There’s only one way for a grown-up to learn something and that is to take charge of the whole task. Learning a language is a big thing not a simple fact of sitting in a classroom, brain half-asleep, and expecting that magic will happen. You know from your own life, teacher’s magic doesn’t happen very often.
September is the traditional month we start new projects. The holidays are over, our faces have been burnt by the sun, and we are more relaxed than any other time of the year.
So how do you learn a language? The answer is a little bit at a time. The first thing you want to do is to manage the project. I repeat, learning a language is a big thing. It’s not like learning to tie your shoe laces, so you should treat it with respect. If you don’t, you won’t learn much at all, and you’ll feel sick at having wasted the most precious thing you have – your time.
My suggestion is to start by buying a little agenda from a Chinese shop. Last I saw they were two or three euros and they’ll last you for a year. Get the cheapest.
This agenda will be your secret weapon. It will be your secret weapon against yourself. Because the minute you start a big project, a project that’s important to you, you stir up an enemy inside you. One man calls this resistance, and that is precisely right. The bigger and more important the project, the bigger the resistance.
This resistance will lie to you, make you feel tired, convince you the project doesn’t matter, or find something great on TV. It will make WhatsApp seem really interesting, and tempt you to play this one last game. This resistance can be very strong. It defeats most people.
There is only one rule to learn a language. Just one. All the rest comes later.
That rule is practise every day.
If you spend fifteen minutes a day, every single day for a year, I guarantee you that you will speak English much better than if you do study-marathons of five hours every week or so. I absolutely completely totally guarantee it.
Practise every day.
Now you understand why I like the agenda so much. It means that your resistance can’t lie to you. And it’s only two or three euros.
How do you learn a language? By listening. You listen and you listen and you listen. Then you listen some more.
Theory or Practice?
I know that if you go to an official or a private academy that most of your time you’ll be learning the theory of language. I know that you may need a diploma or a qualification for your work, but please do not confuse this with learning to speak English.
A classroom can hold up to thirty people. That means an average of two minutes practice per person per hour. It is literally impossible to teach thirty people to speak a language in that way. And the results prove it. All the schools can do this way is teach written grammar – the theory of the language, not the practice.
I am all for learning grammar but only as a minor part of your language education. By the way, English grammar is easy for Spanish speakers until you get to an advanced level. But other aspects of English are less so.
So what do you listen to? Luckily they have this thing called the Internet and there are dozens of millions of hours of English on it, so finding things is not a problem. Finding good things is a bit harder but not much.
So how do you know if something is good if you don’t know the language well enough? First, avoid all teaching materials. Only go for authentic materials. That means, only go for things that were not written for foreign language students.
Listen To What You Like
The next choice is simple. Listen to what you like. Listen to what interests you. If you like cooking, listen to Jamie Oliver. If you like football, watch Sky TV, and if you like political discussions, there’s thousands of hours of talking faces you can find. Scarcity is not a problem.
How to listen? That’s easy. Do you ever watch TV? Silly question. Well, like that. Completely relaxed and completely concentrated at the same time. Listen and don’t think.
And when you’ve finished for the day, mark it on your agenda. I think listening to the same thing again in a few days is a great way to give your mind enough food to enjoy itself. So you could listen to fifteen minutes of Programme A on Monday, Programme B on Tuesday, C on Wednesday, and maybe go back to A on Thursday. Play with it. You’ll find your rhythms.
One word of warning, though. Listening to music is fun but it won’t help you much. I suggest you just listen to music from time to time as a bonus.
If there’s anything you particularly like, why don’t you comment below and share it with other readers?
I like TED.com but that’s just me. Notice that all of this is free. You can learn a fantastic amount without paying ni un duro.
You can also listen by coming to our conversation groups, which of course I highly recommend to everyone.
Everything Else is Easier
Notice that listening is the hardest thing to do. Once you understand most of what’s happening when people are speaking English, you have done the big job. And you will never forget it. It is permanent. For the rest of your life you will understand English.
After a while spent listening, you will suddenly want to speak, but you don’t know how. You have some idea of the sounds but you have no idea if you can speak well enough for them to understand.
This part needs a teacher, preferably a native teacher. You should learn how to pronounce well from the start.
That is because we humans are dynamite learning machines. We learn really well. However, we are really really bad at unlearning.
I meet this problem every working day. I find students who have spent years in academies learning how to write correctly but when they speak, I don’t understand them at all.
This was the conversation I had with my first ever student in Zaragoza.
‘What do you do?’ I said.
‘Pardon. I didn’t get it.’
‘Qxrplwb mjfiutrh dvrtsq.’
‘Nope. Sorry. I don’t understand.’
She was an English teacher, teaching at school.
Say It Right
Of course, I encourage you to come to my pronunciation course, Say It Right, but whatever you do, find a native and learn how English sounds in your mouth. Practise until your mouth muscles stop aching. English pronunciation is not easy for a Spanish speaker.
This also you will never forget. You will be able to speak English well enough for a native to understand you for the rest of your life.
You should also find natives to talk to. It’s better to find people you like, of course, but there are plenty of English people in Zaragoza.
I have heard of websites where you can speak to English-speakers in exchange for speaking to them in Spanish, but I have no knowledge of this. If you know more than I do, could you comment below and give suggestions for the others. We would like to know your experience.
Then it’s on to reading. You like reading – after all, you’re reading this – so what do I suggest for reading? Whatever you like. Look at whatever you like reading in Spanish and try something similar in English. Lots of best-sellers are translations from English anyway. In the beginning you can read a book in Spanish and then order the original from Amazon.
Fun or Boring?
Again, as always, follow your interests. Read what you really like. Life is too short to read boring rubbish.
With writing, you have to find someone to write to. Obvious, I know. All my students can write to me whenever they want and I help them correct their work in twenty four hours. But, for most people, writing is less important.
Unless you have an exam in your future. Then, I am sorry to say, you have to get a teacher in your life. You must ask that teacher to teach you the exam, not English. And then spend however long it takes to learn the exam exactly.
After the exam, of course, you can start learning English.
But what about grammar, you cry? Simple, buy a grammar book, keep it on your shelf, look at it from time to time until you get bored, and do it again a week or a month later. I repeat, this is the least important part of the project. It should take the least time.
What Can You Tell Us?
So, comments, please. We would like to hear of your experiences and recommendations.
Now, there is just time to get to the Chinese shop before it closes. What colour do you want that agenda to be? Red, white and blue?