I have been meaning to write this post for quite some time in order to put into perspective what I think it takes to really acquire a foreign language and in this case Spanish. So, I am about to give you my two cents worth and hope that I am not putting my foot in my mouth at the same time. There are some things that we need to take into consideration. In order to learn a foreign language well, one must invest a lot of energy using good study methods and good study materials in a consistent manner over a long period of time. In order to do this, one must take personal responsibility for their success and control the learning process. Studying a language with a teacher is a passive mode, where one expects the teacher to control the process and somehow impart the language to you. The same thing applies to structured courses that are offered in various modes from on-line Internet "podcast" programs to commercial learning products sold in sets of CD's or DVD's. A good teacher or program may inspire you or provide you with external structure and discipline, but if you are a sufficiently serious and a mature student, you are better off teaching yourself a language than enrolling in a course. In this day and age, good study materials and habits are much better resources than living teachers for obtaining a foundation in foreign languages. After all, you are not looking for a "grade" on this effort nor a "gold star" nor a "certificate of achievement". You are looking to learn a foreign language to a comfortable and useful degree and to do this you "really gotta wanna".
Like many things in life learning a language boils down to a "numbers game" so let's look at some of the numbers. Based upon experience I can tell you that to learn a foreign language to a comfortable and useful degree you need to acquire a working vocabulary in the range of around 12,000 to 15, 000 vocabulary words. Just for the sake of discussion let's choose the lower end of the range at 12,000. How much time do you think it will take you to learn 12,000 words really well? Let's go one step further for the sake of easy arithmetic and say that you intend to take Sundays and holidays off and study only 300 days per year. Well, if you only learn one new word per day it would take you 40 years. Okay, then let's move it up to learning ten new words per day. Ten words per day times three hundred days is three thousand words per year. At that rate it would only take you four years. That is a realistic goal but it is also a difficult one. Remember, you have to learn ten new words every day...day in and day out except Sundays and holidays, and learn them really well. During that same time period you will also need to learn how to conjugate the verbs, learn sentence structure and grammar, learn idiomatic expressions, and various regional and slang variations, etcetera. Suddenly that four year time frame that looked reasonable in terms of picking up the vocabulary is starting to look a little ambitious in terms of learning the language. Let me break it to you gently. To learn a language to the extent that you can wear it like an old comfortable sweater can take eight to ten years or more. However, this shouldn't discourage you if you have a real desire but rather it should give you a better perspective and a realistic idea about how much effort that you will need to invest to reap rewards on a timely basis. The upside is that as you progress you will gain the benefit of greater confidence and ease in social settings and feel more and more like an "insider".
Now it is time for a disclaimer. I am not an "expert" in Spanish nor am I qualified as a language teacher. I consider myself a perpetual student but having said that I have definitely achieved a certain comfort and confidence level in Spanish and I would like to give some advice to others who are attempting to do the same. I started studying Spanish in earnest at the age of 52 about three months before I moved permanently to Mexico. Ten years have passed and I now feel bold enough to be writing this. I started out by making 1000 flash cards using a Spanish word frequency list such as the type you can find on "Wiktionary". Click on this link to find the most frequent 1000 words in Spanish. For the average person it takes from 15 to 17 repeat exposures to a new word in order to put it in long term memory and I have found that the most efficient way to do this is with flash cards. I can already here someone saying "Oh no, flashcards are not for me". Well, that's okay but then I suggest that you stop reading here and if you have a better way then use it. I am writing this for people who have an open mind and really want to learn Spanish.
In order to begin the flash card method of acquiring basic vocabulary I needed a system to make and handle the flashcards. As a result I developed the corn flakes method. First you buy a box of corn flakes and eat the flakes. Then you make a tray about 1-1/2" to 2" deep out of the bottom of the box as shown in the picture below. From the rest of the corn flakes box you fashion a cover for your tray. To make the flash cards you will need at least three packets of 3" x 5" plain index cards with no lines. Cut the index cards into thirds and you will have nine hundred flash cards. These will fit in the corn flakes box tray nice and loose. Later on you might want to pack them in more tightly to get a thousand cards in each tray. You will also need a cheap spiral notebook. You start by noting each word in the notebook and looking it up in a Spanish/English dictionary and writing down a simple definition. Some words have multiple meanings but for now you just need to plug the word into your memory. More details can be added later. When you have a notebook page filled, transfer the words to the flash cards. In the act of writing the words down in the notebook, looking them up, and writing them again on the flash cards you have already taken a big step in committing them to memory. I suggest that you put the English word in black on one side of the flashcard and the one or two word definition in another color such as green on the other side. Also write on the flash cards so that you can flip them over easily without having to turn them end for end in order to read the word or definition. As you begin to study them you can look at the flash cards one at a time and flip them over to see if you got the word right. If you guessed wrong put the flash card at the back and if you guessed right leave it in the front. You can make a different colored divider card to separate the words that you know from the ones that you don't. As you advance in the tray you can go back from time to time to review and repeat the process.
I stopped needing the corn flakes trays when I filled up nine trays with about a thousand flash cards in each tray. This took me about two years. After that I found that vocabulary was much easier to acquire because I was well into using the language and repetitions of the new words became part of my daily speech. I also found that I was no longer limited to a Spanish/English dictionary and could understand definitions in a regular Spanish dictionary. Speaking of dictionaries, be careful that you buy a good Spanish/English dictionary that is oriented towards Mexican Spanish and not the Spanish used in Spain or other Spanish speaking countries. Many Spanish/English dictionaries are published in England for English tourists who take their vacations in Spain. Believe me, this type of dictionary will hurt you more than it will help. I like the Larousse Standard English/Spanish Dictionary, Mexican edition, ISBN 970-607-993-9. You can see a picture of my battered copy below.
At the same time that I started studying my flash cards I started learning how to conjugate verbs. There is a book that helped me very much. It is called "501 Spanish Verbs by Christopher Kendris, ISBN 0-8120-9282-1. I also made flash cards to study the verbs but these flash cards were a little different. One thing about the verbs. You need to learn them well but don't be surprised if it takes you many years to have the correct verb conjugation come out of your mouth effortlessly. The verbs are complicated but not overly so unless you make them that way. There are 14 tenses, seven of which are "simple" and seven of which are "compound". You don't need to learn all of the tenses, at least right away. Some of them are hardly ever used anyway except by high school Spanish teachers who use them to try to impress each other. To begin with, learn the present indicative, perfect indicative, imperfect indicative, preterit, future, and simple potential and for the time being just "wing it" with the rest of them. I still struggle with some of them like the "pluscuamperfecto de subjnctivo". My advice...forget about that one unless you intend to teach Spanish.
Well, there you have it, a good beginning. I have a lot more to say about the subject and I will do so in future posts. In the meantime start eating those corn flakes and start studying.
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