Saturday, November 21, 2009

Plazo Sesamo

So last night I came to a huge conclusion about why I can't speak Spanish fluently given my 11 years (okay, okay, you can pick your jaw up off the floor now) of Spanish class in school.

I mean, it's kind of embarrassing to have devoted that much time to learning a language you still aren't fluent in.

If you want to learn a language, any language, you need to make sure you're learning it by associating the foreign word with an object, not a word.

Let me say that again. Associate foreign words with objects, not words.

This is going to sound crazy, but Jay and I watched Sesame Street... en espanol... it was the best learning experience ever. It's a completely visual process, and I was intrigued by how well I felt I could grasp the show, even though it was entirely in Spanish.

Yes, I know. It's a kid's show. But I was learning, dammit.

I learned that a mariposa is a butterfly, how to say the letter "M", and that if you can't sleep, you say no puedo dormir.

The fundamental error in the way most advanced Spanish teachers teach Spanish is that they tend to associate words and phrases in Spanish with words we use in English. In other words, it's a huge conjugation exercise.

This method of teaching leads to failure, because a person cannot feasibly learn to speak a language when they force their brain to follow so many steps to communicate. You make yourself do extra steps.

Let's say the task at hand is for someone to say a phrase to me in Spanish, and I have to also respond in Spanish.

Sounds pretty simple and straightforward, right?

For me, it's not. Let's say the phrase is "Que quieres comer?"

Step one: I must translate this phrase into English. The phrase means "What do you want to eat?"

Step two: Now that I've translated the phrase into a language I speak fluently, I can finally think of how to answer the question. Suppose I want chicken (no black comments please...JAY :P). Now I formulate my response in English: "I want chicken."

But wait. The task is for me to answer the question in Spanish, not in English. So the third step is for me to translate my response into Spanish. My answer would be "Quiero pollo."

It may not sound like an unreasonable task, but imagine your brain having to follow this process every time you attempt to understand a sentence in Spanish. I spend so much energy and attention translating the phrase that I don't have a chance to understand what's going on.

Thus, the fundamental flaw in my learning: the association of Spanish to English words, not to the objects they represent.

I can look at an apple and tell you it's a manzana. I can look at the color green and tell you it's verde. I can look at the number 15 and tell you it's quince. Anything I was taught through simple repetition, however, is gone.

Likewise, I picked up a couple of words they don't teach you in class, like pendejo. What's funny is I don't even know the English translation for this word, but I can use it in everyday language. Like when I called the cat a pendejo for knocking everything off the table.

If you're trying to learn a different language, don't try to read a book about learning it or buy those stupid computer programs that make you repeat phrases from English translations, because at the end of the day you're only going to end up frustrated. I really believe if you do it right you can become fluent in a language for (almost) free.

Immerse yourself in the language. I live around a couple of Mexican restaurants and supermarkets, so whenever we go to the store I'm associating names with meats and fruits. I look at menus and try to learn there. It's a never-ending process, but I must learn Spanish before I have children... I want them to be bilingual but I have to be first, or else I'll never know what they're talking about...


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