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Want To Be Fluent In Spanish? Watch Cartoons!

Feb 8, 2008
I've enjoyed my return to Spanish class here in Guanajuato immensely. It's been a little strange because basically one ends up taking classes mainly with other Americans with a few other nationalities thrown in for good measure. I haven't been around my fellow Americans in so long that it's taken a bit of getting used to. In the last five years, I have actually forgotten social cues and topics of conversation within polite company. But, it's been fun, informative, and actually a confidence booster.

It's been an encouragement to notice just how advanced I've become in my Spanish. While living in Mexico fulltime and in Mexican neighborhoods has had a linguistic impact on my Spanish, I have to stress the point that you still have to put in the hard work in the language to become fluent. I've had to answer this question more than once, "If you live in the city of Guanajuato why on earth are you in a classroom in a Spanish school?" I suppose my assumption has been a correct one when hypothesizing in my previous articles that most, if not all, of those coming from monolingual America make an assumption about second language acquisition that simply is not true.

The first thing I've written about is that most would find it astounding that I would perceive the need to take classes when I live in Mexico. In my explanation to the class, especially in the conversation classes where we have the freedom to take off on tangents, I see the utter confusion in the faces of my classmates that you still have to do the work in second language acquisition even when living in the country in which the language is spoken by the natives. "There is no magic", I explain, "in living in Mexico if you want to learn Spanish." While there are certainly far more opportunities here than living in a Hispanic-free American city (something that is becoming increasingly impossible to find), there is no osmoses where you just magically become fluent. You still have to work at it.

The second thing I've written about is how American adults have this idea that children learn languages faster than adults. This is not true and science attests to this fact. While children have a better chance at "sounding native" than adults, they do not necessarily learn a second language more rapidly. I've written a great deal about this fact and even have a large section about this in one of my books. Children do not have the emotional problems (the embarrassment factor) that adults do in learning to speak another language. Adults are afraid of looking stupid. They engage in a silent period in which mostly they listen in the second language. Very little, if any, production of the language is attempted at first. Eventually production comes but first comes about 18 months of intensive listening. What this does is teach the sounds, the music, or the euphony of the language. They learn by shutting their mouths, not trying to speak at first, and following commands. This is part of the natural order of second language acquisition. It is what is almost totally lacking in adult second language acquisition.

The third thing I've been harping on in my missives is related to the second: the natural order of second language learning is horribly frustrated in almost ever single Spanish school in the world. In almost every single course you fork out good money to take, you are put into a position of reproducing (speaking) the language before you know what that language sounds like. Because adults try skipping this step they learn the language incorrectly. They will spend the rest of their lives mispronouncing the language. Because they tried reading and speaking what they were reading, they interpreted the sounds according to an English phonetic system. An English "e" is not pronounced the same way in Spanish! But, unless you spend time hearing Spanish spoken first, you will lock yourself into some very bad pronunciation habits and will become essentially not understandable.

And frankly, if you cannot be understood, all the Spanish classes in the world and your memorization of all the Spanish grammars and dictionaries in existence will do you no good in spoken communication.

A fourth thing near and dear to my heart in my past writing about Second Language Acquisition is: Age and Level Appropriate Input. You would not (and did not) put your child in a lecture on the Writings of Shakespeare in order to learn his or her native language. You just simply did not do that. You sought out, in addition to your child's natural exposure to the language, books, tapes, videos, CD's and television with material that was at an Age and Level Appropriate level. Then, as the child progressed, either you or he or both of you sought out more challenging material. This is exactly how all of us learned our first, second, third, fourth, and so on, languages. In the case of adults trying to acquire a second language, they MUST engage in the same natural order as the first language was mastered. Level appropriate material must be inputted and when mastered, you graduate to something level appropriate but a little more difficult in order to have the challenge.

This is really a faltering point, in my view, in minds of most adults trying to acquire a second language. What they want is spoken fluency. And yet, what they seek in the run-of-the-mill language instruction is learning how to be a good Spanish (or any language) linguist. They come to Spanish school with lots of local Junior College Spanish semesters under their belts and complete a written test, scoring in the advanced stage of Spanish. They can fill in the blanks on a proficiency exam and name the correct parts of speech and score very, very high. Some get into advanced classes and have the greatest difficulty in stringing the most basic Spanish words together to form a cogent sentence. And their pronunciation is so terrible they are all but incomprehensible. The simple explanation is that they engaged the second language acquisition task by putting the cart before the horse. Before ever trying to produce a proper sound in the language, they were in a level-inappropriate situation trying to read, write, and speak things from the language, which would be equivalent to requiring your American child to read, write, and speak Shakespearean English.

What my wife and I did before coming to Mexico was purchase the Spanish program called LEARNABLES. This is a 100% non-speaking Spanish course. All you do is listen to level appropriate Spanish being spoken while looking at cartoon drawings. By the end of the 5th level, you will have heard thousands upon thousands of repetitions of the language. You will have engaged in the natural order of first and second language acquisition of just listening and learning the sound of the language. Then, and only then, did we proceed to Spanish-speaking courses that built upon that level.

Still, we are reading and listening to level appropriate material. Even after living in Mexico for five years, we are not ready to read Don Quijote in the original Castilian. We will one day. But, not yet.

Here is the most important point you must take away from this essay: Stop trying to read, write, and speak Spanish at an adult level if you are at the spoken fluency level of a five-year-old Spanish-speaking child. Expose yourself to what a child would understand with the view of progressing to greater things. Do what a Spanish-speaking child at that level of fluency would do.

Just today, I was talking to an elderly English speaker who is trying to learn Spanish. His Spanish is all but incomprehensible. What he is seeking is a level of Spanish instruction far too advanced for his actual level. He is like a child seeking to understand Shakespeare. He can't do it.

I suggested watching cartoons and his reaction to that was predictable. I've run into this over and over with adult Americans but not with adults from any other country. The adult Americans absolutely refuse to believe that this will assist them in reaching their goal to develop a high degree of spoken Spanish fluency. Some of them are insulted, as was this person today. And yet, they are spending a fortune to come to Mexico, enroll in Spanish classes, and leave this country in the same identical linguistic condition that they came in.

Looking for level appropriate Spanish input to train that monolingual ear of yours? Listen to the following in Spanish: Sponge Bob, The Simpsons, or anything you would deem mindless in English that appears on Cartoon Network.

Graduate from there to I Love Lucy and other black-and-white sitcoms you've seen thousands of times in English.

Don't knock it when you still are trying to figure out how to communicate the basics in Spanish.
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