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Learning a Language Without Lessons
by Ysabel de la Rosa

Return to International Freelancing · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Although my college minor was French, I enrolled in a study program in, of all places, Austria. "Don't worry," friends advised, "you'll pick up the language once you're there." After a week in Austria, I felt that the only way I would "pick up" German was with a trailer-truck. Later, while working as editor of a bilingual magazine in Houston, Texas, a native Spanish-speaker angrily informed me that one of my trusted translators had converted "300 senior citizens" into "300 dirty old men." It was time for me to tackle Spanish "en grande." But how? I now knew better than to think I could just "pick it up," and neither my schedule nor my budget permitted enrolling in a college course or intensive language program.

When a Spaniard compliments a foreigner on their Spanish, they say, "You defend yourself well in the language." Below you'll find six of the components I used in my linguistic "self-defense" program for learning Spanish. I later used these to familiarize myself with Portuguese and Italian, and became able to write simple, basic (though not error-free) letters and to read correspondence and magazine articles in these languages.

Background Sound. Find a radio station that broadcasts in the language you want to study. This does not have to be dependent on your geographic location, thanks to internet radio access. Play this station a half-hour to an hour a day, without trying to understand what is being said or sung. Just let the sounds and rhythms "fall" on your ears. The effect is subtle, but sure. If you understand just one or two words a day, congratulate yourself. You're making progress. More important, you are wearing down your "aural resistance" to that foreign tongue as you allow its sounds to fill the space around you.

Sing and Read Along. You couldn't have better [Latin American] Spanish diction teachers than Gloria Estefan or Linda Ronstadt. Their CDs in Spanish, along with those of numerous other performing artists, expose the listener to expressive writing, music, rhythms, and vocabulary, and come with the words printed so you can sing along.

When you first speak a foreign language, one of the most uncomfortable experiences are those awkward pauses while your brain searches for the next word. When you learn the words to a song, the pauses disappear, and your vocal muscles are propelled along into the language structure and vocabulary without hesitation.

When you're ready to go solo, practice reading a foreign text aloud. This gives you excellent pronunciation practice, without the stress and strain of having to remember or look up new vocabulary. Start with simple texts, such as children's stories and brief magazine articles.

Labels. To reinforce the vocabulary you learn, write words on small cards or Post-It notes and attach them to the corresponding object. Each time you open the door, for example, you'll be reminded that in another land and tongue, it is a "puerta," "porte," or "porta."

Soap Opera Study. Oh, the slings and arrows I suffered from friends and family for watching Mexico's "telenovelas," or soap operas. It's true I learned a surplus of passionate expressions, including, "You'll pay for this!" and "You are a swine!" I also learned how to greet someone in their office; when formal address is appropriate and personal address permissible; and how to say "real estate, furniture, department store, files, and ranch foreman," among numerous other terms.

Seeing the language in a story context helps you understand idioms and how they are used. Seeing people speak as you hear them increases your comprehension. Movies can be helpful, but the daily repetition of "situation" programs helps preserve the new vocabulary you learn while watching. If invented drama is not to your taste, watch a daily newscast. Newscasters usually speak much faster than actors, which can make rough going for the beginner. The accompanying video footage, however, helps fill in the auditory gaps.

Write It. With a verb book, a dictionary, and a basic paperback grammar (see resource list below), you can write simple communications in a foreign language. You will not likely write well, but that is not the goal. The goal is to learn and to familiarize yourself with the language. Writing involves your hands, eyes, and brain in a manner that speaking alone does not. It also gives you greater time to express yourself, time to erase, correct and edit. I wrote Spanish letters to friends, who made copies and sent me back corrected versions. I did the same for them in English. (This is more practical than ever with e-mail.) You can also keep a journal in the language you are studying. When journal-writing in that "other language," concentrate on expressing your thoughts with the words you know, no matter how simple and basic, rather than forcing yourself to translate your broader native-language vocabulary into the other language.

Tapes. I have bought lots of language audio-tapes. Each brand has its strong points, but I found two tape series to be exceptionally successful: the Pimsleur Language Program and the Champs-Elysées Audiomagazine Series. The Pimsleur tapes are based on research by the late Dr. Paul Pimsleur, a Columbia University linguist. These tapes are an essential part of any study program I undertake to familiarize myself with another language. The Champs-Elysées tapes -- in French, German, Italian, and Spanish -- are a monthly subscription program. Each month, subscribers receive a tape with radio programs and music in their preferred language, with an accompanying text-script, so that you can listen and read along.

Coursework. As soon as I had time to take Spanish courses, I did. I enrolled in a continuing education course and later audited two college courses. This cost only $25 per course plus the textbook. I learned a great deal from these courses, but these structured classes did not duplicate what I had learned in my own "linguistic self-defense" program. I ended up having the best of both worlds.

The key to all these elements is consistency. You need to do one or more of these at least three days a week, and preferably five. My Spanish fluency increased by leaps and bounds once I made Spanish a daily activity in my life.

Rewards. If you don't publish in a foreign language, you may be wondering why you should sing "La Vie en Rose" in the shower, watch a sister scheme how to steal her sister's suitor, or write grade school- level letters to your friends.

The rewards are substantial. With this extra linguistic knowledge, you can improve your research capabilities, as well as your ability to make contacts and to network. When traveling in a foreign country, you will read street and warning signs with greater ease, and can feel safer and more confident working in a foreign environment.

You can make a successful phone call to a foreign company. The person you need to speak to may speak your language, but the switchboard operator may very well not. If you receive a letter in a foreign language, you can understand its content. You may answer back in English, but at least your correspondent doesn't have to change languages to write to you, which will likely give you more and better information.

More important than all these rewards, however, is the broadened perspective and understanding that can come to you and your writing by branching out into another culture's set of words. Besides, it never hurts for a freelance writer to know how to say, "You'll pay for this!" in any language!

Helpful Resources:


Barron's series of 501 Conjugated Verbs is essential! Barron's also publishes good grammar guides and foreign-language business dictionaries in pocketbook format. Or, look for other for grammar titles that include terms such as Essential, Basic, and Beginner. Dover Books (among other companies) publishes good basic foreign-language grammar books.

Buy a sample correspondence book, with model letters in foreign languages. A good U.S. supplier of sample correspondence books is Europa Books, 832 N. State Street, Chicago, IL 60610; (312) 335-9677, fax (312) 335-9679.
How to Learn Any Language : Quickly, Easily, Inexpensively, Enjoyably and on Your Own, by Barry Farber

How to Learn a Foreign Language, by Graham Fuller

Copyright © 2000 Ysabel de la Rosa
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Ysabel de la Rosa is a writer and graphic designer whose work has been published in 40+ print and online publications in the U.S. and Spain, including ArtNet, Everything Art, Apogee Photo Magazine, and Madrid's Broadsheet and Guidepost magazines. She has also worked as a magazine and textbook editor. Visit her website at http://www.ysabeldelarosa.com.


Copyright © 2018 by Moira Allen. All rights reserved.
All materials on this site are the property of their authors and may not be reprinted
without the author's written permission, unless otherwise indicated.
For more information please contact Moira Allen, Editor

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