Learning a foreign language from scratch, as an adult, is a very difficult thing to do, yet something that is fundamentally important if we are to successfully integrate into expat life.
The range of variables that determine how quickly and how well one learns a language is vast. Younger adults, who are recently graduated from University and better acquainted with the core idea of classroom learning, are generally a lot quicker and better placed to apply themselves; they are already well aware of their own, personal learning styles. Older learners – generally speaking – take time to adjust to the learning process and become used to modern teaching methods.
But there are steps we can take before taking that leap into full-on, foreign language immersion, in order to prepare ourselves as best we can.
One: Know your own language
While it is not strictly necessary to know the grammatical theory behind our own tongue, it most certainly helps; anyone who doesn’t know the difference between a past simple and past participle verb form in English is going to have a hard time differentiating the same thing in Spanish. Ask yourself how much you know about English grammar, and if all you’ve got is that a noun is ‘a thing word’, a verb ‘a doing word’ and an adjective ‘a describing word’, then you probably need to hit the books before taking on another language.
Two: Buy an audio-learning CD box set
If the thought of revisiting the theory of English grammar scares or bores you stiff then there are alternatives. For instance, my first six weeks in Spain were aided considerably by a popular audio-learning CD box set called Michel Thomas Spanish for Beginners. The teaching method employed relies entirely on learner autonomy and speaking practice, deliberately avoiding grammatical terminology and confusing rubrics. Michel – whose life history is utterly compelling – breaks down the language into its component parts and focuses on language building, one chunk at a time.
Crucially, the CD features two other learners – one rather good and the other annoyingly bad – who, as your virtual classmates, are with you every step of the way. The obvious difference in their aptitude is doubtless intended, so as to give you a standard to aim for and another not to fall below, though it does not feel staged in such a way (I’d imagine there a few cases of trial and error before they get it right).
If you are attentive and committed enough (and able to put up with incessant gum clicking), the method works wonders for your confidence. However, until you immerse yourself within actual, real-life Spanish, there is only so far you can go. I would highly recommend the box set, which is available on Amazon for as little as £7, to anyone looking to get a head start on Spanish before moving to Spain, though learners who prefer visual aids may not find it as useful. The box set is also available in eleven other languages.
Three: Make some Spanish friends
Spaniards are everywhere, especially given the current woeful economic climate in Spain, so if you haven’t already got some Spanish friends, you won’t need to look very far to find some. The easiest and most obvious way is to just ask around; one of your friends is bound to know someone. Even better if you’re at University; there’ll almost certainly be some sort of Spanish society where fellow students would love to teach you some basics of Spanish. Spaniards are very proud of their language and I find that they are especially enthusiastic about it when they are in a minority. This method is obviously useful for learning some naughty words and phrases to equip yourself with too.
Four: Buy a Pocket Dictionary
This is something I neglected to do before moving to Spain, and I regretted it big time. I now live in Granada, where there are plenty of libraries that stock decent, up-to-date dictionaries, but initially I lived in a much smaller town where I couldn’t find anything suitable. The ones I came across were always either too big to carry around, lacking contextualised examples or inadequately cross-referenced. I went home at Christmas and picked up a Collins Gem Pocket Spanish Dictionary for about £6. It made a huge difference, and it still lives in my backpack (which I take everywhere with me) to this day, all dusty and dog-eared.
Five: Watch Spanish films with English subtitles or vice-versa
It’s best to start by adding Spanish subtitles to any English-speaking film you want to watch. This can be annoying at first, but try not to let it be a distraction, rather an aid in helping you become cognizant of the similarities between written English and Spanish. This may even benefit you on a subconscious level.
The next step is to watch Spanish films with English subtitles, though again, don’t allow the Spanish to go over your head, focusing instead on what’s being said and what you’re reading. This will help your listening skills. I’d highly recommend La Mala Educación (Almodóvar), Amores Perros, Y Tu Mamá También and The Motorcycle Diaries, though there really are hundreds of brilliant movies to choose from. Maybe work your way up to Almodóvar though; his stuff can be very peculiar.
Finally – if you’re feeling up to it – perhaps have a stab at watching a Spanish film with Spanish subtitles. If you can manage that then you really are miles ahead with your Spanish before you even arrive in Spain.