paellaIt seems like only yesterday when it happened—that seminal moment when time stood still. Angels on high sounded their trumpets. A golden ray of light fell upon me. A single tear dropped from my eye. I was one with the universe. I’m not even kidding … this paella tasted that good. And it happened to be my first experience with the national dish of Spain. So inspired was I by this meal that I set about to learn more about its origins; to know more about the culture from which it came. “If they can create a dish like this in Spain,” I thought to myself, “surely they have flying cars and cures for cancer as well.” And thus began my life as a full-blown Hispanophile. My first task: learn the language. And that’s what I want to talk to you about today: the lessons I’ve learned in my attempt to become fluent in a second language. I’m not there yet, by the way. I still have a long way to go in fact. But I’ve been keeping notes along the way in the hopes that I could someday impart some wisdom on fellow new language learners. So, without further ado, the lessons …

Uno: Embracing your inner child is very helpful.
Kids’ movies and books have become my friend since I’ve begun studying español. As silly as it sounds, reading foreign language children’s books and watching foreign language cartoons and movies is a great way to immerse oneself in a particular language. The vocabulary is much more accessible, there are less familiar expressions used (more on this in a minute), and, in the case of movies, the pace at which the characters speak is often a few beats slower. And let’s be honest, they can be downright entertaining sometimes.

As an instructional designer, I’m always focused on adult learning principles (see this blog for more). But I have to say, when it comes to committing a new language to my long-term memory, I’ve found that a little pedagogy mixed in with my andragogy seems to be a winning combination. If nothing else, it’s a nice reminder to not take this stuff too seriously (if you don’t believe me, just ask the Hispanic Balu). A little advice: when it comes to movies, switch up the audio settings from time to time. In other words, try listening to movies in English with the foreign language subtitles and vice versa. I’ve found both methods to be very helpful.

Dos: Idiomatic and familiar expressions are very confusing (and very important).
Idioms and familiar phrases: they’re weird, hilarious, and make zero sense when you’re trying to learn a language unless someone explains their meaning to you. This, of course, goes for any language. If you try to directly translate an idiom, you’re often left scratching your head wondering what in the world the speaker or writer was actually trying to convey. Examples? A personal favorite of mine is this Central American Spanish expression: “creerse la última Coca Cola en el desierto.” This phrase is used to refer to someone who thinks highly of him or herself; however, it literally translates to “to think one is the last Coca Cola in the desert” … what? As strange as it sounds, phrases like this are used all of the time in every language and so it is imperative to learn them if you truly want to attain fluency.

As I mentioned, if you tried to translate such expressions word-for-word in a literal sense, they are complete jibberish. To help avoid confusion, invest in a phrase book or dedicate some internet research time to the topic. When discussing the trickiness of direct translation, a wise woman once told me that “in many cases, it’s helpful to look at language from a ‘phrase’ perspective rather than a ‘word-for-word’ perspective.” Very good advice indeed! And it seems counter-intuitive, but sometimes you have to stop asking “why” about a phrase and just accept its meaning. Dedicate time to learn the phrases rather than trying to dissect them word-for-word and you’ll be the better for it! You can ask “why” after you’ve committed the meaning to memory.

Tres: Learning a new language should be very enjoyable.
It’s a simple concept, but it’s true: the more fun you have when you’re practicing your new language, the greater the odds are that you will actually retain what you practice. Again, because I am an instructional designer by trade, I talk all day about the importance of engaging my audience and I am always trying to employ different techniques to help ensure knowledge transfer truly occurs. This has spilled over into my life as a student of Spanish, and … surprise … it actually works. I have found that the more engaged I am, the more receptive I am to learning and retaining new words and phrases. But wait, there’s more. When I’m having fun practicing, I’m more comfortable speaking and listening as well, which are the two activities that most new language learners cite as being the most difficult (as opposed to reading and writing). Making your language practice fun is really a win-win for you.

If you’re fortunate enough to live in a city with others who speak or are learning the same language, look for conversation groups. If you’re having difficulty finding one, post your own ad for a language exchange, or intercambio, as Spanish-speakers call them. There are likely many people in your town as eager to hone their English skills as you are to learn their language. In a language exchange setting, you and your partner(s) can meet at a park, coffee shop, bar, etc. and dedicate a set amount of time (up to you) to speak solely in English followed by an equal amount of time in your partner’s native tongue. Again, it’s a win-win because you’re helping others learn a new language AND you’re learning a new language in the process. Also, because your partner(s) will likely be native speakers, you’ll get the inside scoop on those tricky idioms I mentioned earlier. Bonus!

Well folks, that about wraps it up. If I had to summarize all of these points into one it would be this: learning a new language, although very challenging at times, can be fun! You do not have to spend hours and hours practicing vocabulary drills or verb conjugation charts (although they can be made fun in their own right). It’s up to you as to how enjoyable learning your new language can be. Good luck in all of your language-learning endeavors and check out some of Orgwide's language projects here!

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