How I Learned Fluent Spanish and English the Hard Way (It’s Also the Best Way!)
I was standing in the middle of the classroom, gaping for words as my palms turned clammy, while thirty foreign students of my age intently looked at me. I was so panicked that my brain had shut down, leaving only one scene on repeat in my mind: I was crying very hard, that day during my sixth grade year, when my father had made me sit an entire afternoon at my desk to learn the Spanish numbers from one to a hundred.
The teacher said something, but I couldn’t quite grasp it in my state of alarm. Not that I could have understood, anyway, since he was speaking in English. The only thing I was totally sure of is how furious I was that day during my sixth-grade year. It was Sunday, I only had top grades in language classes, and I was never going to need the Spanish numbers from one to a hundred in my life anyway. So why was Dad insisting so much?
At some point, my tongue unknotted, and I managed to say a few sentences to my already bored public: “My name is Alice. My favorite color is blue. I am thirteen years old.” The grandiose result of two years worth of high grades in middle school language classes.
By the way, I was the foreign student. The thirty others were locals. They spoke Spanish and English. I did not.
As I sank in my chair and wished I could disappear into a mousehole, I wondered how I was going to get through the year.
Prologue: The Experience Which Gives Me Some Credit
I am naturally bilingual, born to a French mother and an Italian father. I spent my entire childhood juggling between the two languages instinctively: French at school during the year, Italian during summer vacations at my grandparents’ house, and both at home. I completed my whole primary education in France, and I was halfway through middle school when my father sat me and my two siblings on the couch to give us the news that would 180 our lives: we were moving to the Dominican Republic.
First, the concept did not pass. Then, we metaphorically turned green.
Where was the Dominican Republic? What would this mean for our lives? Was he being serious serious?
A few months later, I was standing in the middle of a classroom of thirty Dominican students, failing to introduce myself.
While my parents had considered enrolling my siblings and I in a French-Spanish school, they had finally opted for a Spanish-English one. The objective was brilliant: we would end up speaking four languages.
What was a little less shiny was the way to the goal. How could we be expected to follow a regular academic curriculum while we couldn’t understand what was said around us?
The first two weeks were exhausting. I did not understand the lessons and I was left out of conversations during breaks. I got cross trying to express myself because I didn’t grasp the concepts and was too afraid of misusing the wrong words. I came back home and either cried or promptly fell asleep. Adaptation absorbed all of my energy.
The month after that, I made a small amount of progress. I was able to understand more of what I was being told, but only if the sentences were kept short and to the point. Reading was okay, as long as I had enough time to read each passage twice and look up words in the dictionary. Jokes, idioms, and figurative language were out of my reach, and it was painful to see everyone laughing at something and not knowing what they were honking about. Speaking was still a no-go except when I was forced to, but even then it was mortifying because I got mocked. Since homework was a little easier, I crammed grammar and writing sessions in my afternoon schedule.
After two months, I started using my Spanish and even drawing connections between my native languages and those I was learning. Reading got easier in Spanish, but not in English. It was still nearly impossible to say anything in English. I took too long to translate my French thoughts into English sentences, and people got bored of waiting, which made me nervous, even more conscious of my wording, and even slower. A vicious circle.
After three months, I was the best at written work in my class. All the extra study I was doing at home was paying off. My brain still had to work at a hundred miles an hour, but I was forming thoughts directly in Spanish instead of translating them from my native languages. I got better at conversations, but the trauma from the first two months had made me somewhat introverted, so I didn’t say much anyway, which is probably the reason why I struggled with pronunciation for long.
Six months went by and I was finally totally comfortable with doing somethings in Spanish. I started working more on my English, which wasn’t too bad, but since I was surrounded by a majority of Spanish-speaking people, I mostly left it aside. It took me two years to polish my English through reading, watching TV, listening to music, and, finally, conversing.
Despite feeling like I would not survive this new life, I made it through. Much better than I had thought I would in the rare moments when I give myself some credit. Truth is, I am very thankful for all the hard time I went through in high school. I am glad I left my cozy life in France. I am glad I passed for an idiot for most of my eighth grade, because I am now proudly quadrilingual, as fluent in English and Spanish as I am in French and Italian.
The Best Language Learning Strategy
Looking back to the two years I had in this bilingual school is quite hard now. I’m pretty sure that my brain got so saturated that it decided to leave memories out or it would short-circuit, so moments come back in hazy flashbacks:
- The two hours long Math-in-English homework sessions during which I literally was decoding a new language;
- The stuttering while trying to speak;
- The sweating when interacting with a teacher, sure that I was missing out on 51% of what I was being told;
- My classmates’ sneering and mockery because I was “too slow” or pronounced words wrong;
- The stressful trips to the supermarket (because my usual interactions were school-based) where people talk even faster;
- The zoning-out in front of the TV shows.
There are many more of those moments. They felt like torture. But now that I am able to use my quadrilinguality as an asset for work (I am a reporter in both French and English and have done translation work in most of my language combinations) I realize that I have used the best language learning strategy unknowingly.
I had top grades in middle school language classes, which have turned out to be close to useless.
I have used language apps, but they have turned out to be shallow and not cover language learning completely enough.
I have taken language classes with particular teachers, but they didn’t help me to develop any lasting ability to communicate.
Two words sum up the best language learning strategy: full immersion.
Take a Deep Breath and Dive
Full immersion is hard and scary, but it is the quickest way to learn a language effectively.
The primary purpose of learning a new language is being able to use it to communicate, either passively (reading books, watching movies, understanding songs, etc.) or actively (having conversations, interacting through emails, etc.).
For that, you don’t need to only learn vocabulary, like most language classes and language apps try to convince you. Handling a language correctly revolves around a web of skills, which include:
- constructing complicated sentences;
- understanding double meanings, inside jokes, inappropriate use of words, etc.;
- pronouncing words correctly;
- knowing and using idioms;
- getting used to the language’s melody (the way accents work, or the right way to cut syllables out);
- thinking in that language.
This last one is perhaps the most important if you want to achieve full fluidity in a language. The moment you start dreaming in your target language is the moment you know you are doing it right.
None of these skills can be developed if you only take an hour-long class every once in a while. Your brain needs to be put in proximity with your target language the most often possible to absorb and develop those skills, which is why full immersion works the best.
However, full immersion doesn’t necessarily mean you have to move to a country where your target language is spoken. It surely is quicker this way, because you are forced to use your target language all day, but it is totally possible to imitate this experience right from the comfort of your living room. It just requires a lot of discipline, a ton of work, and the right instructions.
Breaking Down the Strategy
What full immersion is all about is submitting yourself to an incoming stream of random information and interactions. Think about your daily life, when you might:
- make small talk at the grocery store
- hear commercials in the metro
- look up food recipes
- watch the news on TV
- read articles on blogs/news sites
- discuss something with your friends/neighbors
You need to be able to do all these things in your target language by the time you say that you “speak” that target language. And since our society loves the “fake it until you make it” saying, that is exactly what you should do.
Essentially, full immersion can be summed up to:
- Considering mistakes as your best friends;
- Basing your learning on a broad range of topics;
- Using music as an ally;
- Engaging in small talk and being curious;
- Measuring your comprehension using TV programs;
- Reading everything and anything;
- Stop hating writing.
Consider Mistakes Your Best Friends
Mistakes are your best friends, in part, because they’ll help you improve. They’re going to stick around so much that they’re the ones you’ll see the most during your learning. You would only slow yourself down if you hated them.
This is perhaps one of the biggest barriers to language learning. Because people are afraid of making mistakes and being laughed at, or looking like fools, they refuse to try it. What they miss is how normal making mistakes is. I am sorry to break to you, but we all make mistakes even in our native language! How mindblowing is this? By mistakes, I mean stuttering, mispronouncing, misconjugating, misusing words, misspelling, etc. If we already do those in a language which we’ve “mastered”, how can we expect things to be different when we learn a new one?
Beware the cliché Mistakes are okay! In fact, they’re even more than okay. Failing stings, but it's the best way to remember what not to do next time. When you make a wrong step, the memory of it remains vividly impressed on your brain. It’s a self-defense mechanism that allows you not to trip twice with the same stone.
In all honesty, this truth falters a little with language learning, because you have so much to do at the beginning that it is impossible for you to remember every mistake you make. However, there will always be a little bell ringing in the back of your head when you’re about to repeat the faux pas, and with time it will sink in until you don’t need to think about it anymore.
Base Your Learning on a Broad Range of Topics
After my father had gotten so focused on making me learn the Spanish numbers from one to a hundred when I was in the sixth grade, I had classified the matter as useless… until I had to go grocery shopping in the Dominican Republic. I was very happy I knew the numbers at that moment.
Another example: studying Science in the English language in the eighth grade was torture. Yet, it turned out to be a lifesaver when I went to pass the SAT with outstanding scores.
One more because three is the perfect number: at the age of fifteen, I played tennis and got coached by a Czech woman who only spoke English with me. Sometimes, I found it as painful to understand her instructions as it was to carry out the physical activity. Later, I converted this experience into an asset for my professional life and have found a job as a tennis reporter in English.
No knowledge is useless when it comes to learning a new language. In fact, the more diverse your learning sources are, the better. In addition to the actual “power” of having multi-topic capacities, it will make you feel much more at ease so that you are able to understand/cover different subjects, and your mind will develop connections more easily.
Because you never know what kind of words you might end up needing when using your target language, you should consider this: everything you know in your native language, you should learn in your target language if you aim at proficiency.
Wildlife, fashion, economy, Math or Science… All topics are valid.
Use Music as an Ally
Because music is a means of expression before being an art, it can also turn out to be a fantastic tool on your language-learning journey.
First, song lyrics are varied, so, once again, it’s all about diversifying your learning sources. Second, music prompts you to willfully learn words and sentences and to work with your target language in a new cadence. Because it is very hard to resist singing a good song, you’ll get used to repeating the verses over and over, helping your tongue, lips, and vocal chords get used to these new combinations of sounds.
Ballads, pop, or blues are a good place to start because they feature repeated choruses and are easier to follow, but even trap, rap, or any scrap is good.
Disclaimer: Don’t mind the foul words that might pop up. I’ll be honest with you: it’s good to learn them first, so you’ll have a clue when to be offended if someone calls you a bad name when you’re stuck in traffic.
Engage in Small Talk and Be Curious
When Sherlock Holmes works on a new case, he usually talks with someone related to the mystery to open up or narrow down his field of research. It doesn’t matter if it is the victim, someone related to them, or barely a second-hand witness. Sherlock gets them to talk. He asks about the case itself, but he most often pays attention to little bits and pieces of behavior and/or background story that don’t have a direct link with his investigation. And a majority of the time, those seemingly inconspicuous details play a great role in the outcome of the case.
Have you ever thought about the power of innocent everyday conversations? They root in variety. As a language learner, you should metaphorically put on your deerstalker, grab a virtual pipe, and get Target-Language-Speakers to talk.
It can be friends, family members, or just people whom you know to speak your target language. Open up your dialogue with “Hey, I’m curious about…” and ask a random question. This is like digging a gold mine for words, expressions, sentence construction, but most of all, accent use and speech melody. There is no better way to learn spoken language than by interacting with people who are not teachers and do not use an academic or formal version of the language.
By speaking with a woman who has children, you could not only learn vocabulary about family and childcare but also get used to hearing your target language in a patient, female voice. By asking questions to an elderly man, you might draw a deeper understanding of the weather or newspapers while getting used to chewed syllables or rarely used words.
People love to talk, and you have to love to listen if you want to add a new language to your CV.
Alongside this, improvised conversations are also the best time to improve your own speech and pronunciation. Since they happen in an informal setting, these dialogues will make you a little more at ease about any possible stuttering or momentary amnesia. Use the words and expressions you’ve learned to absorb them better and fully understand how to handle them. In this type of situation, remember that mistakes are okay.
Measure Your Comprehension by Using TV Programs
Having conversations with people is a tremendous way to practice your target language understanding, and it becomes easier as time goes by and your skills improve. Plus, you can always ask a person to slow their pace or repeat a sentence you haven’t fully understood.
With television, you can’t do that.
TV programs are the ultimate test to measure how well you’re doing at understanding your target language. People on TV, be they actors or news reporters, talk fast and talk a lot. They will not wait for you to pick up on what they’re saying. In addition, there is always some noise going on in movie scenes, which means that your comprehension does not only rely on grasping whole sentences, but rather a mix of second-guessing, lip-reading, and word-by-word understanding.
Most people who learn a new language start considering themselves fluent in that language when they manage to understand news broadcasts.
Read Everything and Anything
During my time at the bilingual school, the effort I put into learning English was considerably less than into learning Spanish (which was more urgent since I was living in a Spanish-speaking country). Consequently, I only improved my passive understanding in English, but not my active expressivity. In a conversation, I was twice as good at listening compared to talking.
After two years spent in the bilingual school, I switched to homeschool. I studied 10th grade with a Dominican program, which meant that my entire curriculum was in Spanish. This could have meant a catastrophic drop in my already limited skills in English.
However, since I had more time to spend in extracurricular activities, I picked up my abandoned hobby of reading (whose space has been filled with extra-homework since my arrival in the Dominican Republic) and I chose to read the original versions of books by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and JK Rowling. Consequently, my English improved dramatically.
Reading benefits you by polishing your rough knowledge of sentence formation. When you read, you have time to analyze the construction of the text, you can study it repeatedly, until you fully understand how word combinations work. For example, this is how I have learned the correct use of pronouns and prepositions, which often depends on “how right the sentence sounds” rather than on grammatical rules.
This useful reading doesn’t only include novels and fiction, or typical language cheat sheets. It is also magazines, blogs, newspapers, textbooks… Even food labels or user instructions. In fact, those last two turn out to be even better: their formal tone and specialized vocabulary make them harder to decipher, but who harder is better.
Stop Hating Writing
If you’re on bad terms with your handwriting (or the act of taking notes), this is the time for a truce. Forming thoughts on paper is a solid preparation for speaking them out loud. Taking notes is the best way to remember the information you learn: your brain will associate the motions with the words, which will make the memory more lasting.
During the first months of your language learning adventure, you should always, always, carry a notebook with you. It’s very important to write down what you need/want to remember. Copying a tricky word or rule several times is also a valid technique to strengthen your familiarity with it. I’m five years into English learning, but I still can’t read if I don’t have a sheet of paper and a pen next to me to jot down sentences and definitions. Then, I always keep them within reach when working.
If you write, you won’t forget. It’s as simple as that.
Let’s Sum It Up
Learning a new language requires a lot of work, time, and energy. However, when you know what it takes, and you know how to get on the job, you’re guaranteed success.
If your target language is a real goal, you can implement the best language learning strategy: full immersion.
It basically relies on:
- Considering mistakes your best friends: failing stings, but it will help you to remember.
- Basing your learning on a broad range of topics: everything you know in your native language, you should learn in your target language.
- Using music as an ally: music prompts you to willfully learn words and sentences, and to work with your target language in a new cadence.
- Engaging in small talk and being curious: this is like digging a gold mine for words, expressions, sentence construction, but most of all accent use and speech melody
- Measuring your comprehension using TV programs: while person-to-person interaction can be adapted to your pace, television broadcasts will force you to speed up your understanding.
- Reading everything and anything: when you read, you have time to analyze the construction of the text, you can study it on loop until you fully understand how word combinations work.
- Stop hating writing: your brain will associate the gesture to the words, which will make the memory more lasting