Learning Spanish
July 19, 2004 5:56 PM   Subscribe

Is it really possible to learn a language as an adult? I am trying very hard to learn to speak Spanish, but I feel like I'm making almost no progress. Has anyone had any success? If so, how did you do it?
posted by LittleMissCranky to Education (31 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The secret is to study with a member of the opposite sex to whom you are very much attracted. Keeps you interested, sharpens the memory, motivates you. I can vouch for it.
posted by Faze at 6:20 PM on July 19, 2004

Total immersion would be the way to go. If you get any Spanish channels, limit your viewing to them. Visit Spanish websites for news...etc
posted by Gyan at 6:28 PM on July 19, 2004

My mother learned passable Dutch (i.e. she wouldn't have been afraid of getting lost in a city and having to rely on Dutch speakers' assistance) as an adult by using standard textbooks, but also by reading the Dutch versions of some books that she knew well in English, and a Bible that had two parallel columns, one in English and one in Dutch.

The linguistic connections between Spanish and English should make such a process a bit easier, than when used for a non-romance language.
posted by Dreama at 6:29 PM on July 19, 2004

Try immersion in a small class. I thought I didn't have a head for languages (can't say a single sentence in french though I took it for 6 years in grade school). Then I took a Spanish course at Berlitz and was amazed at how much easier it was. In 6 weeks or so I could speak it far better than I ever could french.
posted by dobbs at 6:41 PM on July 19, 2004

A friend of mine is Spain right now (a Canadian who speaks English and a little German) and through said friend I'd have to second the total immersion factor as a key element in learning another language as an adult. Being in Spain, of course, helps, but many people, at least initially, speak English to him. He kindly asks that they converse in Spanish for his benefit. It has done wonders.

A university TA of mine learnt French as an adult (for degree purposes) by flying to France with no plans and nothing but ID, a credit card, and some clothes.

However, if total or deep immersion isn't a possiblity then the above really won't help.

Good luck.
posted by juiceCake at 6:41 PM on July 19, 2004

Immersion, yup, and don't be passive about it. I'm relearning Spanish and have parents who are fluent (damn their English-only house rules!), so I have the advantages of being very familiar with the sound/cadence of it. Plus, I have someone I can practice with -- that's my biggest help right there. Try to speak with a native speaker on a regular basis. Especially if you're trying to pickup the specific idioms/accent of a certain region.

But, I don't see my folks every day. So, aside from Gyan's suggestions, I also make it a point to try to vocalize things in Spanish all the time -- things I see around the house, stuff I'm doing, etc.

I always read aloud, usually stuff that is just a bit beyond my current vocab/grammar level - you can pickup a lot in context. Overall, a big part of learning a language is hearing and speaking it - silently studying is not enough.
posted by Sangre Azul at 6:51 PM on July 19, 2004

Faze: or, someone of the same sex.

Try to force yourself to think in the language. Much better, go to the country (or for Spanish, a Hispanic part of town) for a month.
posted by gramcracker at 6:58 PM on July 19, 2004

Like others have mentioned immersion is the best way.

Also try watching DVD’s that have an audio track in the language you wish to learn. Watching Das Boot, Wings of Desire, Run Lola Run, and Killer Condoms did wonders for my vocabulary before I went to Germany last spring.
posted by Tenuki at 7:00 PM on July 19, 2004

The other thing is just to be patient. You should expect it to take a long time to learn to speak Spanish like a fluent adult.

For all the talk about how it's easier for kids to learn another language, it still takes them a loooong time -- we experience it otherwise only because our expectations for their fluency are very low. It wouldn't take long for you to attain a three-year-old's fluency in Spanish, either (and it takes them three years!).

In your own native language, it takes at least ten, twelve, or more years to knock all the rough edges off of language and get up to full adult fluency. It's going to take you a long time to get there no matter what you do, and that's okay.

And watch movies you know and love on Univision / Telemundo. Warner Bros. cartoons are especially good (Little John riding by Daffy as Robin Hood cracks me up in any language... siiiii, como noooooo), as Star Trek: the Motion Picture, with Senor Espock. I'd say to watch Sabado Gigante and similar too, but I don't think you need to speak any language to get what's going on there.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:12 PM on July 19, 2004

If you live in a lazrge-ish city, read a Spanish language newspaper. You can fold it up, mark the words that are new. This won't help you speak Spanish necessarily, but if you keep at it, you will learn to read Spanish as Spanish (and not as a code to be translated back into English).
posted by philfromhavelock at 7:19 PM on July 19, 2004

I went to Cuernavaca MX for a month and was amazed by how much I learned in immersion classes at a school down there. I also lived with a Mexican family. Among the Canadian/USian/European students we'd go out for Spanish only happy hour.

It also zapped right back out of my memory when I returned. I tried to stay with it by watching Spanish TV stations and reading noticias but not so much any more.
posted by birdherder at 7:34 PM on July 19, 2004

I'm currently at what we affectionately call French Camp (great for Canadian students/citizens who want to learn French) and thoroughly recommend the immersion experience.

If possible, though, try to find an immersion program where you stay with a host family or native speakers rather than English-speaking roommates. At this particular French Camp, I have four very wonderful thoroughly anglo roommates and it's just too cumbersome to speak French all of the time (as we are supposed to). If I were with a family, though, I think my French would be much better.
posted by lumiere at 7:40 PM on July 19, 2004

Teaching languages to adults is the purpose of the Defense Language Institute, so it's possible. As others have noted, immersion is very effective. (When I was at DLI, the teachers of my section spoke no English after the first six weeks of a 47 week program.) Classes were held 5 days a week, 6 hours a day. The top people in my class went on to man voice intercept stations and -- in one case -- the White House hotline to the USSR, so we learned the languages well.
posted by joaquim at 7:58 PM on July 19, 2004

I just spent 3 months in Mexico and Guatemala. It IS possible, but progress can feel very slow when you hit various plateaus. If you get a chance to study in Mexico, I would recommend finding a language school in Guanajuato or Oaxaca, or Antigua in Guatemala.
posted by rushmc at 9:23 PM on July 19, 2004

If you have never learned a second language before, it may help to find some material ABOUT learning a new language. Especially if your class makes the assy assumption that you already know what its all about. I suffered horribly in a Volkshochschule in German, trying to learn German. I was clueless about the broad picture, and it took me most of the first class to get my head around it. I did not know what structure/s to use, to file the knowledge into my mind. For me, this was a very frustrating thing! I did terribly at the task.
posted by Goofyy at 9:25 PM on July 19, 2004

I studied French quite a bit and didnt *think* I knew it. Then I went to Paris for a while and started using it but not without feeling awkward, like i was always thinking too hard about the words.
Then one day, I had trouble getting into the Metro even though I was convinced I had a valid ticket. So, I went over and started arguing with the cashier about it. I got so passionate that I just started blabbering in French, like it all just came pouring out - I went from thinking *about* it to just thinking it. I think thats the transition many people are looking for and I'm afraid its most easily available, as so many other have already pointed out, in an environment where you are immersed in it.
posted by vacapinta at 9:45 PM on July 19, 2004

Immersion is good, especially after you have some knowledge of the language; but for that initial knowledge, look at what your ideal learning style is. Having been told my entire life that a non-technical reading-comprehension/conversational approach (the sort used in most textbooks for general audiences) was best, I was somewhat surprised to learn that it did nothing for me while a highly technical, old-fashioned linguistic approach (doing rote declensions and conjugations, or, in the case of Welsh, studying the historical underpinnings of the mutation system and understanding the word order of the language from the perspective of a descriptive linguist) served me much better. It didn't make me fluent, but it got me to the point where fluency would have largely been a matter of practice and vocabulary.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 10:07 PM on July 19, 2004

Interesting that this should come up -- I'm just now teaching myself Spanish, following the regime that a professor I had many years ago mentioned to me offhand (he spoke 15+ languages and was learning Arabic to read the Koran).


-- Two weeks of doing nothing but listening to and reading the language.
-- Two weeks of studying verbs.
-- Two weeks of vocabulary/everything else.

The very hardest part is the first two weeks. It takes phenomenal concentration to listen and read without understanding. It takes 100% effort; don't put the language on while you do the dishes and expect to get anything at all. Close your eyes (if listening) and try to picture every word, hear every cadence, make guesses, listen for words that repeat a lot.

The idea is that, over time, the rhythms and patterns of the language get deep into your system. The most common words, you've heard 1,000 times, and they're just itching to be learned. It is amazing how powerfully you want to tear open that dictionary and learn what llorado or sopungo or mujer mean.

Right now I'm listening to a CD of the Mexican poet Jaime Sabines reading his own poems. I have the poems in his booklet. Sometimes I read along as he speaks, sometimes I just listen. I listen over and over and over. The words are becoming familiar to me, like a familiar song by a singer who slurs his words. Then, when you read the lyrics once -- Bingo! -- you never forget them.

The verbs -- get a copy of 501 Spanish Verbs. I doesn't just list the verbs and all their declensions; it has quizzes and good explanations.

Vocab, whatever. Be creative.

It's the first two weeks that get the job done. It's a fairly amazing experience.
posted by argybarg at 11:47 PM on July 19, 2004 [4 favorites]

Have you ever learned any second language? I think one of the reasons to make a second language mandatory for kids is that you internalize the process of assimilating new languages, in addition to learning some of whichever particular language you selected. It's easier to learn your 3rd language than your 2nd one. And your 5th is immeasurably easier to learn than your 3rd. If you reach your 30s without ever hving learned the skill of assimilating languages, never in fact haing learned *any* other language, it can be really hard to get going, but it's still worth it.

Check out the Middlebury College immersion program if you're really serious.
posted by scarabic at 11:59 PM on July 19, 2004

Any useful suggestion I might have has been said: go to a Spanish speaking country. If not possible, watch as much Spanish TV and as many DVDs with Spanish soundtracks as you can. Read your favorite books, the ones you've read a million times and know every line of, in Spanish. (I have "Pride and Prejudice" in French and Italian, for example, though I also find simple page-turner thrillers work well and have a ton of translated Stephen King. (But he needs new translators: some of those idioms he uses were transmogrified laughably wrongly. At one point in the French "Stand," characters that are supposed to be eating animal crackers chow down on dog biscuits instead.))

Also, I swear by red wine in situations where you are called upon to try to speak and are nervous. The vino helps loosen the tongue and cut back some of those inhibitions about sounding dumb. I have started evenings mute, afraid to embarass myself, and ended up arguing heatedly.

Greatest moment: after a week in Paris that started with me having forgotten how to say the most basic phrases, the cabbie driving me to the airport asked "what part of France are you from?" Woo-hoo!
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:17 AM on July 20, 2004

I learned to speak passable Romanian in about a month of intensive classes, several hours a day, with a teacher who pretty much spoke only Romanian to us unless we were really stuck. It also helped that I lived in Romania in a city where most of the food was sold in open markets so I was risking starvation if I couldn't get at least some of it right [at least that's what I told myself]. I lived there for a year and never got to the point where I felt like I could express all my thoughts clearly, but I could chit-chat with people on the train, buy my food, and answer the phone. Me and my partner spoke English at home, however, and I don't think this helped. When we would go out, it was strange because he became a much better language speaker than me, but couldn't understand the language half as well. So when we'd talk to people I'd do the listening and he'd often do the speaking. We'd make up little songs using Romanian words set to pop songs we could remember and even though they were totally gibberish in Romanian, it helped us remember what the specific words meant, plus it was more fun than sitting in class.

Learning a new language can certainly make your brain hurt. I tried to forge ahead even when people made fun of me, insisted on speaking English to me, and would pretend not to understand me in the market. Part of it is not waiting to speak until you have textbook-perfect vocab and diction, just talk in Spanish all the time [preferably with a native speaker accomplice] and worry more about getting your message across than perfect pronunciation. One of the things that I think made french class in high school suck so much is that I could never get the accents straight when I was writing and as a result did poorly even though I could speak and read okay. If you're aiming to be able to communicate with other Spanish speakers, focus on speaking and listening and develop a sense of humor about sounding funny.
posted by jessamyn at 5:48 AM on July 20, 2004

it's certainly possible, even if you were completely useless at that kind of thing at school, because i've done it. i'm nowhere near perfect and have a strong accent, but i'm perfectly capable of living in a spanish speaking country, working in that language, etc.

however, i learnt by (1) living for 3 months with the mother and grand-mother of my partner, with neither of them speaking english (at that time i was speaking english with her) (2) speaking a mixture of english and spanish at home for the next 6 or 7 years while living in the uk.

the trouble is that you reach a certain point where your mistakes are not enough to hinder communication, and people who know you don't correct you any more, and you stop learning. i know i need to read in spanish to improve further, but most books i want to read are published only in english, and even when they aren't, i get nowhere near the same pleasure from reading in spanish, because it's so much more laborious...
posted by andrew cooke at 6:24 AM on July 20, 2004

I'm a little skeptical of argybarg's post. Any supporting evidence for this? Links or such.
posted by pissfactory at 7:10 AM on July 20, 2004

I've done a couple linguistics courses that addressed this issue. The (tentative) verdict so far is that adult learners can achieve native-level proficiency--with a lot of immersion--except in the area of pronunciation. Hardly anyone ever loses their accent.

So for me, the important thing is to not get obsessive about my pronunciation, and focus on the things that I can improve at.
posted by Jeanne at 7:38 AM on July 20, 2004

I'm a little skeptical of argybarg's post. Any supporting evidence for this?

Are you calling argybarg a liar? Obviously it worked for him. I'm skeptical of it as a general technique; it seems pointless to force yourself to "listen and read without understanding." What's wrong with looking words up and actually understanding what you hear and read? But different things work for different people. Certainly immersion is the key to true fluency; I've studied a lot of languages, but the only ones I can actually speak I've used on a daily basis with native speakers. (And yes, the romance factor can definitely help.)
posted by languagehat at 7:57 AM on July 20, 2004


No, no evidence. It's not an Official Methodology, just something that worked for someone else and (so far) is working for me. I'd file it under Experimental.

The interesting thing that happens when you're listening/reading is that your mind, left without its usual meaning-making skills, instead studies the features of the text: oh, I've seen that word before; that's a rhyme?; the verbs seem to be happening about here; a lot of words seem to end that way; you roll the r's there but not there. You wind up gathering for yourself a lot of details of orthography, grammar and conventions (not to mention pronunciation) without identifying them explicitly as rules. You understand them in the terms that make sense to you.

I'd argue that it's the explicit-rule format that drives a lot of people from a rich understanding of second languages; it is, after all, not how we understand our own language. (Rules come much later.)

I know we can't go back to the unconscious-absorption mode of first language acquisition, but it's interesting to try. And you're not the first skeptic I know; my ESL-teaching friend thinks I'm full of it. As you say, to each his own.
posted by argybarg at 8:20 AM on July 20, 2004

Seconding what someone said above - and, I think, perhaps a bit of support for argybarg - I watched DVDs in German with no subtitles before I started trying to learn "business German." Hearing it spoken, the cadences, the inflections, even without knowing precisely what the words meant, was actually helpful to me when it came time for me to have to speak it. I didn't feel like I was "sounding out" words - I had a sense of what a sentence was "supposed" to sound like. Does that make sense? I'm finding it difficult to explain...
posted by JollyWanker at 8:27 AM on July 20, 2004

so, then, does anyone know of immersion german classes in the chicago area?

i know the goethe institute does instruction, but i've picked up classes here and there a couple times in the last ten years but i'm looking for something a little more intensive. (i've done some self-study, including the reading of newspapers and magazines and skipping subtitles sporadically for years and years).
posted by crush-onastick at 9:10 AM on July 20, 2004

argybard: does this method require you to spend all your waking hours immersed or can it be accomplished as an after-work thing?
posted by sid at 10:25 AM on July 20, 2004

No, an hour or two a day.
posted by argybarg at 11:44 AM on July 20, 2004

It isn't true that kids need 12 years to become fluent in a language. They may not have vocabularies you find large enough until that age, but they handle the rules and exceptions, plus the relevant phonology, at much earlier ages. In fact, the stages of such development are quite predictable across large groups of children.

After puberty hits, the best you can hope for is native-like fluency, which rarely actually happens. You will never be a native speaker of a second language acquired in adulthood by definition.

Nonethless, we are all familiar with L2 speakers who have excellent colloquial and formal usage and good pronunciation. And some rare people you can't even tell were ever a speaker of another language. But most people will have detectable accents and grammatical faults in their second language.
posted by joeclark at 3:24 PM on July 21, 2004

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