that’s an amazing value.
  • Engage your visual memory.
I will never forget the golden shoes at the village wedding in Ihuatzio
no nunca olvidaré los zapatos oros a la boda en el pueblo Ihuazio
Confucius was right … hear and forget, see and remember, do and understand. That should be our mantra. Build your vocabulary with pictures rather than English words (translation). It may take a bit longer, but you’ll remember far more. Plus it’s really fun and creative.
Idea: Using flashcards is a fundamental of acquiring a new language. You can succeed without it but I think it would be much harder. My favorite system is Anki ... now. At first I hated it then I took a course from Real Fast Spanish and fell in love with it. It easily incorporates images and has a built in spaced-repetition system which is a fundamental of memory and vocabulary building.
  • Build a relevant vocabulary.
View from the ruins at Tzintzuntzan, Lake Pátzcuaro
la vista desde las ruinas
People will tell you to “just start talking” … and that’s okay if you want to say “buenos dias” a lot and make a bunch of hand gestures. (You can actually carry on a pretty intricate conversation with hand gestures … if that’s what you want.)

If you actually want to communicate with words, you’re going to need some to work with. It’s something of a dance … a few words, some verbs in present tense, a dash of grammar, a few more words and verbs, another tense and so on. It helps if the words you learn early on are common words relative to what you might have conversations about. You will use the word necesito (I need) far more often than you’ll use helicóptero (which was in one of my beginning classes.)

If you are focusing on comprehensible input related to every day living, you will learn usable words and pick up a lot of others along the way. (FYI, something like 80% of the words you will eventually learn will come to you through reading.)
  • Listen every day and everywhere.
Dancer on carved door in the Teatro in Pátzcuaro
un bailarín esculpido en una puerta
If you’re in a Spanish-speaking country or area, eavesdrop in coffee shops and on the streets. Listen to songs on YouTube that play the lyrics with the song. Repeat short segments until you understand them rather than long podcasts or movies. Listening with meaning and relevance is where language starts. (comprehensible input.)
Idea: it's not easy to hear enough comprehensible input just by eavesdropping in coffee shops. You are probably going to want a source for short, everyday conversations. I have two favorites right now: Real Fast Spanish for one-minute conversations that you can listen to over and over, with transcripts or without; and Fluent Spanish Academy for slightly longer segments for learners in the intermediate levels which help develop you acquire new vocabulary and grammar.
  • Speak Spanish out loud every day … even if it’s just to yourself.
Niche icon in old mansion in Pátzcuaro
It’s not enough to “know” Spanish … you have to speak it and be able to hear it. Most beginning classes teach you how to ask a question in Spanish. But, what do you do when a flood of sounds returns as the answer to your question? In order to actually acquire a language, you have to be able to hear it and verbalize the sounds of it.
This is not as easy as it sounds. Unless you’ve had voice training (and ear training), many sounds may seem the same to you but very different to native speakers. If you’re ready to speak to other people, great. If not, speak or read to yourself … out loud. When you speak or read out loud, you are training your tongue and mouth to form the new sounds, and also training your ears to hear the sounds.
Idea: Find short, simple Spanish paragraphs and record yourself speaking them. Ideally, find paragraphs that have been spoken or read by a native speaker and then compare your sounds with theirs.
  • Read every day … out loud, of course.
Movie projector from 1937 in Pátzcuaro
 Most vocabulary comes from reading. Read anything that interests you, starting with short pieces. It can be exhausting to try to wade through a long piece in a new language when you have to look up many of the words. Read everything you can find … street signs, advertisements, menus, event announcements, museum exhibits. If there’s too much to read at any one time, take a photo and read it later. (Even if you don’t read it immediately, you’ll have something relevant to read when you are ready.)
Idea: Find Spanish magazines in your interest area. Read little bits of it at a time. (One magazine can last me weeks as I tip-toe through it, picking up bits of meaning and a few new words.
  • Write every day.
Straw ornaments, Tzintzuntzan, Lake Pátzcuaro
The last part of Confucius’s wise words is: I do and I understand. Writing sentences about your every day life using words you’re learning is a way to embed the words in your memory and begin the process of creating coherent communication. Writing about your life, your day, your interests guarantees that the language you are acquiring is relevant and memorable.
  • Get instant feedback.
Wedding party, Lake Pátzcuaro
 The learning process is a feedback loop. Do something, get feedback, make adjustments, do it again and repeat. Nothing is wrong; it just hasn’t been looped enough to be right. 
Fortunately, the internet gives us a lot of feedback mechanisms. One of my favorites during the writing process is the Google Two-Step. Google Translate is not always right … but it’s more right than most of us beginning language learners.
Idea: Google Two-Step.
Write something in Spanish using whatever you know at the time. Put it into Google Translate. Example: You are intelligent and beautiful. … Eres inteligente y hermosa.
When you put the Spanish in, you will be given the English translation. If it says what you were intending to say, that's a good sign that you are close. But, not always. To check yourself. Copy the English into the left box and change the language to English.
When the English produces the same Spanish result you wrote, then you can be reasonably sure you were right. A lot of the time though, you’ll get a different Spanish version and that’s where your learning spikes as you figure out why you’re getting a different way of saying what you want to say. As we said, Google Translate is not always right but it’s a good teacher.
  • Consistent, short study periods.

Bride, Lake Pátzcuaro
la novia
There has been a lot written about brain plasticity in recent years and it’s a great boon to those of us of a certain age. It means the brain continues to learn and make new connections … when it needs to. Given new input and called upon to respond to new stimulus, it does. It takes awhile though and whatever the “new” is needs to be consistent. And studies show that frequent, small doses of new is better than marathon exposures infrequently repeated. Cramming might have worked in college but in the world of language learning, slow is actually faster.
In the beginning of learning a new language, active, focused study time is important. Most experts recommend 30 - 60 minutes a day. Breaking that up into 10-15 minutes focused on different aspects of the learning process gives the brain a workout without reaching exhaustion.

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