How to Learn Spanish — Fast!

16 August 2011 · 1 comment

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone -- in Spanish!Last night, I finished reading the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In Spanish. What makes this remarkable is that eight weeks ago, I could barely read a word of Spanish. In the past two months, I’ve gone from only knowing how to swear in the language to being able to read passably well, to hear enough to get the general feel of a conversation, and to speak at least well enough to be understood.

How did I do it? I threw time and money at the problem.

Expert advice
After the World Domination Summit ended in early June, I set a goal to travel. I spent a week poring over an almanac before deciding to start my solo adventures in Latin America. (I actually decided to start in England, but that trip had to be postponed so that I could take care of things on the home front.)

In order to make my adventures in Ecuador or Guatemala or Peru more enjoyable, I knew I wanted to learn Spanish. I’d taken a semester of Spanish nearly 25 years ago during my freshman year of college, but all that I remembered were common curses and jokes about cows. I didn’t know where to begin, so I contacted my new friend Benny Lewis, the Irish polyglot.

Note: Benny is a young man who has been traveling the world on the cheap for the past nine years. As he travels, he learns languages. He speaks eight languages fluently, and hopes to learn more. (He’s been learning Turkish since I met him in June. In Turkey, naturally.) Benny shares tips and tricks about language learning at his site, Fluent in 3 Months, and in his e-book, The Language Hacking Guide.

“The best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself,” Benny told me. “Travel to a country that speaks Spanish and spend all day with people who speak it. That’s how I learn.”

“What’s the second-best way to learn?” I asked.

“If you can afford it?” Benny said. “Hire a private tutor.” So I did.

I looked at the local Craigslist listings until I found a likely candidate. I e-mailed to set up an initial consultation. One morning in the middle of June, I met Aly at a local coffee shop.

Mi Profesora
Aly is a young-ish woman (she won’t allow me to ask her age) originally from Lima, Peru. When she was twelve, she began learning English from a private tutor. After graduate school, she headed to Minnesota. (Or maybe she came to Minnesota for graduate school — I can’t remember the sequence.) She didn’t like it in Minnesota, though, so she came west. She now lives in the Portland area and makes a full-time living by tutoring people like me.

Our first meeting went well. Aly liked that I seemed motivated, and I liked that she was both intelligent and funny. We agreed to work together. For the past two months, we’ve met three times a week for ninety minutes a session. Sometimes my progress seems slow — I’ve been stuck on the past tense(s) for weeks now! — but other times it seems brisk. All of the time, Aly adjusts the lessons to my needs.

Today, for instance, we spent half an hour discussing geopolitics in English. I borrowed a book from a friend — Las venas abiertas de América Latina — and when I showed it Aly, she talked at length about the history of Latin America. It was awesome. (Aly has promised to bring me mp3s of the abridged version of this book tomorrow. She says it’ll be good practice for me to listen to it.)

Note: One thing that’s different about learning a language now versus learning a language in school is that now I’m motivated. Back then, it was a requirement. Today, I want to learn so that I can communicate with my Spanish-speaking friends, and so that I can travel well. I’m much more willing to work than in the past.

Other sources
But it’s not just my tutor that’s helping me learn Spanish so quickly. I’m also devoting lots of time to independent study. I study as I walk to and from the gym each morning. I study whenever I drive. I study at the dinner table. I study whenever I can.

In addition to Aly, I:

  • Use flashcards on my iPhone and iPad. There are several flashcard apps, but I settled on Flashcards Deluxe, which allows me to dowload free “decks” of cards and work through them at my own pace. I like that the app allows for spaced repetition, and that it has an option for writing your answer with your finger. (This keeps me honest.)
  • Do practice problems in workbooks — just like when you were in school. These workbooks are cheap and effective when combined with other learning methods. My Spanish Verb Tenses book cost me twelve bucks, and it’s worth ten times as much. (It can be had for $6.44 from Amazon!)
  • Listen to Mexican radio. I told my friend Jose that I’d been listening to traditional Mexican oom-pah music (not sure which style that actually is — banda?), and he promptly made a list of about ten Portland-area radio stations that cater to the Mexican population. (I say Mexican because most of the latinos in the area are from Mexico, and the radio stations bill themselves as playing Mexican music.) My favorite is 93.5 “exitos, which plays Spanish-language pop — especially dance music. The music on this station is very J.D.
  • Read children’s books. I’m reading Harry Potter, as I mentioned, but I have other books in the wings: Las telearañas de Carlota, La casa de la pradera, and El Hobbit. Most of these take a lot of work, so in the meantime I’ve been reading basic books, including those from Dr. Seuss. And Aly’s always bringing me new ones, like Pato para presidente (which is hilarious in Spanish or English).
  • Choose the Spanish option whenever possible. My iPhone and iPad are now set to Spanish. When I call automated telephone systems (as I’ve been doing when taking care of my mother’s finances), I choose the Spanish-language menu. If a magazine has a Spanish feature, I read it. If instructions are in Spanish, I use those instead of English.
  • Read BBC Mundo. This Spanish-language news site is written at a relatively low level, like all newspapers and magazines. In other words, it’s perfect for me. I can now read nearly every article. Watching the videos is much more difficult, but that’s okay.
  • Make use of Google Translate. This online tool is amazing. It’s a great way to check your own translations and to parse difficult phrases. (“Que podría tener algo que ver con” — what the hell does that mean? Actually, Google Translate doesn’t get it right either — it’s idiomatic, and Aly had to explain it to me.) The iPhone app is like magic: Speak into it with one language, and the app translates your speech to another. It’s like Star Trek‘s universal translator!
  • Practice with Rosetta Stone. This (expensive) software uses an immersion-like method to drill in basic language skills. It’s good as far as it goes, but I found that working independently I was able to quickly outpace the software. I’m constantly having to skip lessons to catch up with my current level. This might be a good choice if I weren’t using a tutor, but as it is, I wish I hadn’t spent money on Rosetta Stone.
  • Speak Spanish (if clumsily) with native speakers. This is by far the best way to learn. It’s also the most intimidating. It’s scary to try my Spanish with real people. I know it’s poor, and I don’t want to look like a fool. But you know what? Nobody has laughed at me so far. In fact, everyone’s been very supportive, especially my Spanish-speaking friends. (But even the gas station attendant, who smiled as he responded to my lousy Spanish!)

So although I’ve had to tap my travel fund to pay for my Spanish tutor, I’ve also been spending a lot of time with free (or low-cost) learning sources. Taken as a whole, these tools have helped me make great progress in the past eight weeks.

Obviously, I haven’t mastered Spanish yet — I’ve barely begun to learn! — but I’ve made great progress in the past two months, and I hope to make further strides in the six weeks before I leave for Latin America.

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