What’s the easiest way to learn Spanish? What’s the fastest way to learn a foreign language in general?
Learn like a five year old.
We arrived in Santiago de Chile about a year ago. My five year old son, Sebastian now speaks almost fluently and understands about 90% of Spanish (unless we’re talking about cartoons or cake, then it’s 100%). After one month at nursery he’d learnt more than I ever did in any language.
I graduated from university in French and German, I studied Arabic at three languages schools in Damascus, I enjoyed one-to-one tutoring of Portuguese in Angola and spent many evenings plugged in to language CDs trying to master Hindi in Delhi.
But my five year old beat me. Here’s how:
Learn to unlearn
The advantage a five year old has over a nearly forty year old is not knowledge, but a lack of knowledge. It’s the ability to start afresh. Concepts, ideas and vocabulary are learnt from scratch, offering a clean start. Meanwhile us adults already have our preconceived ideas, and we translate from one language to another. As adults we have to open our minds.
I appreciate that a five year old’s brain is different to an adults. Learning to unlearn is easier said than done. However we’ve got to relax and embrace the fresh ideas.
Let it flow
As a language student of far too many years than I’d care to type, I know what rote learning, cramming and repetition feel like. If we want to learn a language seriously, maybe we should learn less seriously?
I tried to learn Arabic in Damascus at a university course for foreigners. We’d spend day after day trying to get our heads round the beautiful loops that make up Arabic calligraphy and the oh so foreign grammar rules. But then I switched to a more relaxed course and I just soaked it up.
I’ve forgotten almost everything now, but at the time I went from struggling to introduce my own name to a discussion about the political climate in Syria at the time (politically things were a lot simpler then too).
Another tool my kid uses is repetition. I’ve noticed that whenever he doesn’t understand something, he repeats it. Interestingly, he doesn’t always ask me to explain, he just repeats it back. So the next time he hears the word or phrase he can join the dots and build up the sense of the meaning.
As an adult it feels silly to repeat everything back. Imagine yourself at the supermarket check out till repeating back all the groceries you don’t understand. But who cares, I’m going to try to make an inner mental note at least.
Need to know basis
My child doesn’t try to master language from beyond his realm. He’s content in his field. He only asks for a word when he needs it. So instead of trying to master pages and pages of vocab, he instinctively focuses on the vocab and grammar he needs, and reinforces this through practice, rather than spreading himself too thinly.
Sebastian runs because he wants to run, not with a goal in mind. He runs to someone, he runs around and he runs alongside others, all for fun. He doesn’t run because a smart watch is nagging him to up his heart rate by 50%, but out of sheer joy.
While it’s great to work towards a goal in order to track your progress, while it’s great to feel a sense of pride and accomplishment, the most important thing my kid has taught me is to keep language learning fun.
And on that note, I’m off to the pool with my (Spanish speaking) neighbours. Hasta luego!