Learning a Language is a long process. But, it’s just like learning anything else. Going through the process of learning Spanish over the last two years, I’ve discovered a blueprint to learn anything.
I grew up in a bilingual family. My dad was born in Latin America. But, when I was little l didn’t speak Spanish. Up through my adolescence, my inability to speak Spanish was my biggest insecurity. I had a Spanish last name, and a tan Latino appearance, but my abilities and comfort with the language were miles from where I wanted to be.
It wasn’t until I was 18, during the summer after high school graduation, when I got the opportunity to go to Barcelona for four weeks that I actually had a great opportunity to learn. In Spain that first time, in the summer of 2017, I was determined to learn as much as I could. On this trip, I learned the first important lesson in learning a language.
Lesson #1: More repetition = more opportunity to learn
When you first start speaking a language, you will sound dumb. People will know right away that you’re not from there, and they will laugh. The sooner you can accept this, the sooner you can start to improve.
My first week in Spain, my host brother Álvaro–who was an exchange student with my family when I was in 8th grade–introduced me to all of his friends, and we quickly bonded. One of my first days, we were all sitting around a patio, and Marcel, one of our friends, made an impression of what English sounds like to somebody who can’t speak English. We all laughed, and I responded, thinking I was saying “that’s funny,” with “Que comico!”
In that moment, everyone around the table froze, looked at me, and started laughing. “Nobody says that ever David” Álvaro told me. “We would say ‘Que gracioso.”
“All right. Sweet,” I thought to myself. “I won’t make that mistake again.”
When learning a language, at some point you just have to say something, mess it up, get corrected, and say it better next time. Did I get laughed at? Yup. But of course, it wasn’t anything personal. More importantly, I learned something, and getting laughed at secured it in my memory. It’s not a mistake I’ve made since or that I’ll ever make again.
Those who fail the most, learn the most. Accept that you currently suck, and get in the reps. The initial, “getting laughed at phase” does pass.
This concept of seeking out failures is most obvious in language learning, but the same process can be applied to anything.
Repetition –> feedback –> apply the feedback for next time –> repeat.
Along the way, ask questions. If their feedback is confusing or contradictory to something you previously thought, ask. Repeat this all day long, and imagine how much you could learn in just one day.
If you’re practicing your slap shot, you need to at some point just get on the ice and start shooting. If you want to be a writer, you have get words on the page. If you want to be a musician, you must get comfortable playing your instrument.
There’s more that comes later, but without the commitment to the necessary practice, the rest is irrelevant.
Lesson #2: Consistency
When I started getting in real world practice, I experienced the equivalent of newbie gains. I left Barcelona conversationally fluent.
But then, the journey of discovering how to keep improving began. Yes, I was comfortable in conversation but I was still far from where I wanted to be.
When I returned home from Spain, I made a plan to keep Spanish a continual part of my life. I decided, first of all, that I would go talk to my grandparents more regularly. Next, I picked out a good Spanish show on Netflix. Lastly, I decided I was going to read all of the Harry Potter books, alternating between the English and Spanish versions. Through each of these means, I continued to steadily improve.
And that, is the second place where most learners go wrong. They lack consistency. Later on, when I landed in a Spanish speaking country–I went to El Salvador, my dad’s home country in 2018, and back to Spain in 2019–I never had to relearn anything.
When learning anything, consistency is paramount. The most important thing is to make showing up a habit, and over time that work will add up.
You can’t go to the gym for 6 weeks and expect that that will be enough to give you the competitive edge over peers who go for 50 weeks.
Lesson #3: Learning is a never ending process
When you’re deeply invested in the learning process, everything you learn makes you realize that there’s so much more you don’t understand. After nearly two years of speaking Spanish, I feel like there’s more I don’t about the language than when I first got on the plane to Barcelona in 2017.
Towards the end of my recent trip to Spain, I was interacting in the language with ease. But internally, it still didn’t feel as easy as English, and it probably never will.
So, as I continue my language learning journey, I now understand that it never ends. You just keep getting better and better, but you never get to where you know it all.
When I think about how I interact with the English language, the process is no different. Yes of course, I am a “fluent” English speaker, but when I went to Australia this past spring, I had my perception of what I thought about the English language flipped on my head. I could barely understand them, and their command of grammar had many striking differences that I began to question every phrase that came out of my mouth.
Similarly, the more I write, the more I realize that there’s so much I don’t understand about the English language. Even in our native tongue, we’re never done learning.
These three lessons encompass the key phases it takes to learn anything. You have to take the first steps, get in as many reps as you can, and get as much feedback as you can.
Your practice has to be consistent.
You must realize that the journey never ends. It’s a process.
Embrace this process, and you’ll grow exponentially.