What's the best way to learn a language quickly?
May 27, 2013 1:16 PM   Subscribe

It's difficult to get a job in my field without knowing Spanish, and the grad programs I'll be applying to next year strongly prefer bilingual English/Spanish applicants. I'm searching for a job and I'd like to become conversationally proficient as quickly as possible. What methods have worked for you? A community college class? A private class? A private tutor? A particularly awesome website? I was once fluent in both French (which I spent years studying in highschool and then got practice working for a French company, who also provided a private tutor) and Portuguese (learned via an intensive university class, but lost once the class ended and I didn't keep using it). I pick up languages fairly easily, but I need a lot of practice time and a little bit of structure. I'm confident in my ability to learn the specialized jargon of my field once I'm comfortable speaking the language on an everyday basis. I'm looking at an intensive Summer class at the local community college, but I'd like other options as well.
posted by rhiannonstone to Education (22 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
Go abroad! Specifically, do a Spanish immersion program in a Spanish-speaking country. Friends of mine who have done these programs recommend this or this or this.
posted by decathecting at 1:24 PM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Duolingo.
posted by BenPens at 1:31 PM on May 27, 2013

Yes, definitely go abroad after you have learned the basics of Spanish. I knew enough when I went to a Spanish speaking country for two weeks, but being forced to use it in order to communicate improved my Spanish a ton. Unless you know of someone who is fluent and would seriously commit to not responding to any English you use, then practicing with them in supplementation to a class might be a low-cost alternative.
posted by tweedle at 1:33 PM on May 27, 2013

posted by Jacqueline at 1:34 PM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Berkeley? If you can't go abroad, try to find some volunteer work where you'll be interacting with Spanish speakers.
posted by yohko at 1:40 PM on May 27, 2013

Best answer: If you can not go abroad find a language exchange partner. Meet them twice a week (you can do fun activities together and still talk).
posted by travelwithcats at 1:45 PM on May 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

There is absolutely no substitute for immersion in that culture.
The reason is twofold:
1) When you need something, like a glass of water or a hardware store, you must pronounce the word or phrase in an understandable way or you won't get what you want.
2) That word or phrase is inextricably linked to the experience of drinking that water or finding that hardware store, as opposed to an easily forgotten page in a textbook.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 1:46 PM on May 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

What about Rosetta Stone?
posted by sevensnowflakes at 1:51 PM on May 27, 2013

If you've never studied Spanish at all, I'd suggest a semester of Spanish at a community college, and then going abroad to an immersion program. If you're US or Canada based, there are a lot of very affordable programs in Central and South America.
posted by Sara C. at 1:54 PM on May 27, 2013

I also know a few people who've done the immersion programs at Middlebury. Though I think this is more for people who are going to be living or working abroad, as an intensive springboard to being proficient in a language. I don't think just going to Middlebury would be enough to make you actually fluent in a long term sense unless you're prepared to do ongoing immersion-based study afterwards.
posted by Sara C. at 1:56 PM on May 27, 2013

Best answer: There really isn't a way to learn a language (or anything else) quickly. If it is going to take 600 hours of study to get to "Level X" in a language, there is no shortcut or "hack" around that. The issue is over how many days you are going to spread those hours? As someone who has learned several languages to a reasonable degree of proficiency, the key factor is going to be your motivation. It appears you have that.

I do not recommend classes unless you are studying at Middleton or the Defense Language Institute. In my experience, classes waste a lot of time making students speak before they have a sufficient vocabulary base. Also, I do not think that spending time listening to non-natives speakers is helpful.

Going abroad is nice if you can, but it is not a guarantee of anything. I have known expatriates who have lived in a country for over a decade and cannot do much more than ask where the bathroom is. A lot of people will tell you that they never learned a language because they never had the chance to go abroad - don't believe them. Immersion is absolutely not necessary to learn a language. I've learned languages to B2 proficiency without ever setting foot in a country where they are the common tongue. You cannot just go abroad and "pick up" a language. You have to put in the time.

You have an advantage in that you have already learned French and Portuguese to decent proficiency because (1) you probably already know how to study a language and (2) you are going to have a good base of grammar and vocabulary, more especially from your Portuguese. So, you have the potential to make pretty quick progress.

I have really come to be a fan of the Assimil series of language courses. You must get the audio along with the book. A half hour lesson a day really gets you somewhere after three months. Since you have a base in Portuguese, you might be able to do two or three lessons per day at the beginning. You will also acquire a very good vocabulary base and vocabulary is the most fundamental key to learning a language. (My grammar books are a half-inch thick but we all know how thick a dictionary is.) Assimil will give you good vocabulary that is widely used. Once you have the most common 2000-3000 words, you are in a very good place. As a supplement, I own this Spanish frequency dictionary and recommend it for targeting your vocabulary studies.

I place all of my vocabulary in Anki and drill on my phone constantly, especially whenever I have a few minutes of dead time such as waiting in line. Those small bites of time really add up over the course of a day. My target is an hour per day for language study, broken up over the day however I need it to be. I recommend that you do that.

I do not recommend that anyone use Rosetta Stone. It has great marketing but that is about it.
posted by Tanizaki at 2:05 PM on May 27, 2013 [19 favorites]

It's not cheap, but Berlitz language schools teach via full immersion in the classroom.
posted by COD at 2:05 PM on May 27, 2013

You can start right now. Turn on Spanish language radio and tv. Don't listen to anything else. You will start to pick it up while you are taking the other excellent advice given above.
posted by charlesminus at 2:20 PM on May 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I pick up languages fairly easily, but I need a lot of practice time and a little bit of structure.

It sounds like you already know your own learning style. Mine is similar; I can learn fairly quickly but only if the classes are intensive and take up most of the day, with lots of homework, so that the language is what I think of almost all the time. (Works great until the class ends and you have no reason to use it and forget most of it.) Going abroad is always good, of course, but I don't think it's necessary. So I think the intensive class you're looking at is probably best. I'd just add, I don't know if there is anything for Spanish like Ulpan for Hebrew, geared towards immigrants rather than just people who need a language class to graduate or who find it vaguely interesting. If there is, look for a class like that.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 2:21 PM on May 27, 2013

Best answer: I'm in the same boat - Spanish is very helpful in my work and I am once again focusing on learning it rapidly - which suggests that I have tried and failed before. Your other languages will help and hurt. I used to be fluent in Italian and sometimes remember those words before Spanish. But, it helps in getting over grammar hurdles.

I'm using a combination of audio: TV news, radio, and the BBC Mundo site. Substitute for your news sources of choice even if you don't understand much.

Audio learning: Notes in Spanish podcast and Michel Thomas.

Workbooks: Gramática de uso del Español, En Marcha! etc.

And holidays, of course. But not to Argentina, accent is quite different there.
posted by wingless_angel at 2:22 PM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Assuming limited financial resources (otherwise, yeah, going abroad is the super-best), here are a couple things I've found through being a student of a couple of languages (including Spanish) that you can do alone:

1) Read a novel in Spanish. I'd go with something that both interests you and has fairly straightforward language-- don't feel bad about reading a detective novel instead of Great Literature. Some of the things that often make Great Literature Great Literature are the same things that can be really difficult for an L2 reader-- abstract musing about feelings and thoughts, byzantine sentence structures, surrealism and ambiguity, etc. Reading is a different skill than the more immediate one of speaking/listening, but I find it really helps for getting sentence templates and vocab in your head. Begin reading with a dictionary at your side as soon as you can! It's ok if you're looking up literally every word. The point is to challenge and stretch yourself. I make all the words that I miss more than, like, twice into flashcards.

2) Read news articles from various Hispanophone countries on Google News. This will give you some nice germane vocab and, in my experience, is easier to read than fiction because it's written journalistically and tends towards use of two-dollar words that are more often than not actually cognates.

3) Listen to stuff-- podcasts, news, etc. Again, it's ok if it's way beyond your ability. The point is to let it wash over you so you can absorb inflections, pronunciations, etc.
posted by threeants at 2:24 PM on May 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It looks like your local library subscribes to Mango Languages web-based language courseware. You might try that on for size. Yay libraries.
posted by mumkin at 4:29 PM on May 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I went to Central america for a few months and learned more Spanish than I learned of French from two years of classes. You pretty much have to live somewhere that they speak it to learn it fluently.
posted by empath at 4:32 PM on May 27, 2013

Best answer: If the intensive course has a good teacher, then it's probably worth a try. Good to have a native speaker explain the grammar and answer any questions you have.

Personally, I find a multi-pronged attack with lots of daily repitition to be the most successful. Use lots of input methods and courses. Don't dabble, use them intentionally (and daily!), but discard them if you aren't retaining things. Multiple inputs of the same or similar stuff really makes it seem real to me, and has helped me work out how I learn best.

My latest beginner language was Italian. I learnt a fair amount in a month using this combination:

Pimsleur for pronouciation and rote learning of basic useful phrases. Great if you drive to work.
This Anki method for vocabulary (make your own cards using google images, you learn a lot just making up the cards).
TV programs with the language set to Italian, but with English subtitles on. (Not very efficient, but good for getting your ear used to the language, and can be done even when your feeling brain-dead from studying all day).

Other people have suggested jumping straight to novels or the news, but I personally find looking up every second word way too disheartening. Also, there isn't enough repetition for me to remember the things I've looked up.

I've learnt a language through immersion, and it's no silver bullet. It's also really, really exhausting if you're a complete beginner. Save immersion for after you've learnt a decent amount. In the mean time, language meetups and language swaps can help.
posted by kjs4 at 7:25 PM on May 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think Duolingo and Rosetta Stone are similar in their approach but one of the big differences is Duolingo is free. But it may not be at a high enough level for what you need now.

I don't think anyone suggested to you yet this Dept. of State program. It seems very comprehensive.

Some other possibilities:

BBC language courses

Michael Thomas


Defense Language Institute (I think GLOSS is probably the most appropriate program they offer)
posted by Dansaman at 9:47 PM on May 27, 2013 [5 favorites]

Concordia Language Villages? They have programs for adults.
posted by SisterHavana at 11:12 PM on May 27, 2013

Best answer: You might also want to check out Spanish Language & Usage on Stack Exchange. There are various resources mentioned there, for example in postings like this one.
posted by Dansaman at 12:52 PM on May 28, 2013

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