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February 02, 2007


I'm only guessing here but I would imagine that the majority of your day in Hanoi unfolded in English thereby removing the major factor in foreign language learning...necessity.

Just a few things...based on my experiences as both a teacher and learner of languages.

There is no such thing as 'linguistically challenged'. Never forget that you learnt your own language with no tuition whatsoever and, moreover, did it rather well.

Immersion is the only way to go. If you must find a school, find one which conducts its classes entirely in Spanish and whose students do not share the same language and will therefore, have to communicate with each other in the target language. The sooner you manage to disconnect meaning from your native tongue, the better. If you can, avoid translation and stick to a good learners' mono-lingual dictionary.

Listening, understanding, speaking, reading, writing. In that order.

Learn the sounds of Spanish...or in other words the pronunciation of all the letters...it is, to all intents and purposes, a phonetic language with none of the vagaries of English spelling.

Train yourself to think in Spanish. You can do this in your head at any time. Name what you can see as you walk the streets, read the number plates...anything. Later, as you progress, describe what you can see, narrate what is happening.

Never forget that language is communication. The only important thing is getting your message across and this is usually achieved despite the mistakes you will make. These do not matter.

Use it as much as you can, even with your girlfriend. Watch Spanish language TV.

With verbs, start with the basic conjugations for 'I' and 'you'. The rest are much less urgent and can come later.

These may help. They may not. Each has an individual method of learning which works best for them and yet I feel sure that working from an English, Spanish text book will have a completely demoralising effect due to the emphasis on grammar and teaching that which can easily be tested. You cannot learn how to play the piano from a book.

Practice is all.

Good luck.

Hmm thanks. I knew I was doing something wrong - I knew it wasn't me.

That deserves a post of its own too.

There's an email winging its ways to you with one further question. It's something I have always wanted to know about teaching and learning languages.

Thanks again.

Worman said,

"How can someone learn in a class that is entirely held in a language they have no understanding of?

Secondly, which is kind of the same question. How they hell do you teach in those circumstances.

I have never been able to get my head around it."

In answer to your first question, refer yourself to how you learnt English. Did you have any innate, genetic understanding of that? No, you simply applied your problem solving skills to the matter in hand. You made a direct connection between sound and meaning without recourse to any other language.

Okay, as adults we bring to bear so many other things. A different kind of intelligence that seeks to rationalise and explain...a more, er...considered learning if you like and one, were it brought to bear on language learning, would help you to systematise the language and cope well with grammar tests but might not actually help you to communicate. Communication happens so fast that we have no time to translate in our heads otherwise a simple exchange might go something like this.

"Buenas dias!"

*Christ...what does that mean in English? 'Good day'...right...er...hmmm...we don't say that though, do we? What time is it? 11 AM. Hmmm. We'd say good morning, wouldn't we? And how would we reply? 'Good morning'. Right, sorted. Now what's 'good morning' in Spanish?* by which time your interlocutor is probably well on his way to Atahualpa.

As an example of how you learn, let me take two Hungarian examples to demonstrate the primacy of function (what you want to do with the language) over form (the grammatical structure). If I wanted to say 'I come from England', I would say, "Angliábol jöttem". Would it help me to analyse that and note that Anglia changes to Angliá-suffix or that there are no prepositions in Hungarian but that these are expressed as suffixes to the noun or even that there is no need for personal pronouns as the verb is conjugated and that the verb in Hungarian is in the past tense? I doubt it.

Or if I wanted to ask for a beer, would it really be necessary to know that the verb in, "Egy sört kérek" is the equivalent of 'to request' in English or that the -t on the end of sör denotes an object? No. It is enough to know that whenever I say, "Egy sört kérek" and I part with the requisite amount of the folding, I will receive a beer and not directions to the railway station.

As for the teaching. Well, it will facilitate the learning in that it will hopefully demonstrate to you the fact that you do not need English to learn Spanish. To go back to my musical reference. Could you learn to play the piano on the flute?

It is my profession, the teaching of English to speakers of other languages and the medium I use is English. It is easy. Well, it is if you take care as a teacher. Again, an example. First lesson.

Teacher: My name's Simon. What's your name?
Student A: Duh.
T: My name's Simon. What's your name?
Student B: Carlos.
T: Thank you Carlos. My name's Simon. What's your name?
C: Manuel.
T: My name's Simon. What's your name?
D: Roberto.
T: My name's Simon. What's your name?
D: Roberto.
T: My name's Simon.
D: My name's Roberto.
T: Good, thank you, Roberto.

So, in a very short time the learners are able to say their name in English and soon to ask somone for theirs without any grammar or overt translation whatsoever. The rest of the teaching continues in this vein...using objects, actions and situations to convey meaning without ever having recourse to anything but the target language.

Just a brief one...I could go on forever!

Simon, you are a legend. I'm going to write about this in the not too distant future.

Thanks for solving an age old riddle for me.

coffee break Spanish is a worthwhile site to look at. My aunt is enjoying the podcast lessons.

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