Declension mode
August 3, 2012 12:50 PM   Subscribe

How can I brush up my language skills, given I seem to have a difficulty with rote learning?

I took Spanish for GCSE (got an A), A-level (got a D, sadface), then two years later I took an intermediate Spanish module as part of my degree. In the classroom, I was brilliant at learning and remembering vocabulary, but my grammar skills really lacked. At university, I was the only person in my class who had learned Spanish at school, rather than a gap year in Costa Rica or Guatemala. (Much as I'd like to spend six months in Caracas accidentally mastering the subjunctive, I certainly couldn't afford it then and it's not currently viable as a grown-up...)

I can pick up a newspaper and read an article well enough (I can get a rough idea of one in French too, which I have never learned to speak but picked up vocab here and there) but in the ten years or so since, my listening, writing and speaking skills are shoddy. I think the issue is that anything 'interpretive', like vocabulary, comes easy to me, but anything involving rules, precision, and/or rote learning - times tables, scientific formule, the weird pronouns that you sometimes stick on Spanish verbs to indicate object as well as subject - doesn't appear to go in. (The only one that really did was the subjunctive, because I found it fascinating that there was a place in grammar for mood as well as tense.) It might be dyspraxia - I can quote you word for word magazine articles I read in my teens, but I have to ask my friends to tell me what my phone number is - or it might be that verbs are less sexy than words. Either way, despite years of learning, I can't say I 'speak Spanish' without it seeming fraudulent, and it would be nice to be able to go there when the chance arises and communicate and understand,

I was considering taking up Dutch or German, but although both are cousins of English there'd still be grammar involved. And it would be a shame if my Spanish rusted away. So how do you get behind learning something that's hard to take in? And if I wanted to improve my Spanish, where would I start? I'm not a beginner, of course, but with my grammatical skills being so patchy, would I be best just resitting the A-level all over again?
posted by mippy to Education (21 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Probably not the answer you're looking for, but my Spanish has gotten a ton better in the few weeks since I started working in a Mexican restaurant's kitchen. So if you need a new job....

But on the more doable side of things, if you have access to someone who is fluent in a language don't let that go to waste.
posted by theichibun at 1:08 PM on August 3, 2012

I don't. I also don't need a job - I cut and burn myself cooking all the time, I'd be a horrid waiter. I also don't know if Mexican restaurants generally tend to be Mexican-staffed here - a lot of service staff currently in London are Eastern European as that's the current big immigrant group, there's historically not been a lot of hispanic immigration here. (The last two Mexican restaurants I went to were in Fife and Estonia, neither known for their Latin populations.)

I know someone will suggest getting out to a Spanish-speaking country and practising, but taking a holiday over there isn't going to be viable for at least the next 18 months. And I'd like to regain/increase my fluency before I got there to make life easier.
posted by mippy at 1:48 PM on August 3, 2012

Seriously, the only way to improve speaking is to practice with native speakers.

Pay attention to:
* what they say
** vocabulary
** idioms
** sentence organization
* how they say it
** how do they convey the intentions behind the words
** pronunciation, naturally

You don't have to relocate to find native speakers willing to chat. Figure out where they like to hang out. Hell, start with finding one and go from there.
posted by trinity8-director at 2:26 PM on August 3, 2012

How about a Language Cafe, a one to one language swap in person or online, or a Spanish practice meetup group?
posted by penguin pie at 2:55 PM on August 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Not to threadsit, but a colleague of mine is learning Spanish, and I tried to speak to her and I found I couldn't remember the right verbs or endings to say what I wanted to say. For that reason I wasn't sure about jumping in with a native speaker. I'm sure there are quite a few in London, but I'm scared they'll all laugh at my crap declensions!
posted by mippy at 3:01 PM on August 3, 2012

I once learned Spanish with a guy who dropped English words in quite liberally for all the words he couldn't remember in Spanish, without any pause or apology. He sounded great, and I'm sure made himself understood.

Maybe you could work not so much on getting your grammar perfect, but on your willingness to make mistakes? Once your guard is down it's easier for your subconscious and your ear to pick up and internalise those patterns rather than learning them by rote.

Don't forget that by the time you met all those fancy gap year students they'd spent a year hidden away in South America, stumbling and having to make themselves understood despite their mistakes. Maybe you weren't worse at picking up grammar, you just had different experience, and then your confidence in that skill took a knock?

Only half the benefit of learning from native speakers is in listening to their use of language - the other half is in making mistakes, being vaguely aware of them and wondering how to put them right, and carrying on with your chat nonetheless.

I don't know if any of that is true for you, just throwing it out there based on my own language learning experiences.
posted by penguin pie at 3:40 PM on August 3, 2012

I think a basic introduction to grammar might be useful and not as dull or difficult as you might think. A good introduction to word classes, basic sentence structures and so forth will be enormously helpful. Most Western European languages buld upon Latin and Greek for word-construction and often also grammar - and my one-semester splattering of Latin with its heavy emphasis upon grammar did me a world of good (even if that makes me sound very Michael Gove - sorry). Just knowing the basic difference between an adjective and adverb will make things a lot easier.

And then it's about meeting native speakers and building your language skills as you interact with them. It's okay to make mistakes - I find native speakers tend to be very forgiving and will even enjoy explaining idioms etc.
posted by kariebookish at 4:00 PM on August 3, 2012

Any time I've been in a foreign country and tried to use the language, I think about speaking in terms of priorities. My first priority is to get the main words right. Subject, verb, adjectives - if those bits are there, I'll be understood by a sympathetic listener. I don't care about conjugation or verb tense or adjective agreement. "Ou etre cafe?" won't get me a lot of respect in a francophone country, but it'll get me further than not trying at all.

Once I've got the big chunks down, my next priority is connecting words. OK, so all French nouns have articles. I'd better put those in and make an educated guess about which one is appropriate.

Then I conjugate all my verbs in the present tense.

Then I start to make adjectives agree.

Then I worry about conjugating verbs in different tenses. Finally, I've got coherent, mostly correct other languages going on. Some stuff comes more easily for certain verbs, nouns, or adjectives than others, so I incorporate it all as I go. A lot of it becomes sort of second hat the more interaction with a native speaker I do. Definitely speak Spanish with your coworker, but don't be thrown if you can't understand her or she can't understand you. You're both making lots of mistakes that a native speaker would be able to contextualize and understand around.
posted by ChuraChura at 4:48 PM on August 3, 2012

Find Spanish-language podcasts--not lessons necessarily, but just people speaking Spanish--and listen to them all the time. RFI and Deutschewelle do the daily news for French/German learners, i.e. spoken slowly using simple vocab and grammatical constructions. Maybe there's something similar for Spanish. Or just leave Telemundo on in the background whenever you're at home... I think you can pick up a lot that way. Also, maybe try Rosetta Stone if you can find it cheap on Craigslist or somewhere (or if you're the torrent-pirating type, there's that too, but I'm not endorsing it).
posted by désoeuvrée at 7:20 PM on August 3, 2012

Oh, and if you could team up with a native Spanish speaker with terrible English skills for a kind of "swap" situation, as someone suggested, you really wouldn't have to feel embarrassed or worry about being laughed at, because that person would be just as bad at English as you are at Spanish. You could help each other.
posted by désoeuvrée at 7:25 PM on August 3, 2012

(Not that your Spanish skills are "terrible," of course! That came out wrong.)
posted by désoeuvrée at 7:26 PM on August 3, 2012

Seconding ChuraChura. In Dutch as in the other languages I've tried to learn, I use the steamroller approach. Just barge on through sentences with as much of the grammar and vocabulary as you actually know, and ignore the rest. This works amazingly well for French - I can have a conversation with a French speaker quite easily as soon as the bleeding eardrums and tears stop. Doesn't work as well in Dutch because the person you're talking to will switch to English as soon as they hear what you're doing to their language, but it's at this point that I pretend to only speak something that I know they won't speak, like Chinese or Icelandic.

All that aside, the best way to learn a language is to start a torrid affair with a native speaker who doesn't speak YOUR native language well (or at all). That's not a joke, and I think we can agree that it beats working in the kitchen at a Mexican restaurant.
posted by 1adam12 at 10:06 PM on August 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

A good introduction to word classes, basic sentence structures and so forth will be enormously helpful.

I have a degree in linguistics. It doesn't help me actually retaining the various verb endings even though I know what they're there for. It's actually memorizing the stuff that's hard - I could manage phonetics until I had to take an exam and didn't have the alphabet next to me, because I just couldn't memorise it in the same way that things like semantics went straight into my brain.
posted by mippy at 3:18 AM on August 4, 2012

Ha, a colleague of mine went out with a Russian guy, and all he learned from him was 'Konstantin, shut the fuck up, you're boring me.'
posted by mippy at 3:20 AM on August 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

And yes, this is even more frustrating for someone with experience of linguistics. I gravitated quickly toward semantics, conversation analysis, child language and pragmatics, because I seemed to get on with them a lot more than I did phonetics or lexical-functional grammar (I struggle to remember a lot of the latter after ten years...)
posted by mippy at 3:30 AM on August 4, 2012

Can't help but think you're overcomplicating this. Rope learning doesn't work for most people outside a structured course and even then it doesn't work unless you're at school and get a mark at the end of it. So not being good at that is irrelevant. And you have a foundation both in terms of vocabulary and grammar.

With this foundation you should be able to read, listen to, watch Spanish speaking media. Focus on things you'd generally read, listen to or watch in English and find them in Spanish. You learn through exposure to the language. If you can't go to Spanish speaking world for any length of time you find whatever Spanish is accessible to you. After immersing yourself in the language for a while you then find some conversation group and practice what you've learned, remembered or picked up.
posted by koahiatamadl at 6:12 AM on August 4, 2012

So you clearly want to progress beyond making yourself understood and get to the next level of speaking & writing well. To increase your fluency of recall and grammatical accuracy, you could try a number of things:

- Find out more about learning preferences and look for techniques that match your inclinations. Try the questionnaire linked to from here:
- Have you tried flashcards and spaced repetition? Mobile / online apps make this much easier. This might help you with the stuff that has to be learned no matter what.
- Listen and read regularly. Online newspapers, blogs, podcasts, news... find something that gets you interested, and do it at least every other day. (It's so much easier to access this stuff than it was a few years ago). When you're reading, note down new sentence structures... or pick an aspect of grammar that you will focus on this week and then pick out all the instances of it that you come across. Listening will help some of the formulations stick, especially if you listen to the same piece a few times.

Good luck! (I don't get to use my French and Spanish as often as I'd like... you have inspired me to make more of an effort!)
posted by skippy_gal at 7:59 AM on August 4, 2012

A few ideas:

* Try the Language Immersion extension for Chrome. As you surf the web, it replaces various words with their Spanish translations.

* Try letting go and not caring about precision or correctness. You say "it would be nice to be able to go there when the chance arises and communicate and understand". This is your goal - to be understood. You may sound like "I speaking Spanish but not very goodly" but you will be understood. I believe a main tenet of the Michel Thomas language approach is to NOT try to memorize, not in fact to make any effort to learn, but rather to simply practice, and you'll learn things correctly over time. It does take time, though.

* For that matter, see if your library has any of the Michel Thomas Spanish materials.

* Find ways to work production (speaking and writing) into your practice. You may feel like that's a bad idea without someone on hand to correct you, but I think the simple fact of practice will get you a lot of the way there. I've found lots of materials (Pimsleur, Living Language, and others) at my library that give me a chance to practice - audio CDs where they give the correct answer after the pause, so I get to check my answer, and workbooks with the answers in the back. Lately, when listening to podcasts, I've been trying to think of them as if they were "speak and repeat" audio - imagining myself repeating each sentence right after I hear it. That really helps my comprehension a lot, because I'm not just passively letting the language wash over me; I'm trying to figure it out well enough to repeat it back.

Really, try approaching your language learning as more of a practice - put less emphasis on getting better and more emphasis on just doing it. You might be surprised how much you retain when you just focus on putting in the time.

(Anecdata: I'm slogging through Jules Verne's Les Indes noires at the moment. I understand about 3/4 of what I'm reading, and I'm usually reading in bed, too lazy to look up words I don't understand. The book takes place in a coal mine - une houillère. I did not look that word up when I first came across it. Since it appeared two or three times a page, I figured it out by context. Since it continued to appear two or three times a page for the next 40 pages, I memorized the word even though I actively resisted cluttering up my brain with that particular word. (Seriously, how many times am I going to need to talk about coal mines in French?) Simple repetition can etch things into your brain whether you want them there or not.)
posted by kristi at 3:04 PM on August 4, 2012

The reason I say you need to find native speakers, and allow yourself to speak to them as part of the learning process, (rather than feeling like you can't speak to them unless your Spanish is perfect):

I lived for a year in Estonia, studying Estonian, which has extraordinarily hard grammar (14 noun cases, anyone?). Eventually I noticed a very clear pattern to learning new grammar:

1. Sit in class with a book, repeating it and trying to memorise. Feel like I'll never learn it by rote, let alone be able to use it spontaneously.

2. Start noticing other people (native speakers) using it, be slightly surprised that I had recognised it after thinking it hadn't stuck in my head.

3. Suddenly hear it pop out of my mouth spontaneously, without me thinking about it, much to my surprise.

There was a time lag between each stage, so by the time I started recognising something in other people's speech, we'd moved on to studying something else in class, and so on.
posted by penguin pie at 2:54 AM on August 5, 2012

AW, I'd love to learn Estonian - I visited in March and it is a lovely country - but the only lessons here are very expensive, plus, yes, they take after Finnish grammar-wise.
posted by mippy at 3:20 AM on August 6, 2012

It is lovely, and a lovely language. I thought I'd forgotten most of what I'd learnt, but went back last year for the first time in 12 years and within minutes of arriving was thrilled to find myself chatting with the taxi driver in Estonian :)

It certainly made learning Spanish seem like a breeze in comparison, but I've heard it said that Spanish starts easy and gets mind bogglingly hard later on (and I never got that far - I am Ms Present-Tense in Spanish), while Estonian is the other way round (not sure I got to the 'easy' bit of Estonian either, come to think of it!)
posted by penguin pie at 10:02 AM on August 6, 2012

« Older Nigeria   |   today is Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.