How to Learn a Language in 203 Easy Steps (What They Don’t Teach in School)

First, your dad won’t teach you, even though Spanish is his first language. You’ll hear him use it with his parents, your grandparents, who you can hardly communicate with. Your grandfather, who you call “Ito” because you won’t be able to say “abuelito,” will drive with you and your dad to all of your sports games. Sit in the backseat and hear them talk in Spanish. You’ll have no idea what they’re saying.

Be mystified that your dad seems to become a whole different person, and even more mystified by your grandfather, who you think you’ll never see in his full intellectual expression. Your grandparents will mispronounce your first name. At first, it will frustrate you. But they’re trying their best. That soft “I” sound doesn’t exist in Spanish. You would understand, if you spoke two languages. But you don’t, so instead you’ll harbor resentment.

Get to grade school. When your dad comes and picks you up from class one day, he’ll be on the phone, speaking in Spanish. The whole class will hear him from the hallway, like a faint mysterious echo. Your friend will ask you, “Does your dad speak Spanish?” An outgoing girl will come up to you the next day and ask, “What were those weird sounds your dad was making?”

A few years later, this type of question will become, “Why does your dad speak Spanish?” Then you’ll get asked, “Do you speak Spanish too?” Sometimes you’ll shake your head, embarrassed for yourself. Sometimes you’ll say you speak a little bit, which is kind of true, but on any practical level, it’s a lie.  Sometimes, if you’re in the mood to feel insecure about the fact that you can’t speak the language your own last name comes from, you’ll just say yes. You live in one of the whitest, least diverse states in the country, so it’s not like anybody will be there to fact-check you.

Do really well in elementary school Spanish. Not because you know much at all, but memorizing numbers one through twenty takes minimal effort, and, to your grandparents’ credit, they already helped you learn basic phrases like “Cómo estás.” In class, you’ll be categorically perceived as “good at Spanish.” Of course you’re good at Spanish, some classmates will say, look at your tan skin and your last name and they might even remember your dad talking on the phone in the hallway when you were all six.

By middle school, you’ll learn to feel like you can’t make a mistake in Spanish class because everybody says, “Of course you know the answer, your dad speaks Spanish.” Subsequently, never put yourself in a situation where you can be seen making mistakes. Definitely don’t put yourself in a situation where your classmates realize you can’t roll your Rs. You have to maintain this lie you never wanted to tell.

Get to high school, and continue taking Spanish. You’re well past counting to twenty. Now you can count to 100, which is still not useful at all for actually speaking. You’ll be introduced to verbs. Memorize all the verbs in all their forms. But be careful with the irregular verbs, which are basically all the important ones. Learn the “vosotros” verbs too. “They only use vosotros in Spain,” your teacher tells you. They’re extra credit. You’ll find all of this weird. You don’t remember using verb charts or memorization to learn English. But hey, extra credit.

Be confused about the difference between “ser” and “estar,” and even more confused about what the hell the “subjunctive mood” is. Don’t worry, though, none of this will actually be of any practical use until you can string more than seven words together. 

Learn various mnemonics, like the one to understand the difference between the imperfect and the preterite verb tenses… something about monkeys dying using Windex? Again, you won’t know why this is helpful, but you have to know the mnemonic for the exam. Create a thousand flashcards, including the words that nobody in any Spanish-speaking country has said since the 17th century. Don’t sleep until you’ve memorized them all. Get an ‘A+’ on the exam. You can thank those vosotros verbs for the plus. Forget everything you just crammed. (Don’t worry, this step will happen on its own.)

In high school, always dodge questions from your grandparents about how Spanish is going. Glance toward your dad to come rescue you when they start talking to you in Spanish. “David has straight-As in Spanish,” your dad will say to his parents at Thanksgiving dinner, thankfully in English to involve you in the conversation. Just sit there and smile. Try to shift the topic to anything else. Even the contentious, polarizing presidential election sounds more appealing than this. Your dad won’t understand the gravity of your incompetence. You know verb charts, not actual sentences. Oh, and don’t forget to stumble and pause when you do try to speak to your grandparents. Your accent is a trainwreck and you know it. They’ll ask you to repeat phrases and words, unsure of where you’re going with the sentence. You’re supposed to be hispanic, and you should talk as such.

Then, you’ll get a big break. You’ll get invited to Spain by an exchange student who went to your high school. Ask your parents if you can go. They agree that traveling to Spain the summer after high school sounds like a great idea. Pick up extra dishwashing shifts at the restaurant in town. Plane tickets aren’t cheap. This is the chance to relieve yourself of the years of embarrassment and semi-lies, and the opportunity to do what you’ve wanted to so badly your whole life: speak Spanish. Allow the gravity of the opportunity to sink in. If you can’t learn Spanish while in Spain for four weeks, then you’re doomed of any hope of learning.

In preparation for your trip, tap yourself on the back for doing all those “vosotros” extra credit problems on tests. But you’re still not sure how the dead monkeys are going to help you. About a month out from your trip, the days will seem like they can’t go by any slower. You’ll read all sorts of articles with advice for long-term travel like “don’t check luggage” and “avoid guidebooks.” You’ll listen to some of it, and ignore most of it, but just reading about traveling makes you more excited. Eventually you’ll come across articles about how to learn languages.

One article from a “polyglot,” or somebody who speaks a lot of languages, will affirm what you already know: the way we learn languages in schools doesn’t make a lot of sense. Based on your twelve years of Spanish with little to show for it, you’re not exactly surprised. You mean polyglots don’t spend twelve years memorizing flashcards? Shocking. “Reps, reps, reps,” the author advises, “in real-life contexts.” You just need to get out there and speak, make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes. Feel a bit inspired and motivated. Then, feel daunted by the task that you can’t memorize your way to mastery. Get knots in your stomach when you think about the prospect of actually talking to people. You think about how you feel when entering the awkward endeavor of trying to talk to your grandparents. There’s no way, you think, a stranger will be any easier. You will read a book on long-term travel with the quote “A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.” Uncomfortable conversations, up to that point, have not been your strong suit.

The day comes. Get on the flight to Barcelona. Within minutes of arriving, the Spanish sun and booming metropolis will make you both sweaty and confused. The signs don’t even look like they’re in Spanish. “What’s on the signs?” you’ll ask your friend, in English. “Remember the other language I speak? It’s called Catalan.” You didn’t realize that Spanish isn’t even the main language in Barcelona. You’ll quickly learn the phrase, “Castellano, por favor,” so that others speak to you in Spanish.

That night, go out to dinner with your friend and his parents, who you’re staying with. They don’t speak a lick of English. You will have no choice but to try to mangle a few sentences together. Your host mother will laugh at you when you talk. Are you getting laughed at or laughed with? At first, you’ll be embarrassed. But minutes after the wave of embarrassment, you realize laughs only inflict damage on your confidence. You suppose it doesn’t really matter. “You talk really slow,” your friend/host brother says. “That’s what I used to say to you about your English,” you reply, with a gasp of English that feels like the first breath after being underwater. 

Get introduced to your host brother’s other friends. This will happen in an array of settings with a few elements in common. You will sit in outdoor restaurants with large umbrellas to block the sun, eating bocadillos (sandwiches) for two euros, drinking claras, a mix of lemon Fanta and beer, while watching others smoke cigarettes. Or you’ll be on a friend’s balcony with a rickety wooden door or on the busy city beach, taking in the Spanish sun. In any case, bocadillos, claras, and cigarettes, will make their way into almost every scene, like a well-placed literary device. For months to come, when you sniff a whiff of cigarette smoke, your mind will drift into Spanish, into scenes of the bright sun and floral-patterned Barcelona sidewalks.

Your new friends will try to take the opportunity to practice their English with you. You must hold your ground. “I’m here to learn Spanish,” you’ll say to them, ideally in Spanish. “If you want to learn English, you can come visit me.” It’s a fair trade-off, you’ll suppose. 

When talking with them, your instincts will lead you to try and translate your thinking from English to Spanish. This is the wrong approach. You might say something like “¿quién cuida?” thinking you’re saying “who cares,” because you’re translating word for word. Everybody will laugh. You just made a nonsensical phrase. It’s best to start laughing with them. “I think you mean, ‘¿a quién le importa?’” your host brother will tell you on the side. Now practice using that verb structure every time you get the chance. After annoying everybody by saying it 20 times over the next hour, you will have unlocked the secrets to the new verb. You’ll suppose this is what learning is. “Reps, reps reps,” you’ll remember, “In real-life contexts.”

You’ll notice that there’s a direct correlation between how often you get laughed at and how many new words and phrases you learn. You’ll get a shot of dopamine from saying stupid things, because you’ve come to associate getting laughed at with learning Spanish. You, like the rest of humankind, are a dopamine junkie. This will start a cascade of courage to start even more conversations. What seemed so uncomfortable at first, within a few days, now doesn’t seem so scary.

On your fourth day, the first weekend, you and your new group of six friends will take a two hour bus trip out to a quiet Catalonian town. The six of you will huddle in the aisles of the bus, frustrating those around you trying to read or sleep with your constant chatter. You will learn about the Spanish Civil War and the Catalan independence movement. You will learn that politics in Barcelona are just as tense there, and your friends will break out in arguments, in Catalan, and you’ll feel slightly guilty for asking the questions that instigated them.

You’ll interrupt to ask them what certain objects are. “What would you call this?” you’ll ask in Spanish, pointing to the small tv screen on the bus. “What about this?” pointing to the edge of the seat. “What about this type of thing?” Your vocab is limited, so you’ll be relying on a lot of pointing and hand gestures and “esta cosa” or “esa cosa.”

Smile when one of your new friends says, towards the end of the two-hour trip, “Ees amazing. You learn souu qweek. Ees amazing.”

“I feel,” you’ll respond in Spanish, “like I’ve learned more in three days than I did in twelve years.” You’re probably right.

That night, sitting on a patio in front of a pool, on a hill overlooking a small-town beach (with claras, bocadillos, and cigarettes), you will ask over and over how to roll your Rs. Your vocab may be improving, but you will feel your tongue struggle to make the same sounds as your friends. At first, nobody will have any good ideas to help you. They learned how to do it before their long-term memory formed. Then one friend, in her giddy, alcohol-induced euphoria, will blurt out a tongue twister.

“Tres tristes tigres tragaban trigo en un trigal.”

Everybody will say it, like a chorus of birds squeaking. Then they’ll jump to another popular tongue twister. “Erre con erre cigarro, erre con erre barril. Rápido ruedan las ruedas de ferrocarril.”

They will say these way too fast for you at first. You will teach them, “Sandy  sells seashells by the sea shore.” You will say this too fast for them at first. For the next 48 hours, you will walk around saying, “tres tristes tigres.” Three sad tigers. The R will sound more like an L when you say it.

“You sound like a puertorican,” one friend will say, since they’re the only Spanish speaking population that doesn’t roll their Rs. This isn’t how you want to sound. Your tongue will be a little sore the next day, and your mouth will feel like you just went to the dentist, like something has changed, but you’re not sure what. The third and final night before you all head back to the city, you’ll start a sentence with “por.” And your tongue will rattle against the roof of your mouth, making a rolling sound.

“por, por, porrrrrrr,” you will repeat. “Por… qué más David?” one friend will say, confused at what’s happening. They don’t realize the momentous importance of the occasion. You’ll turn to your host brother and say in English, “I DID IT. Look at me? por por porrrr porrrrrrr.” You will point a finger at your mouth. Then you’ll stand up in excitement like you’re celebrating a big goal by your favorite team.

Continue this for several weeks. You will ask as many people as many questions as possible. When your friends are at work (lame) you will go to the beach or a park by yourself with a spikeball net, and entice strangers into hanging out with you. In your journal you’ll start challenging yourself to write in Spanish. The writing feels surface level, undeveloped, but the sentences all make sense. You’ll realize you can think in Spanish, and better yet, do think in Spanish from time to time.

By the third week, you rest your head on the pillow and go to sleep. The main character in your dream is one of your Spanish friends, and they’re speaking Spanish, and you’re replying in Spanish. Determine that this is what “fluency” means. This won’t be how you imagined it. You thought it would be like flipping a switch, where suddenly you have two equal languages. Realize that the whole idea of what “fluency” means is a myth, and that it’s more of a gradience of proficiency and learning.

After four weeks, you’ll begrudgingly return home. Yes, you’ll miss the claras and bocadillos and your friends, but you’ll also miss the dopamine hits from learning new words, saying new sentences, and expanding your ideas of what language means. You will reach a point now, where you have Spanish words to describe instances and feelings that you don’t have in English. Language forms the basis of your thinking, you’ll think, and by expanding your language, you expand your capacity for original thought and precise expression. You won’t miss the second-hand smoke as much.

When you first get home, back in your normal rural, English-speaking surroundings, you’ll find it odd how your brain still defaults to Spanish. When you stub your toe on your couch you’ll say “Joder!” without thought, and you’ll talk to your chocolate lab in Spanish. After a week, your brain readjusts and you will dream and think in English again.

In your first week back, have brunch with your grandparents. You’re not sure what it will be like to talk to them in Spanish, to be able to hear their words. Will their personalities change in their native tongue? You will greet them with an “Hola,” instead of the usual, “Hi.” They will speak to you in Spanish, and you’ll hear their strange latino accents for the first time, which are very different from your and your friends’ accents. Listen to them say “no lo puedo creer” over and over. You can hardly believe it too. Now you understand what your teacher meant about the vosotros thing. Not only that, but they have different words for the same items. The word you use for juice at brunch is totally different from the word they used. You will also see how their speech and personalities come alive, your Ito suddenly speaking in a crisp, rhythmic, confident tone. Where he once relied on hand gestures to get his point across, now the words flow from his mouth with confidence and clarity. You will be immediately excited for what this means. You will be able to get to know your grandparents, all of their strengths, and flaws, and quirks.

When people ask you how your summer was, tell them you went to Spain. You’ll be eager to share with them all the fun beach parties and discotecas and the delicious tapas and bocadillos, but you’ll be most excited to share how much you learned. You won’t be able to help but brag that you feel fluent in Spanish. After all the years of insecurity, the years of just wanting to be able to say, “Yes, I speak Spanish,” you’ll feel proud to authentically say it. And it’s okay to be proud of that, to brag a little bit. A lot of them won’t believe that you learned in only a month. Others will write it off as the simple fact that you’re hispanic, so you had a head start. 

You’ll return to your life, which for the most part won’t change. But you will be a person with newfound skills that apply to much more than learning a language. If you could learn Spanish so fast, what else were you wrong about? You have not only learned a language, you have learned how to learn. “Reps, reps, reps,” you remember once again, “In real-life contexts.”

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