We talk to people every day – on the street, in the store, at home – and rarely think about how amazing it is that we can actually communicate with them. We constantly take for granted our ability to converse with those around us.
Now, 58.9 million of our neighbors here in the States are Spanish-speakers. Imagine that for a moment. There is an impressive language barrier between us and almost 20% of the population. How can we bridge that gap and begin to communicate more fully with our neighbors? Well, we can start by perfecting our Spanish-learning process.
Why the Traditional Methods of Learning Spanish are Flawed
Let’s think about how most of us have tried to learn Spanish…
- Workbooks with reading and writing exercises
- Large classroom settings
- Non-native Spanish speaking instructors
- Software (free or paid) with audio recordings
- Classes only 1 or 2 times per week
Did one of these methods work for you? More than likely, they did not because these techniques utilize the wrong parts of the brain.
Flaws in the Traditional Methods
Remember the list we made of the different ways we normally try to learn Spanish? Those are what we are going to call ‘traditional learning methods.’ Let’s explore further to see where exactly they went wrong.
If you’re like me and went to public school, the norm was that you took about a year of foreign language in middle school before it became a requirement in high school. Since I studied in Texas, Spanish was the most logical choice of a second language. However, it wasn’t like I had much of a choice since German and French were my only other options. So, I began to study Spanish only because of its practicality. Now, on a personal level, Spanish was my least favorite class. I was a pretty good student overall, but matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t do better than a B- (yes, I know – I was an overachiever).
At some point, I owned the fact that I wasn’t good at learning languages and just gave up. I stopped trying, which was quite contrary to my personality.
Looking back, I can point to several things that probably held me back.
Common Learning Errors
- Large Classes: I was in a 5A district, studying at a high school of 5000+ students. My graduating class was about 1000 students. In other words, the classrooms were consistently filled to capacity.
- Limited Attention: Due to the high student count, how much attention could one teacher realistically give to any one student? How does anyone stay focused when they’re just another face in the crowd?
- Limited Practice: Our classes, if I remember correctly, were approximately 50 minutes. They later shifted to an hour and twenty minutes in high school. Within those 80 minutes, I experienced about 10 minutes of actual application time. However, we weren’t speaking with actual native speakers. Instead, we stammered broken phrases to other non-Spanish speakers for a couple of minutes until we got distracted by a more interesting topic.
- Workbooks: Given the limited class practice time, most of the actual Spanish work was assigned as homework. This meant that we mainly learned about the reading and writing rules of the Spanish language in class, and perfected them (or at least attempted to) outside of class. I would actually argue that my reading and writing got pretty decent, but I couldn’t speak the language if my life depended on it.
In hindsight, it’s clear that my Spanish journey was flawed since day one. I was learning how to read and write in Spanish, but I barely flexed my auditory & speaking muscles. The lessons, activities, and practice works were constantly reinforcing reading and writing in Spanish, nothing else.
Now let me be clear. I’m definitely not saying that software and textbooks that focus on those learning areas are insignificant. I truly believe they can be helpful. However, I’m simply saying that they are only one part of a much bigger picture. We need various tools to activate the key areas of the brain that will help us effectively learn Spanish fast.
Before we can begin to learn Spanish fast, we must have a better understanding of how the brain functions when learning a language.
How the Brain Works
The brain is a very complex organ in the human body. It controls everything we do. Whether that’s reading, writing, or speaking, the brain has to be trained, over time, to know how to complete those tasks.
Although the brain is much more complex than what we can delve into here today, it is clear from looking at this diagram that different language functions are primarily controlled by distinct areas of the brain.
What this shows us is that when we try to learn a language with just reading or writing exercises, it isn’t very effective because we aren’t exercising the part of the brain that controls speech. We are learning only half of what we need to become fluent in Spanish.
In other words, as a learning audience, we have been studying and learning Spanish incorrectly.
In a nutshell, our brain accomplishes any task by firing or sending electrical signals to different regions of the brain. These signals then travel through the body to the muscles that you want to use. Let’s say, for example, you want to say something. Your brain would first send out signals to different parts of the brain to recall the words and sentence structure you need. Then, it would signal your muscles to move correctly and get your vocal cords to produce the correct sound. All at the same time. Whoa! That’s a lot of tasks! No wonder it’s a hard thing to learn, huh?
Becoming More Efficient
These electrical signals we just talked about travel along something called ‘axons.’ However, the further the signals have to travel, the more energy they lose. Luckily, our axons are wrapped in a fatty substance called myelin, which helps maintain energy. You can think of axons like the coaxial cables of the brain.
When we’re younger, this myelin fatty substance is quite thin. The more we ‘practice’ specific tasks, though, the more resources your body dedicates to that axon and thickening the myelin. This, in turn, produces a very well insulated pathway for that particular electrical signal. In this TED video that explores the idea further, they refer to it as something “similar to an information superhighway.”
Logically speaking, as a signal becomes fast and more efficient, the result should appear quicker and better, right?
Targeting the Correct Objective
The answer is yes. But to make that signal faster, we need to practice the right tasks. If we want to create efficient pathways in our brain for speaking Spanish but never say a word, those pathways will never develop. We must target the correct objective when we learn Spanish.
At this point, I can probably conclude that I did not excel in high school Spanish because the curriculum and activities were creating and reinforcing axon pathways in my brain specifically for reading and writing. Had I been able to converse and develop pathways for speaking, I would have been more proficient in communicating in Spanish. There’s a common saying, “practice how you’ll execute,” and it rings true for language learning.
More Than Practice: Quality and Effectiveness
The video I previously mentioned goes on to point out that although practice is necessary to build up the myelin along your axons, it’s not the only thing needed to develop mastery over any skill, including speaking Spanish.
This explains why repeating a bunch of words randomly or without context, often does NOT lead to Spanish fluency. So, we have talked about how traditional learning methods are ineffective. What’s the correct way to learn Spanish quickly, then?
How We Do It:
At Spanish Academy, we’ve developed a unique method of teaching Spanish that centers around five key concepts represented by the acronym RAMMA. These letters stand for:
Our classes are either 1-on-1 or 2-on-1, giving you the ability to talk about things that are relevant to your life. This does a couple of things. First, it gives your brain a point of reference and allows you to contextualize and process what’s going on. It also aids in pushing the information into your long term memory.
Because the information is relevant to your experience, you’re naturally more engaged in the class. Studies show time and time again*** that when you are attentive, your brain is more likely to retain the information.
Now that your classes are relevant to your experiences, you can learn Spanish through a lens you are familiar with. This gives meaning and perspective to your Spanish learning journey. Instead of just learning a bunch of generic words and phrases that you might never use, you will actually learn useful and meaningful vocabulary, grammar, and conversation skills.
Just like being attentive allows you to store information in your long-term memory, giving meaning to the context allows you to do the same. All that context, perspective, and meaning lets you process and store this information a lot faster than if you were to just try and memorize things a list of words.
Of course, repetition plays an important part in language learning. That’s where the last letter comes in: A for accountability. To continue with something that’s difficult, you need guidance and direction – or accountability. This is one of the most important things that people forget about or don’t include in their learning regiment because they don’t think it’s important. However, it can actually shorten your learning curve by avoiding mistakes that you would otherwise make. Think of your Spanish teacher (or some accountability partner) like Google Maps. You’re still able to get to where you need to go without Google Maps, but it’s a lot faster if you have it guiding you along the way.
Learn Spanish Fast
In my travels, there’s a joke that I’ve encountered many times over – as I’m sure many of you probably have. It goes something like this…
“What do you call someone that knows three languages?”
“What do you call someone who knows two languages?”
“What do you call someone who knows one language?”
Crazy right? But, there’s some truth to the joke. In many parts of America, there are people who feel that other languages should not be spoken or used in public.
Without getting political, I think one of the reasons for this, is that people find it really hard to learn Spanish or any other language. And it is challenging, don’t get me wrong. But it can be easier than people make it out to be if they practice and learn Spanish correctly.
So, it’s time to throw out those traditional methods and start learning Spanish effectively today. Click here to learn even more about how our program can help you learn Spanish fast, or go ahead and sign up for a free class. We can’t wait to see you in class!
About the author
Ron went from zero to Spanish fluency in 3 months after he left his high-paying consultant gig to become a director of a school for impoverished kids in Guatemala in 2009 – dove into the deep end. In 2010, he saw an opportunity for a real business and began his company in his tiny apartment. As the CEO/Founder of Homeschool Spanish Academy & Spanish Academy TV, he loves making an impact in students’ lives and also really loves chocolate.
If you’d like to learn more about how the brain works, check out this TED video. Or watch this one to discover how to learn Spanish in only 6 months! These videos go more in-depth with the ideas discussed in this blog.
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Travelling takes on a whole new meaning when you can walk out of the airport confident in your Spanish. You connect with the people and places around you, actions and experiences take on a deeper meaning and the world becomes more accessible. Kids and adults alike travel with an enhanced level of confidence when they can say so much more than “Hola.” Simply put, becoming fluent in Spanish can increase your access to the world.
We’ve put together a list of fabulous destinations to inspire your studies and keep your eyes to the horizon. Grab your passport and coordinate with your loved ones for a new getaway that lets you put your Spanish to use.
Buenos Aires, Argentina: A city that brings together the cultures of the world with food to eat and places to visit. Start with the government Pink House, the Latin answer to the White House. Then, hunt down local, delectable, chocolate dipped cookies called alfajores in the Palermo district full of delicious coffee houses.
La Paz, Sucre, Bolivia: Both La Paz and Sucre share the title of capital in Bolivia, a country at the heart of South America. Bolivia is a great place for budget travelers. Museums, markets, and even Spanish immersion programs are available at the right budget in these capital cities.
Santiago, Chile: A gorgeous city you can stare at all day, Santiago is also home to tons of great attractions. Start with a thrill at the scary stories in the General Cemetery. Then visit hidden gorge Cajon del Maipo or sip a Chilean grappa as you luxuriate in this stunning city.
Bogotá, Colombia: This city is delicious at every turn. Start your day with a Bandeja Paisa, a plate of meats, beans, and eggs that are delicious in the capital city. Satiated, check out the art scene all over the streets and in Bogotá’s museum.
San José, Costa Rica: Fly out to the islands and spend time in San José, the city between the volcanoes. Wander the central market and taste a rambutan or get great selfies in the Spirogyra Butterfly Garden. Taste some local coffee at the Historic National Theater then use that caffeinated energy to hike the Central Valley. Oh, and eventually go to the beach.
Havana, Cuba: A country now open to more travellers, this is also a trip back in time. Take a break from your phone and computer, (internet is only in the most expensive hotels), ride in a classic car and pick up a book at La Plaza de Armas. Havana is a great place to slow down and remember what’s important in this life while still increasing your access to the world using your new Spanish.
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic: A coastal city that offers tons of flavor and color, Santo Domingo is a great place to explore. Eat the flag or, a bandera, made from white rice, red beans and stewed meat. Finish it with a cup of extra strong, sweet Café Santo Domingo, the national coffee. Learn about the Traino, a tribe wiped out by Spanish colonial forces and see La Zona Colonial, the city’s oldest and most preserved section. Rich in history and great stories, Santo Domingo is a great destination for your next trip.
Quito, Ecuador: If you love great architecture, soft, fresh bread, and beautiful mountains, you will love Quito, Ecuador. Right on the equator, the country is a gorgeous, Latin destination and the city is replete with surprises. Make sure your Spanish is outstanding so you can get the most out of this small city.
San Salvador, El Salvador: Bordered by Guatemala and Honduras, this small country is easy to miss on the map, but unforgettable in person. San Salvador’s coast is an explosion of greens and blues. In the city, they celebrate the art of Él Salvador in public spaces and museums. Grab a pupusa and some fresh fruit as you stroll around this stunning city.
Malabo, Equatorial Guinea: Another coastal getaway, Malabo has scenery for days. Rent a bike and pedal around to see for yourself why this is a great destination. After your trip, grab a coffee at the Café Malabo. Be sure to use your Spanish to order a round of delicious tapas to round out your day of exploration.
Guatemala City, Guatemala: A stunning, modern city surrounded by soft, rolling mountains, Guatemala City will take your breath away. This metropolitan city is like nothing else in the country, which hosts the largest preserved rainforest in the Amazon. Go climb the trees, but soothe your sore muscles in a fancy hotel room bath when you make it back to the city.
Mexico City, Mexico: A huge, diverse place, Mexico City is home to a mix of cultures and friendly people who will be happy to sit with you as try the local tacos and practice your Spanish verbs. Buy great tops at the boutiques, visit Frida Kahlo’s house and take the city in. It will make a great impression on you.
Panama City, Panama: Take in the natural beauty of the ocean and the man-made grandeur of the Panama canal in one visit to Panama City. This capital is beautiful and full of history and a tradition of international relations. Book a table at Schooner’s so you can stare at the beach as you munch on seafood.
Asunción, Paraguay: The lack of direct flights from the US or Europe to this small country means it’s not a massive tourist draw. Asunción is a great place to explore, to experience the nightlife and visit the Lopez Palace and House of Independence. Above all, be sure to taste the delicious food like roasted pork with local cornbread.
Lima, Peru: A beautiful city perched right on the sea, Lima is the gateway to the wonders of Peru. Seated below the Andes, the city has European style architecture and restaurants full of international influence. Be sure to eat lots of fresh seafood and drink your share of Piscos, the national cocktail.
San Juan, Puerto Rico: San Juan is a colorful, tasty city with easy access to beaches in every direction. Check out the central market where you can pick up tropical fruit or chat with herbal healers about natural cures. Or go to Old San Juan for great coffee and to take some beautiful photos of the colorful buildings. This is a great spot for beach enthusiasts and adventurers, but culture junkies will love it, too.
Madrid, Spain: A city full of fierce pride and non-stop energy, Madrid is famous for a reason. Home to historic art galleries, the city has experienced a renaissance in the wake of economic troubles. Now a modern home to tons of music, beautiful works and of course, great tapas, Madrid is sure to enchant you when you visit.
Montevideo, Uruguay: Take a deep breath, and relax in the city of Montevideo. Check out the restored mansions that serve as theaters and hotels or enjoy the new, modern structures that go right up to the edge of the coast. Montevideo has a beautiful climate and tons of boulevards to stroll down. Uruguayans love their meat, so be sure to partake in the local parilla or bbq.
Ready to master Spanish and increase your access to the world? Sign up for a free class to see why HSA is the best way to quickly and effectively learn Spanish.Read More