In my last two posts , I told the story of my failed attempts to learn Spanish. From years of taking classes to trying to learn on my own by reading, writing, and speaking.
After all those years of failure, I re-assessed what worked and what didn't and came up with a new plan.
And though I am here writing this article in February of 2017, I will speak of what I laid out last November to put me on a path to fluency...
The most important part of laying down a plan is knowing what your goals are.
Some will say that this is impossible and that I am kidding myself, but I don't care... My goal is to pass for a native speaker.
"Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars."
At a minimum, I expect to get fluent. I know some people have different definitions for fluency. Mine is:
I realize that all of this will take a while, so my medium-term goal is to make significant progress on the understanding part. I want to be able to enjoy a TV show and know what's going on without much effort. I also want to be able to understand the Spanish speakers around me (lest they talk trash about me, ha-ha!).
Classes or not?
The first choice I had to make last November was whether I would go back to taking classes or continue to learn on my own.
I decided that it would be better for me to continue to learn on my own.
It's not that I'm against classes. I think that classes are good if you have no prior experience with a language and want to jump start your learning. But I also think that trying to learn a language through classes is a lot like trying to learn how to ride a bike using training wheels. At some point they have to come off and for me, I was at that point.
I already knew the most common vocabulary words and the basics of the grammar structure. And now that I think about it, basic words and grammar are something anyone can pick up after no more than 2 - 3 months of classes... I took classes for 6+ years! And then when I turned on the Spanish channel, I still couldn't understand anything. That to me indicated that I plateaued early and should've transitioned to something other than classes a long time ago.
A language is made up of four parts:
I realized I hadn't trained this at all. But that will all change.
When I thought about it, I realized that this is probably the most important piece. If you can't understand what people are saying, then you don't know the language. Period. This will now be my biggest focus.
The only way to train listening comprehension is to listen to the actual language. I will start watching Spanish language TV and listen to Spanish language music whether I understand what is being said or not. I will try to pick out words I know and also pick out words I don't know to look up in the dictionary. I will seek out easier material at first like children's programs and then move on to harder material like telenovelas.
Remember, I am writing this article in February of 2017. When I started this in early November, this was the plan and I followed it haphazardly... but in mid-November, I decided to get serious by logging my hours and setting a monthly quota. I wanted to set a quota that was ambitious, but since I work for a living and have other responsibilities to tend to, I wanted it to be realistic as well. I chose 50 hours per month as a minimum. This works out to about one hour and 45 minutes per day. I figured that I would probably fall a little short every now and then during the work week, but I could make up for it on the weekends.
I will also try to spread myself across all genres (news, movies, nature shows, cooking shows, sports, etc). I know that if all I watch is the news, I'll only be good at watching the news, but won't understand a lick if I watch a comedy show.
I also hope that some of the native content in Spanish I'll watch will help teach me more about the culture.
As I mentioned in my last post, practicing speaking at this stage in the game for me would do more harm than good. I have no plans on going anyplace where I need to speak Spanish anytime soon so I will put this on hold for now.
As far as my pronunciation and accent go, I think I'm already ahead of the game here since I spoke Russian as a second language growing up. This means I already know how to roll my R's and keep my vowels short. I also believe that listening to the actual spoken language like I plan to do will also help me differentiate even better between what sounds right and what doesn't.
I do plan on practicing speaking later, but not now. When I was speaking before, I was relying heavily on thinking something up in English and then translating it in my head. This felt unnatural. I don't do this in Russian, and I have no intention of doing it anymore in Spanish. If at all possible, I will not speak if I have to translate in my head.
Instead, I believe in something I would like to call a language bank.
If you've been watching people talk (live... TV... doesn't matter) for hundreds of hours and have heard "Hola, ¿qué tal?" ("Hi, what's up?") thousands of times when friends greet each other, you should be able to say it too, in the appropriate context, and without thinking about it or translating in your head.
Likewise, if you've heard "cuando sea grande" ("when I grow up") dozens of times, you can just go ahead and say something similar like "cuando sea famoso" ("when I'm famous") without wasting time translating or thinking about whether or not you need to use the subjunctive tense.
This is how I think it works in your native language, or any other language you're fully fluent in. When you talk, you draw and reconstruct from your language bank. Remember that the last part of my definition of fluency is "without effort". You will never be fluent if you have to do all that work, translating in your head and thinking about verb conjugations and grammar rules.
Which would you say is more likely to be correct?
So how do you build your language bank? By lots of listening input.
And when will I speak? If I can instantaneously draw from my language bank, I'll speak it... but if I have to translate, I won't. There is no set date and it's not "speak" or "don't speak at all". I can already say a few simple phrases. The bigger my language bank grows, the more I will allow myself to say. But since my language bank is small right now, I will not seek out too many opportunities to talk.
In the two months prior to November, I did a lot of reading. While it helped build my vocabulary, it was also boring. I know that if I force myself to do boring stuff, I will lose motivation. I would like to keep doing it because of the benefits, but I will only do it when I feel like it.
I don't even know how necessary it is. Unless you want me to talk about philosophy or something equally as complicated, I speak and understand Russian just fine... yet I can barely read or write. Look at all the illiterate people in the world who are still fluent in their languages!
I realize you need to be literate to be taken seriously, but for now listening is my priority.
With nobody to check my errors and a small language bank, this is not something I plan to focus on anytime soon.
I remember reading somewhere that after 2,000 hours of listening input, you will be able to better understand the language. I know that this is a long journey... one that will take years... but I 'm committed to getting there. After my 2,000 hours, I hope I'll reach my medium-term goal of making significant progress on the understanding part of fluency. Once there, I will re-assess my program.
In my next post, I will let you know how my first 200 hours of listening to Spanish went and whether I made any progress...