When you have a
look at the huge variety of foreign language learning materials on the
market today, it's hard to decide what method is best. Which book or
books should I buy? Do I need one book for general grammar, another for
verbs? How about CDs? Should I get a complete set of them, or will a
few suffice? And how many college courses will be sufficient for me to
really be able to learn to speak the language more or less fluently?
Before you get started, it's only natural to want to
know the very best - that is, the quickest, most efficient, and most
economical - way to learn a language.
Read on, because I am going to tell it to you
You may be a bit surprised by some of the things I
say, for they don't necessarily correspond to convention, nor to any
preconceived ideas you probably have - you know, like the idea that you
should take a good four years of intense college courses if you want to
really master a language.
Well, even that won't do it: when you finish those
courses, you'll still have to spend some time in a country where your
target language is spoken if you want to achieve real fluency. That's
the bad news. The good news is that you don't have to
take all those courses, nor wait for years to attain your goal. And
what I say isn't mere theory: it's what I myself did when I learned
Spanish. Okay, I did have two basic courses in college, 101 and 102,
but I can't say I learned much, since I wasn't terribly motivated. A
couple of years later, however, I took a trip south of the border and
fell in love with a Mexican beauty there. Now that gave me
motivation! I was only there for about a week, during which time I
could hardly talk to her at all (those two courses I had had a couple
of years earlier having had little effect). That was at spring break,
and I planned to return as soon as the summer holidays began. That gave
me about two months to prepare. Here's what I did...
As soon as I got back to the States, I got a good
basic book for learning Spanish. What are the characteristics of a
"good basic book"? In my opinion, it is a book that:
- teaches you the essentials of grammar, and doesn't try to fill your
head with grammatical fine points that you'll practically never need.
For instance, it'll teach you the verb forms, past, present, future,
present and past subjunctive (necessary in Spanish). It will not
go into the future subjunctive (since this form is never used any
more). Preferably, it will be divided into small chapters. This way, it
will be easier to plan how much to do every week/month.
- gives you exercises with which you can practice that grammar, AND
will include an answer key in the back of the book (no, not so that you
can cheat, but so that after doing the exercises, you can immediately
see if and where you went wrong.
- presents you with a basic vocabulary (about 800 to 1500
words). If you see a huge dictionary-like glossary in the back
of the book, don't buy it (at least not as your first book). Buy one
instead that sticks to basics. After all, it's easy to expand your
vocabulary once you are in the country. In the beginning, only
essential vocabulary - and basic grammar - are necessary.
Finally, it should be a book that appeals to you.
Some people, for example, like books with a lot of drawings and
pictures; I myself prefer ones that get to the point, and thus have
fewer pages: it gives me the feeling that I'll be able to get through
Once you have selected a book, get a list of the
most common vocabulary words, in order of frequency. (You'll probably
be able to find one for free on the internet). Of course, many of these
will no doubt be in the book, but just in case, you'll want to have a
list. Your goal will be to learn the most common 1000 words of that
Finally, get a reasonably good dictionary
(English-Spanish/Spanish-English: it should go both ways.) I suggest
you get a somewhat medium/small-sized one. A big dictionary is a pain
to carry around, and the really small ones don't usually offer very
Should you not yet know how to pronounce Spanish,
you can do one of two things:
1) Get some language-learning CDs along with the accompanying text
book. Of course, the book may not fulfill the requirements mentioned
above, but you can use this second book merely as an accompaniment to
2) Much better: find a native Spanish speaker, and take some private
lessons with him/her. I do not mean take several lessons every
week (unless you have the cash to do so). Your main goal of working
with this person will be to learn pronunciation. Concentrate on that
first. Have him/her read your "essential vocabulary list" slowly, while
you record it. That way, you will be able to listen to it again and
again to get the pronunciation right. After a couple of weeks, have
another lesson. This time, you read the list to your teacher,
and have him/her correct your pronunciation. Insist that he be
very strict, criticizing even the slightest mistake, while helping you
to rectify it. Record this class as well, to use repeatedly when you
The next part may vary, depending on how quickly you
want to learn. Let's suppose you would like to go to Spain next summer,
and it's now February. This gives you about 5 months. Your goal will be
to learn the 1000 essential words, as well as to work your way entirely
through the grammar book in five months. This may sound like a lot, but
it's really easier than you think, if you adhere to the three
principles I mention often in this site:
DISCIPLINE, PERSEVERANCE and
- The DISCIPLINE to work regularly towards your goal, preferably doing something
every single day.
-The PERSEVERANCE to work your way systematically through the materials
- The PATIENCE that will keep you from getting frustrated, and help you
to truly enjoy learning your new language.
Now, you'll want to plan your time. Let's see...
1,000 words in five months (about 150 days). That would make about 7
words a day. Take your essential words list, and mark off the first
(most common) 210 words. That's your goal for the first month. Seven a
day times 30 = 210. That shouldn't be too hard!
Next, look at your grammar book. Perhaps the
chapters are of about equal length (check it out!). If they are, there
is one thing you should take into account. In general, the first
chapters of such books are relatively easy, whereas the final ones are
more complicated, and often longer. If this is so, you might want to
work through the first chapters somewhat more quickly, in order to be
able to spend more time on the harder materials at the end. Let's say
the book has 30 chapters. That makes 6 a month for five months. I would
plan to do 10 chapters (one every three days) per month. This way,
should the last chapters be harder, you can afford to take them at a
more leisurely pace. And if you do manage to finish the book in a mere
three months, so much the better: during the two final months, you can
thoroughly review all the chapters again.
In your first three days, your goal is: the most
common 21 words, plus the first chapter of your book. For days
four to seven, you'll add the next 21 words from the list, and start
the next chapter... and so on, until you've worked your way through
both the book and the list. Occasionally, you will set up a class with
a native speaker, as explained above.
In order to make more rapid progress, you will not
only do the exercises in the book, but will add one more, to be done at
the end of your learning session: write your own sentences.
Even in the beginning, when you don't know many
words or grammar, you can try to put together your own simple
sentences, using the grammatical structures in the chapter you are
working on, and vocabulary from your list. You see, it's one thing to
do exercises, such as "fill in the blank", and the like. It's much
better to create your own sentences, since after all, that is
precisely what you're going to be doing when you go to Spain (or one of
the many other countries where Spanish is spoken). A Spaniard will not
give you an almost complete sentence, and ask you to "fill in
the blank". He will expect you to express yourself, using your own
Writing sentences is probably the best
written exercise you can do to improve your language skills.
And when you have a session with a native speaker, you can ask him/her
to correct your sentences (since you will make mistakes, most
likely many of them!), and especially, to explain where
you went wrong.
When the five months have passed, and you are on the
eve of traveling abroad, you will be quite well-prepared for your stay
in Spain. However, you must realize that all that was just the
first part of your training. It's a bit like what they say about
soldiering: no matter how well-trained a soldier is, he is never
really prepared for battle, until he's actually experienced it a number
of times. For you, your "basic training" in Spanish has been completed,
and you are now heading for battle. Nothing to be scared of, though:
the worst that can happen is that you put your foot in your mouth!
What should you do when you arrive? Well, many
people prefer to sign up previously for a language course, and indeed,
there are some excellent schools available. But I don't think that's
the best way to learn quickly. What is the best way?
Meet Spanish people, as many as you can. It would
be ideal if you could find yourself a Spanish girlfriend (or
boyfriend) as quickly as possible. If romance is involved, you will
have the opportunity to be with someone who is dying to talk to
you for hours on end, and who will show infinite patience with your
as-of-yet low-level spoken Spanish. Take it from me, this will help you
learn in record time!
Okay, I realize that not everybody can be so lucky as to
meet the perfect girl or guy as soon as they arrive in a foreign city.
And if you have a romantic partner already, you certainly wouldn't want
to cheat on him or her, would you? So what other possibilities are
there? Here they are:
1) Plan to live with a Spanish family. It's probable that you could
find a family that would let you live with them for a month or two, on
the condition that (for example) you teach their children English.
DON'T DO IT! Your goal is to learn Spanish, and the best way to do that
is to speak it exclusively while you are in Spain. Even if you speak
English only a couple of hours a day, your mind will then continue to think
in English. You want total immersion.
Which brings us to possibility number two:
2) Find a family willing to take you in for payment. Okay, you'll have
to put out maybe 500-700 dollars a month for room and board, but it
will be worth it. After all, you easily pay that much for a semester of
Spanish in college, and believe me, if you live with a Spanish family
for one month, and speak only Spanish with them , you will
learn a lot more than in a college course.
3) You don't like the idea of such close contact with a family? Okay,
then you can either stay in a cheap hotel, or maybe just rent a room
(no meals) with a family who doesn't expect to have to spend a lot of
time with you. (Personally, I'd prefer the cheap hotel, but to each his
Now, though, you will need to have people with whom
to converse a few hours a day (I am assuming that you haven't met a
potential romantic partner... at least, not yet!).
Two ways to go about it:
1) Throw your inhibitions to the winds, and meet people! Go to
cafés, bars, take walks around the city, and talk to
people. What to say without looking foolish? By the time you read these
lines, I will have completed an article entitled: "Seven ways to meet
strangers before they know what hit them." There, I give some of the
methods I myself used quite successfully, and which will seldom fail.
Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org,
and I'll be glad to send you a copy of the article.
2) Prefer a more conservative approach? Contract a speaking partner.
someone who will only speak Spanish with you, and whose
services will be available to you several hours a day. Three or four
hours would be sufficient, five a maximum, in my opinion. After all,
speaking in a new language is mentally tiring, and four hours is as
much as you'll be able to comfortably take, at least in the beginning.
Also, you will want at least an hour or two to spend studying on your
own: memorizing new words you have learned, re-enforcing your grammar,
writing sentences, etc. Of course, this path is more costly than
meeting strangers, but has the advantage that you will be speaking with
someone capable of explaining the finer points of the language to you.
Expect to pay about $15-20 per hour for this service. Thus, if you plan
to spend a month here, and wish to spend 3 hours daily with such a
private teacher, you'll pay 30 days times 3 hours= 90 hours =
$1350-$1800. Obviously, a language school will be cheaper per hour, but
you will be in a class with a number of people, many of whom will be
speaking English among themselves as soon as the class is over. With
the private tutor, you will no doubt learn much more. Want to
cut costs? DO the following: when you get to Spain (or whichever
country you have chosen), make a little sign in English (half a page in
size is more than sufficient), containing a text such as this: "Native
English speaker wants to learn Spanish quickly. I'll pay 6 Euros
(approximately $8.00 U.S.) an hour to anyone who is willing to talk
with me, on the condition that we ONLY speak Spanish! Call 555 55555,
or contact me by email (add email address here)" Make at least 100
photocopies of your sign, get some tape, and take a walk to the various
parts of the local University, hanging up your signs on every bulletin
board you see. You will almost certainly receive offers, some of them
from students who know a lot about the finer points of their own
language, and will thus be able to help you immensely in your studies.
And who knows? This is a great way to cut your costs by 50%, and you
might end up making a lot of good friends as well! An extra tip: if
several people respond to your offer (which they surely will), try out
a few of them in your first week, and even consider continuing with all
of them, instead of giving all your business to one alone. This way,
you will be more likely to meet more people, since each of your new
teachers will have a different circle of friends, into which they might
be willing to introduce you.
Now, I'll be honest with you: if you ask me which
option I myself would choose to improve my speaking skills in a
language - a private tutor, a language school, or meeting people on the
street - I would no doubt choose the latter (the private tutor would be
my second choice). Or perhaps, I'd meet people in the street for part
of the day, and only contract a couple of hours with the tutor every
two days (that way, I could use the tutor to answer any grammatical
questions that your average person-on-the-street might not know). Since
meeting people with the goal of making friends is a lot cheaper than
paying for a language school or a tutor, I'd have money left over - and
with that money, I could spend more time in the country. (I myself
would go for at least 6 weeks to two months instead of just one month,
since it's only after about a month of intense learning that things
really "sink in", and you can begin to learn new material at a faster
Of course, depending on your resources, you might
want to combine several of these ideas: a month in a school, followed
by a month with a tutor; or a month with a tutor, followed by a month
simply meeting people, once you've gained confidence in your speaking
abilities; after that, you could take a more advanced course in a
school in order to earn course credits. Both financial resources as
well as personality will obviously play a role when choosing the best
way to plan your stay in the country.
Let's add up approximate expenses from the start, using a planned
three-month stay in Spain as an example:
1) Books, maybe $30-$50
2) Five hours a week with a native speaker, at, for example, $10/hour,
during 2 months: $400 (After two months, you will probably made enough
friends with whom you can practice the language, that you will no
longer have to pay for a tutor)
3) Flight to Spain: $800;
4) Rent for room: maybe $700/month; 3 months = 2,100.
5) Food (if you have a room with access to kitchen, and eat at home):
$250/month; $1,500 3 months
6) Throw in another $900 for three months, to go to bars, restaurants,
an occasional excursion, or whatever.
Total: About $5,750. Only $5,350 if you don't have the tutor, but
prefer meeting people yourself.
In either case, for under $6000, you will have learned a lot of
Spanish, and after your three-month stay here in Spain, you will be
conversing quite well. It worked for me, for others I know, and will
work for you, too!
One final note: I
used a three-month stay in my example, since legally, an American
without a visa may only remain in a country of the European Union for a
maximum of three months (make sure your return plane ticket is NOT
dated more than three months beyond your arrival date!). Should you
wish to stay longer, signing up for courses in a school would be best,
since they would help you obtain a student visa for 6 months, or a year.
Correct Pronunciation on your own