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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 I’ll admit it: as a teacher I was very sanctimonious about telling students how easy it was to learn English. Then I arrived in Chile in July 2010 about the same words I knew Hello and amigos. Would what I had been telling the students work on the other side of the language learning experience?
Join me as I live, eat and talk what I preach.
I reorganized my life so that Spanish is front and center. The formula for learning a language is that you will quickly be able to read and follow what is happening. The context will help even if you don’t understand every word. Then you will be able to understand more about what people are talking about. Moving forward you may start to speak at 18 months of age, but vocabulary will improve. Writing is the hardest. Even people who speak the language very well, rarely write like native speakers.
So how do I live in Spanish? When I get up in the morning I tune in to RTVE radio and/or television out of Madrid on the laptop. There are no announcements and the announcers speak in clear, crisp voices. If the people you are listening to are talking well, it is much easier to follow the conversation.
And when you really listen, you start to hear how many words are, in fact, the same as English, but with a different pronunciation. English puts stress on the first syllable; Spain at last.
Another plus is that the news broadcasts are repeated so what I miss the first time I get more of it on the second round. My usual station is the 24-hour external radio – directly. I became fluent in economics because 23 of the 24 hours are spent discussing the Spanish financial crisis.
For television news broadcasts, watch the announcer’s mouth. Remember that this is when deaf people learn to speak, so pay attention and imitate. Sports broadcasts are also good listening exercises because the vocabulary is limited.
Now I only listen to Spanish music. And just watch Spanish movies. Subtitles – which make it a waste of time as you read in English rather than listening in the target language – are not a problem on RTVE. If your family and neighbors are complaining about the gongs and crying in the Chinese opera you’re listening to/or watching, get some headphones and put them out.
For the first few months–when I was reading the news in Spanish on the BBC–I didn’t know much about what was happening in the news. But once I was able to follow him, I realized that I hadn’t lost much at all. However, my reading skills improved.
I have kept 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 I read or write, I try to focus on the verbs. More on this topic later.
To keep the language alive, also check out local food festivals, multicultural events, language exchange programs and internet giveaways. Even if you want to learn relatively obscure languages - such as Khmer or Inuit – online resources are ready and waiting.
It’s much more fun to learn Spanish – and one should live in the culture – with a glass of Chilean sauvignon blanc in one hand and tapas in the other. The same goes for steak and Malbec at midnight. Of course, after a glass or two of Piso Alto I’m getting very familiar.
While you’re in the bookstore, pick up a cookbook in the target language and put up a few dishes. If in doubt about the ingredients, check with a translation program because you don’t want a cup of sugar in your soup. Then put on some music, pour a drink, light some candles and mentally transport yourself to the country of the target language.
Once you get past the grunt-in-single-noun stage, it’s time to tackle the verbs so you can talk to people. Even though it is remembered how to combine verbs with contestants getting a root canal all language hangs around these pesky little critters. No words, no action. End of story so get on with it and accept verbs as your friends.
Turn learning verbs into a fun activity by saying sentences in the present, past and future. Then reward yourself with a sip of saki if you’re learning Japanese. Read a passage and underline all the verbs.
Also make a note of what tense they are in: past, present, future. Suddenly you have a “eureka” and patterns begin to emerge. It all starts to make sense. And when that happens, take yourself out for a meal at your target language restaurant. Hopefully the waiters in the Korean cafe will be able to talk to you.
To learn to speak well you have to practice every day. When I started working as a lecturer at the University of Waikato I used to practice my lessons in front of a full-length mirror. By watching myself I learned how I appeared to the 400 or so second years in the auditorium. I now do the same things with Spanish. And it’s a good thing, too, because I now live in Phnom Penh 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. Topics include what I have done and what I will do tomorrow. Sometimes I just wander off and talk about anything. I take my Spanish book with me so I can refer to it – especially the verbs – when I need to.
Okay, so it might look weird, but trust me it works. Another option is to make a video yourself. If you’re worried that others 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 another language is mental gymnastics. The more you practice the better you get. In short live, eat, and talk about it and it will be more fun.
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