11 July 2009

Learning Spanish - The Corn Flakes Method

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.


El Bable said...

Hello Bob, Thank you for passing by El Bable. I want to inform you about a discovery I made in Celaya, in Calle del Carmen, two blocks down form the church -west- it is a book store who have all kind of fields. In the history rack it is a 60s or 70s book about Irapuato. 160 pesos only. You may say why I do not got such jewell, I'm broke so, i bough a 60 pesos one about the Carlota's companio lady relation about Mexico. I tau you may be interested on.


Calypso said...

Excellent points and terrific post amigo! Gracias.

Don Cuevas said...

I can see how your learning method would be good for a person with a well organized mind, who's not afraid of a bit of tedium in a daily, routine way.
Well, that lets me out! :-)

I began studying Spanish in high school. I loved rolling those words around in in mouth and uttering them. I also enjoyed vocabulary learning. I spent countless extra hours in the language laboratory, listening to and repeating taped dialogs.
I didn't do so well with grammar.

Some really tedious practice time was spent with those Foreign Langage Institute tapes. So booooring! But I did learn some stock phrases which are occasionally useful.

Years later, especially after a second visit to Mexico in 1990, I wanted to improve my Spanish, so I signed up for two weeks at Fénix Language Instiute in Cuernavaca. Those two weeks were a big help. Livng with a Mexican family helped fill in some of the gaps.

I would write long, unassigned essays in Spanish for my class.

While out on the streets of Cuernavaca, I'd observe daily life and try to think of words or sentences, in Spanish, to describe the scenes. My "trick" was to avoid translating things that I saw first into English, then into Spanish. It was always "Spanish First!".

This approach might not work for everyone, but it served me well. Neither am I an expert, but I can "get along", or better, in most situations.

Don Cuevas

Chrissy y Keith said...

Thanks Bob. I have been lookin for spanish flash cards and had come to the conclusion that I would just make them myself, so your method helps. I have the 501 Verb book, so now I will have to get the dictionary next.

Steve Cotton said...

Bob, I fully agree with each of your points. A tutor is not a substitute for personal responsibility. The problem is self-discipline. I have to want to learn Spanish more than other things -- to clear the time to learn. I have more incentive now than I ever will to learn Spanish. If you keep writing posts like this, it will be a good kick in the butt to keep me going.

YayaOrchid said...

Bob, you have come up with such a good method. It does look very well organized.

I have a little bit of a different take. I think we can agree that English is much more difficult to learn than Spanish. Written words in English can have different pronounciations and/or different meanings. In Spanish, if you learn the alphabet, everything is always pronounced the same. At least that's how I learned to read and write Spanish shortly after I learned to speak and write English.

I remember being a little girl who knew only spoken Spanish when I started school. How did I learn English? I would go home and ask my older Sister, and this in Spanish of course: How do you say "I need to go the bathroom"? and she would tell me, and I practiced it and learned it. Then I would ask another phrase that I needed in order to function with my classmates or in class: How do you say "I'm thirsty"? And I would practice it a few times and then learn it. And on and on. Always the practical and necessary phrases first...to be able to get by. All the while listening and hearing new phrases in class or in the playground, and then going home to ask my Sister: "what does this mean?" And on and on, until in just a few short months, I was an English speaking bilingual child! By December of that first year, my Mother was teaching me the alphabet in Spanish, and how to combine the sounds of it, and consequently, how to write and read words in Spanish. For that, I remember well the use of 'fotonovelas' which my Sister had bought on trips to Mexico. I would of course slowly read the Spanish dialogue, until slowly, it became easier and easier. Of course, that's different because I 'knew' what the Spanish words meant, but I know that reading Spanish is WAY easier.

So I think that just the everyday forcing yourself to learn new phrases which are NECESSARY will slowly increase your Spanish vocabulary. Imagine yourself in a busy street, and you HAVE to go to the bathroom. You HAVE to ask someone, so that is one phrase you will learn. Imagine you're very hungry, and need to find a restaurant. So you learn how to ask...and so on and so on..
I know it sounds simplistic, but that's how I learned.

Bob Mrotek said...

Nos vemos prontamente si Dios quiere :)

I appreciate the compliment. Coming from you it means a lot.

Don Cuevas,
Good for you. I am glad that you found a method that works for you. You are obviously consistent and that is a big help.

Chrissy y Keith
I will have more on choosing words to study later.

The more Spanish that you learn the more that you will want to learn. Getting started and progressing enough to rise out of the "fog" is the hard part. It gets easier and more rewarding as time goes on. You can count on me to to do the heavy pushing :)

You are getting ahead of me. You are talking about "lexical chunks". Yes that is important but so is building a broad based vocabulary. Also remember that it is much easier to learn a language at five than it is at fifty. As far as difficulty is councerned all languages that are not your own are difficult to learn (for most people). Yes, Spanish has only 34 speech sounds that come from a 29 letter alphabet while English has 44 speech sounds that come from a 26 letter alphabet and pronunciation is a bit harder but English uses far fewer verb tenses that Spanish and in English you don't have to deal with the masculine/feminine issue. Little by little I will have more to say on all of this. I am mainly trying to encourage people to study Spanish and giving them a path to trod if they so choose.

GlorV1 said...

Well Bob, to me you are an excellent teacher. I think I can get by with all I know about the Spanish language. If I need to speak it, write it, read it, I do. My husband doesn't speak Spanish and so I'm not utilizing my Spanish at all. I do talk to my family pet member at times in Spanish and she cocks her head to one side as if I was crazy. Hee/Haw
See you later maestro. Have a great week.

Leslie Harris said...

Bob, I like your flash card idea and I will encourage my English students to try it.

As an ESL teacher, my students always ask how long will it take them to learn to speak English. I explain to them that when we are children, it takes us anywhere from 9 months to a year to utter our first words. Anyone interested in learning a new language should expect the same. Yes, a class, a tutor or any method is a good basis for starting to learn, but if people don't get out there and practice, they'll never master any new language.

I'd love to learn French and have self-taught myself many words, but I haven't met any French speakers to practice with.

1st Mate said...

Uh-oh! I'm busted! Hate to say it, but all my Spanish books and tapes and online memberships (free, thank God) aren't doing me as much good as a focused do-it-myself effort. I do think if one thing could be added to your system, it would be to have at least one Spanish-speaking person in your life that you see frequently who will correct you (many won't), tell you if an expression is not used in Mexico, teach you a little street Spanish so you understand what people are saying, and gain some of the satisfaction of actually having a conversation, which is what this is all about, right?

Bob Mrotek said...

Your little doggie doesn't think you are crazy. He wants you to teach him Spanish :)

Are you familiar with Debbie Hepplewhite and Phonics International? If not go to:


You can download the first lesson for free and it includes the
THE ALPHABETIC CODE OVERVIEW WITH TEACHING POINTS. It is a fantastic chart of the English alphabetic code of 44 phonemes.

I can't be there to talk to you in person but I can help you with just about everything else. Take another look at the Spanish Lesson stuff on my blog.

YayaOrchid said...

Oh, Bob! Do forgive me! I did not mean to sound as though my way is better or anything like that. Yours is an EXCELLENT system! I was just sharing what worked for me....continuous practice. But I do look forward to acquiring more of your language learning formulas. After all, since I want to learn French, your teaching methods might just make that easier. :)

Alice said...

Even though I'm not much into flash cards, I'm going to start hoarding my cereal boxes.

Now that I'm on summer vacation, I'm vamping up my Spanish study and committing to 1-2 hours per day of self-study. My main methodology includes reading Penguin's "Short Stories in Spanish", a book with parallel text of Spanish and English, and from that, I strain out verbs and vocabulary and do more in-depth research in my verb and regular dictionary. For me, I need to contextualize language learning, and besides face-to-face interaction, a book with dialogue is very useful.

Bob Mrotek said...

No problem. You and I are always on the same wavelength. By the way...
Quel sort de légumes avez vous?

One to two hours per day will put you in the winner's circle. Reading is a great way to pick up vocabulary and lexical chunks. Just don't forget that the act of writing them out helps a lot. I am going to talk more about this in the future. Good luck to you. I am anxious to see how you do. If you put in that much effort I think you will be very pleased with the results :)

YayaOrchid said...

What sort of vegetable am I?
Why, Mr. Bob, really!!


Bob Mrotek said...

Sorry Yaya. This was a French test and you got it wrong:

Quel sort de légumes avez vous?
What kind of vegetables do you have?

Better get cracking on your French studies. Eat some corn flakes first :)

GlorV1 said...

Bob, mix the spirolina with orange juice and only use 1 teaspoon to start with. Orange juice, guava, or whatever juice you have. Yes chocolatte was probably trying to teach me Spanish.

I am really liking this drink, I feel peppy and in just a week of drinking it. You'll be fine, just fine.

Amber said...

Superb post. Thank you. I've been making myself flash cards for a while (English teacher - we know things), but I love your corn flake box. When I taught in China, I was asked all the time how many words I knew and of course, I had no idea. Now that I'm trying to learn Spanish, I don't count but I do try and keep up with the most common words I run into in daily life, signs, newspapers, etc. Great idea, as usual.

Unknown said...

Wow, I never knew people could be so organized about learning Spanish. I love the kellogs box, by the way.

As for me, my daughter moved to Mexico. We began a business exporting Mexican Folk Art/Artesania to the US, about 14 years ago.

I came for short visits and realized if I wanted to do business I had to do business talk. Of course my daughter was fluent due to having a Mexican boyfriend and spending 6 months of 3 hour meals with his family every day (and being young and flexible in her mind, plus being naturally good with languages- which I am not naturally good with).

So I'd go home after our buying trips and took level 1,2,3,4 spanish at the JR. college - supposedly conversational but I'd come back here and it didn't seem like I had learned anything when it came to speaking on the spot, but my business Spanish got better and most importantly I spoke whether I was saying it right or not, and I would either get quizzical looks, which, then, I would have to try again. Or I would say something that made everyone laugh out loud, because it wasn't appropriate for what we were talking about, but funny --oops. There was a lot at stake, in a small way so I'd finally get something through. But to talk on the phone. Forget it.

The other thing that happened early on is if I could speak some, it was assumed I could speak well, which wasn't the case, but then they would just talk so rapidly I was lost.

Then I took level 4 class three more times and 12 years later, I still don't get all the tenses right, but - we built a house and fired our architect and had to manage all the workers ourselves. Wow, did that ever improve my spanish. I almost felt fluent after that, but really far from it. That was about 8 years into my Spanish learning experience

Then, we moved in the house and became friends with two neighbors. One, whom I sit on the stoop with at night and we talk about everything - family, work, health, the world, people etc. When I don't say something correctly, she, instead of outright correcting me - just repeats what I say, only the correct way. Then I say it again as if to confirm her.

It works great, I have learned so much that way, and encourage you all to make friends with neighbors, shop keepers or whoever is in your greater circle so you have someone to talk to. And don't be afraid to talk and make mistakes. You learn as much that way as you do from the studying and it gives the studying a focus (in case you get lost)

The other neighbor is one of the artists for my business. He outright corrects me and makes me repeat him, then asks me again later on to see if I remember. I make lots of mistakes and sometimes now, my spanish is good enough to pretend I am making mistakes then joke about it.

I've learned in a visceral kind of way, subject by subject. First the basic stuff of getting around in the world. Then doing business with artists in Mexico. Then with the building of the house. Then neighbors and friends. All of these things have rounded out the vocabulary, forced me to break out of the book and into the world.

Well, I don't know where all that came from, but I think the initial thought was to remember that the real world has the other part of the equation in the learning of Spanish - and gives the study part lots of ways to make the learning interesting.

Boy does it take a long time, but it's totally worth it - and just blab away as much as you possibly can because it will eventually all make sense and flow out of you easily.
Buena suerte


Frankly Ronda said...

What a wonderful post and good of you to share your wisdom. I like learning how others approach learning languages.

"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."

I knew early last year that commuting & working would make learning Spanish impossible for me this past year. BUT - maybe in the future ...

Bob Mrotek said...

Thanks for the positive feedback. You and I have something else in common other than learning Spanish. Besides English and Spanish my other language is Mandarin Chinese. Not quite fluent yet but working on it :)

Those are some wonderful comments and I think they will be very helpful to others. You are living proof that if you stick with it and keep trying you will eventually have success. Believe it or not the eight year time frame to practical fluency is about average but look at all the things that you can do now and how rewarding it is fr you. I congratulate you for your efforts and for your very interesting blog posts.

I have no doubt that your destiny is entwined with Mexico and that you and your family will return and do great things. I look forward to the day when we can get together and reminisce about your family's first year in Mexico...in Spanish!

cyndee said...

Just came across your blog ,and I to need all the help I can get learning spanish. I love your idea.I work at lot ,so one of the things I found to help me was carring a little black book in my back pocket. I A B C the book to Z and wrote the english word( like apple goes in the A) then put in the spanish word. When I was at work and could not remember the spanish word I would look it up. And if I heard a new word I wanted to learn at that point then that word would go into my little black book. Pulling out my little black book has helped me a lot.

Bob Mrotek said...

You are a person after my own heart. I carry a little notebook or "libreta" wherever I go, along with some extra 3X5 cards. I am constantly taking notes and it has helped me tremendously. Whenever I hear a unique phrase or word that I like I ask people to repeat it and/or explain it and I also might ask, "¿Cómo se escribe?", How is it written (spelled). Thanks mucho for your comment and more power to you. Onward ever, backward never!

Unknown said...

speaking of languages - now that I seem to be going to all these neighborhood parties, where EVERYONE sings with the music -- do you know where you can get the words to the mariachi and other traditional songs? I think that's my next adventure into the language!


Arielle said...

Thanks for the great tips! I'm always looking for new ideas to practice my Spanish. If you're searching for a place to practice Spanish in your spare time, I happen to really like SpanishDict. They've got great Spanish translation, and other good free resources. I like to use their flashcards when I'm on breaks at work. Good luck!

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.