Learning Languages
December 20, 2003 3:22 PM   Subscribe

Have any native English speakers here had to learn a foreign language (especially Spanish) for work, etc. in a relatively short amount of time? How did you do it? Any recommendations for books/classes/training programs? [more inside]

My wife and I have been discussing taking classes or something to learn Spanish for a while now. Both of us had the traditional foreign language classes in high school (me German, her French) but neither of us remember enough to carry on even the most basic conversation in either language. I've been getting politically active in my town, and the hispanic constituency is growing tremendously here. I really would like to learn enough to be able to communicate with my neighbors that don't speak English.

Also, our neighbors sent us this Christmas card. Can someone translate the handwritten part? I tried babelfish but it was stumbling on parts of this. I get the main jist of it, but some parts are eluding me.
posted by AstroGuy to Education (27 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Christmas card:
"may the almighty be born this christmas in your hearts,
is the wish of those who share friendship and good desires..."
posted by signal at 3:36 PM on December 20, 2003

shouldn't that be "deseos" ?

I use some Spanish at work, and one of my bosses has been doing a once-weekly, lunchtime, oral Spanish class with lots of written homework for grammar practice for 2 years now. She's improved a lot, considering she never took it in school. I think usage is the key--if you can stay in practice and have opportunity to use it and get better, any method would work.
posted by amberglow at 4:28 PM on December 20, 2003

Response by poster: Signal: Thanks! I was getting hung up on "deceos". I take it that is either misspelled or an alternate spelling of "deseos". This place is really cool, Matt.
posted by AstroGuy at 4:28 PM on December 20, 2003

Response by poster: amberglow: Didn't see your comment as I was commenting on the spelling of that word. Yeah, I know, you really need to use it to burn in into the brain cells. I'm sure I'll get the chance, with several of my neighbors on the block being hispanic. (One big family--four sisters and their husbands all live on the block. The husbands and kids are bilingual, and do the translating for us, but the sisters only speak Spanish). I was hoping to start studying and trying it out on my neighbors, who hopefully will correct me when I say something stupid.
posted by AstroGuy at 4:35 PM on December 20, 2003

they will Astro...or else the kids will while they're giggling : >

It also is worth money nowadays--you can parlay it into extra bucks if it's helpful for work. (and spanish is only going to be more and more useful in the future here)
posted by amberglow at 4:39 PM on December 20, 2003

Yeah, it should be "deseos" and "nazca". And I agree with amberglow that the only way to learn another language is by living it. A friend of mine who was learning spanish spent like a month in Antigua, Guatemala, taking courses and getting drunk with the locals. Maybe you should look into something like that?
posted by signal at 4:50 PM on December 20, 2003

I started taking Mandarin this spring, feeling that I needed something new to think about/in... Some thoughts:

-Find a language exchange partner: someone who can teach you their native language in exchange for help in English. Works best if you have *some* start in what you're trying to learn

-Look into adult continuing education classes. Usually taught by native speakers and taken only by people who have a genuine interest in learning, they move at a good pace and won't break the bank.

-Don't go off trying to read novels in a 2nd language yet, but translate everything you see. I picked up a lot of new words by looking up things I came across on food labels, in the subway, or on bulletins at school. Taking on small selections in a wide variety of topics added a lot of everyday words I wouldn't normally consider.
posted by whatzit at 4:52 PM on December 20, 2003

The Pimsleur audio-only series are quite excellent, in my experience (one of the few useable resources for Korean, for example, and they exist for a whole range of languages), including a two (or 3?) level Spanish course.

They are also very expensive, but can be found on your favorite peer to peer network if you really cannot afford them. Not to encourage that sort of thing, of course.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:23 PM on December 20, 2003

A friend of mine is listening "Learn Spanish" tapes that use classic stories (i.e. Goldilocks and the Three Bears). I have been looking for such a tape. I think he said it was a "kids" tape. I would probably not be considered by most folks as a kid, but I think that would be a good way for me to sharpen my casual Spanish. Anybody heard of such a thing?
posted by jaronson at 6:26 PM on December 20, 2003

Oops. Didn't close a tag there.
posted by jaronson at 6:28 PM on December 20, 2003

Also, don't forget the wealth of spanish language television available here in the US, primarily Univision and Telemundo. The main consumers are mexican-americans but the shows come from all over latin america and spain.

Some of the game shows are goofy enough that you know whats going on anyways. Its a good chance to pick up colloquialisms and exclamations.

And the soap operas speak in a universal language of love, betrayal, jealousy and the discovery of long-lost children.
posted by vacapinta at 6:44 PM on December 20, 2003

I started learning French at 29, and four years later have solid but not fluent abilities. In my opinion, it's all about immersion. Listen to the radio: go to sleep to it, wake up to it, put it on in the background when you're doing chores. Read the news in English, then read it in Spanish: you'll understand more, since the stories will cover the same topics. Like was said above: small bites have a longer-lasting impact than slogging through large works. Read newspapers online. Subscribe to a few Spanish-language daily emails covering topics which interest you (I did this, in part, by starting the first Mac OS X French-language email list). Log on to some IRC channels and watch the chat scroll by. Eavesdrop on children. Rent movies with English subtitles. Talk to yourself: think about what you would say at an given moment if someone else were around, or narrate what you're doing. "Now I am going to the refrigerator. Next I will open a beer. Beer is good..." Get the best language tapes or CDs. These are at least tapes which don't have pauses or beeps during which you're supposed to repeat the words: they're fast, rich, conversational have many accents, natural situations, are not "business"- or "student"-oriented. Even better, get CDs, rip them to MP3, and then play them on shuffle. You'll get a better mastery of the material, and won't be stimulated by artificial cues which are due to the order of the lessons.
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:53 PM on December 20, 2003

I had two weeks to learn enough French to teach stroppy French teenagers piano and recorder and flute and theory.. Luckily I was able to be in France for those two weeks to immerse myself. I picked a grammar book with exercises and I followed it religiously, and at the same time I kept a notebook of English words that I suddenly, in the course of the day, realised I would want to know. I looked them up later and added them to my own home-made vocabulary drills.

I ended up staying in France two years, and I laugh now at my first efforts, but I managed to get together enough to have some credibility over the students.
posted by suleikacasilda at 7:57 PM on December 20, 2003

After 7 years of french in school, I hated it and dropped the first chance I had. Couldn't put together a sentence and thought languages and I just didn't get along. Then, I took classes at Berlizt!. Two students, one teacher, no english spoken. Expensive. but effective.
posted by dobbs at 8:36 PM on December 20, 2003

AstroGuy: Mo Nickels is right about the immersion. For four years or so I taught English at one school and Portuguese at another. The most successful method was "total immersion": 8 hours a day, with the same tutor, for three weeks, produced better results than 3 years with 3 hours a week.

The school was Cambridge School and their method (which you learn in six months) is basically to always speak in the language you want to learn and not to worry about grammar. Only being understood. So we actually taught mistakes.

My advice is get someone to come to your house for a month, every day, 8 hours a day, and speak nothing but the language you want to learn. No reading, no rules - just conversation.

It sounds awful but I assure you, even with people with no talent for languages, it works.

The first lesson, just to give you an idea, is to say loudly and repeatedly "This is an ashtray" (Well, this is Europe...) and then to go over to where the learner is sitted and ask "Is that an ashtray?"; rush back to where you were and answer, "Yes, this is an ashtray!". You do this several times, then you push the ashtray towards him and ask the pupil: "Is that an ashtray?". Then you ridiculously rush over again, making absurd nodding gestures with your head, and say in a joyous musical-comedy voice: "Yes, this is an ashtray!"

You can guess how you proceed to "What is this?" and "That is an ashtray." Repetition and immersion are the key.

Go for it! Never forget that the mere effort to communicate is 90% of the process. Once you start speaking to native speakers, they'll happily put you right. And there the real learning begins.

Good luck!
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:02 PM on December 20, 2003

For what it's worth, dobbs, Berlitz is famous in Korea amongst the EFL teaching commmunity as being damn near the worst place to work. Their 'method' is one that's been discounted to some degree by the most recent research and thinking in language teaching methods. Regardless, a 2:1 teacher to student ratio pretty much guarantees results, so the expense may be worthwhile....
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:13 PM on December 20, 2003

I would second (or third) those who say that the key to a language is conversation. I studied Italian very seriously at school, and am still ok at it, but it is much easier for me to get back into conversation than it is to pick up a novel and deal properly with it.

But I would recommend also picking up Spanish papers, if you're into news, partially because most Romance language papers use very straightforward language--short sentences and sentence fragments.

When I first told an Italian (a chef) I wanted to learn the language. he said "Get a dictionary and a newpaper. Come back tomorrow and we'll only speak Italian." I did, and though I didn't say very much, it got me started.
posted by lackutrol at 12:13 AM on December 21, 2003 [1 favorite]

Continual practice and repetition are more important than anything, I would have said. Think of how you would say something (common phrases, simple sentences, or whatever) in the language you are learning. Do it all day and every day. You're fortunate in that Spanish is a language which is easy to access, so you can use newspapers, magazines, websites, TV shows, films etc. in that language for practice. It may be helpful to watch Spanish language films with English subtitles so you can learn the spoken language at your own pace.

People think in different ways; when I was learning Nepali this autumn, it was very important for me to get into the grammar of the language to understand the fundamental building blocks for putting things together, before learning a lot of vocabulary to plug into it. Some people just seem to be 'grammar people' for whom this kind of thing is important, and others seem to be able to do without it.
(Partly this may also be a function of how different the language is from your native tongue).
posted by plep at 5:19 AM on December 21, 2003

date someone that speaks spanish (the biggest danger is that they teach you cute baby talk and you don't realise til people start laughing).

is work giving you a test, or are they sending you somewhere? if they're sending you somewhere then you'll probably learn more on your first day there than in a whole pile of lessons. if work is going to pay for lessons perhaps you could persuade them to send you a week early to wherever you're going and pay for lessons there? if it's s america you can probably pay for the accomodation with the money you save on cheaper lessons (unless they're one of those companies that sends everyone to the effing hilton/marriot) - a week of living in the country, with lessons during the day and (hopefully) some kind of social life outside would probablt be more than enough.

also, if it's for work, is it technical? a lot of technical stuff is in english anyway (although you may not realise through the accents - i had a hell of a time working out that "faz-ah-dee" was "facade" (a gof design pattern)), so maybe it's more for the bonding - again that helps with the week early case, since having some beers in advance with the people you'll be working with would probably help.

and learn the appropriate accent if possible (ie avoid european spanish if you're going to s america - it's easier to and you don't sound quite so stupid).

oh, and learning about about the culture will probably help you as much as learning the language. don't be standoffish. you can't be friendly enough. say hello to everyone, smile a lot, shake hands, ask how the kids are, talk even if you don't know the words. just try. don't be offended by politically incorrect behaviour and stares (or at least, grin and bear it). remember people's names. it counts for a lot.

que tengas suerte, huevon.
posted by andrew cooke at 5:19 AM on December 21, 2003

ps oh, and a habit i developed was translating everything i was thinking in my head. whatever i saw as i walked around. number plates on cars. street signs. advertising slogans (particularly difficult if you want to translate the joke/twist). and practise sentences with "esa cosa que..." so that you can keep going when you don't have the vocabulary.

when you're there - develop a think skin and plough on in hideous spanish even when people start answering in english. eventually they'll give up and speak spanish back.

it takes a lot of time and you feel really stupid, but in the end you get there and it really is something to be - even/particularly in a mixed environment - the gringo thet people speak spanish with. it's worth the effort.
posted by andrew cooke at 5:27 AM on December 21, 2003

pps on the subtitles thing - watch the films for the spanish, but don't try to work backwards from the english to understand the spanish. they paraphrase and rearrange the text too much (imho). (on the other hand, there's a kind of perverse feel-good factor in that you quite soon start to pick up where the text is wrong/incomplete, which is rewarding because you realise that you are really understanding some of the spoken words).

and on grammar - spanish has the subjunctive, which just doesn't exist in english (although there's a whiff of it in some americanisms). my strong advice is ignore it. you can learn it later. it'll waste too much time if you try to deal with it now, and people will still understand you.
posted by andrew cooke at 5:40 AM on December 21, 2003

(i'll shut up in a minute, promise). the mis-spellings in the xmas card are really common. people don't learn to spell like you have to english because you can write down words directly from the way they sound. unfortunately s/z/ce are ambiguous (in at least some accents) as are b/v (and maybe j/ll/y). so the best thing to do is read the text aloud and translate what you hear, rather than relying on the exact spelling. also, over-the-top convoluted text in cards and letters is the norm (at least in chile), so that's culturally equivalent to me writing "best wishes". i tend to ignore this when writing (it's beyond me) and, if it's a formal letter, instead ask forgiveness at the end for being too direct, explaining that it is the normal style for me (eg in job application letters - obviously i don't apply for positions that include writing letters as part of the job description ;o).
posted by andrew cooke at 5:50 AM on December 21, 2003

excellent advice, andrew--and I second the parts about spanish using many words to say the same thing we do in few, and about conversation--you can be understood and hold conversations about everything without using the exact verb tense or form all the time. I've found native spanish speakers to be far more precise in their use of language generally, but very helpful and understanding of those of us who don't. (We use far fewer words in daily life and make many words do multiple duty, so we're used to a different usage)
posted by amberglow at 8:23 AM on December 21, 2003

When I learned Romanian I had the benefit of already living in the country. There is nothing like requiring a new language to be able to buy food to make you learn it quickly. We took lessons in the morning, five days a week for a few hours each day. Our class was me and my boyfriend and a woman who spoke only French, not very good English. Our teacher spoke Romanian, Hungarian, French, and English pretty much in that order, so I learned some French by the end of it as well. We had conversations sort of like Miguel describes and then once we left class we pretty much had to use what we learned immediately in order to shop in the markets. It helped that the people in the markets could often be real fuckers and wouldn't give us what we asked for unless we got the number *and* the gender of the vegetable right. I swear sometimes I learned Romanian just to spite the toothless guy who taunted me because I couldn't ask for carrots correctly. We also made up a lot of dumb nonsense songs using the Romanian we did know, just to help us practice. A friend I know stuck post-its all over his house with the names for everything in Japanese on them.

You may want to use some of the methods described here as well and spending more time frequenting places where the Spanish speakers hang out and trying to interact with them in sort of everyday ways [shop at the bodegas, ask for directions, ask people what time it is, etc]. and, as andrew says, plow through it even when people give you a hard time. It's not super easy going, but well worth it once you finally can sit in a room with a bunch of Spanish [or Romanian] speakers talking their own language and realize you're not translating everything in your head, you just understand people.
posted by jessamyn at 9:15 AM on December 21, 2003

The Pimsleur audio-only series are quite excellent, in my experience (one of the few useable resources for Korean, for example, and they exist for a whole range of languages), including a two (or 3?) level Spanish course.

Barnes and Noble has a beginning Pimsleur set for only $12 online, $20 in stores.
posted by drezdn at 10:38 AM on December 21, 2003

Response by poster: Thank you all for your comments and suggestions. I really didn't expect this many! A lot to think about.

andrew cooke: dating someone that speaks Spanish would probably be pretty fun but I don't think my wife would like that too much. I'll ask her and let you know how that turns out. Besides, that won't help her learn unless she finds a Spanish-speaking boyfriend, and I'm the jealous type.
posted by AstroGuy at 4:54 PM on December 21, 2003

I wish there was a way to give brownie points to a certain post.. but if there was, Mo Nickels would just be getting a vote from me, excellent advice on the immersion.. I need to try some of those things myself.

andrew cooke said: watch [..] films for [..] spanish, but don't try to work backwards from the english to understand the spanish. they [..] rearrange the text too much (imho). [..] there's a kind of perverse feel-good factor in that you [..] start to pick up where the text is wrong/incomplete

Sorry for totally paraphrasing you, but you're on the money. I've been on/off learning French for 11 years (and I still really suck), but just a couple of years ago I got to the point where I could do this.. I was like.. 'wow! i knew what they said despite reading the (incorrect) subtitles'. For someone who is particularly bad at the listening aspect of learning a language, this is a big deal, and makes it all worthwhile! :-)

I do consider some of these subtitle fallacies to be necessary, however. There are a lot of points where language-specific inflections and tones say a lot more than a literal translation can.. so it needs to be expanded upon in the text.
posted by wackybrit at 5:20 PM on December 21, 2003

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