Learning Conversational Spanish

By: Douglas Bower

Think about this very seriously for a moment. If you have children, just think what degree of spoken fluency your child had when you first packed him off to first grade. Think of all he could understand and say before he ever started his formal education. When your child was 6 years old, he or she had already achieved a high degree of spoken fluency and you didn't have to enroll him in a "Total Immersion" course in order for him to achieve fluency. He could understand and use prepositions and other parts of speech long before he ever learned what a "part of speech" even was.

Long before learning what the names of the parts of speech were, he learned to ride the horse. He achieved spoken fluency. Then, once a high degree of spoken fluency was achieved, he hooked that horse up to the cart. He learned formal grammar.

This is why traditionally-taught foreign language courses do not work to give you a high degree of spoken fluency. It is because they put the cart (traditionally-taught grammar) before the horse (high degree of spoken fluency in the target language). The horse pulls the cart. The cart is inert and lifeless alone. It cannot move without the horse.

Does this not make sense? Is this an epiphany? I remember when this light bulb came on in my head. I recall how mad I got at how much time and effort I wasted in my days at the university trying to learn Spanish. I passed the courses. I could translate written text but could not speak Spanish.

Where I live in Mexico, there are scores of so-called Total Immersion Spanish schools. These are built on the same traditional methods. The real kicker is that are all taught in Spanish. If you cannot speak one word of Spanish and come here expecting the miracle of something called Total Immersion instruction to magically work, you will be sadly mistaken.

Can you imagine the horror?

This is another common "myth" about learning a second language. For those who finally figure out that the traditionally-taught language courses are not working, they are told they must engage in something called Total Immersion in the country where the target language is spoken.

Ok, back to critical thinking. If traditionally-taught second language instruction is, by design, unable to teach you a high degree of spoken fluency through its boring process, just imagine going through the process when the instruction is given entirely in Spanish.

I haven't the slightest notion how this idea came into being. Haven't you heard this pitch?

"You can't learn Spanish here in the States. You've got to go to Mexico to get into Total Immersion."

This notion, I am convinced, was born as the result of someone figuring out that teaching foreign languages in America using the traditional method wasn't working. Someone saw that the process designed to teach you how to be a good interpreter of written text in the target language wasn't working to give you spoken fluency. So, they concluded you would have to travel to the country of the target language and spend a fortune to do so. Then the magic of a so-called Total Immersion program, based in another country, would transform you into a native speaker.

If the process wasn't working in the States, then what made someone think that it would magically work in the target language's county? Especially when the course is taught all in Spanish. It is a small wonder why less than 9% of Americans are fluent in any foreign language.

Let me make the point that coming to a Spanish-speaking country can be a very smart thing to do once you've developed a high degree of spoken fluency.

To start with the cart (formal grammatical instruction-the cart) cannot do a thing for you without the horse (spoken fluency) to pull the cart. Remember, as children we learned first how to climb on the horse long before we ever learned there was a cart to pull. Don't forget the Mexican nationals in the resort towns who managed to learn how to climb on the horse without the benefit of a cart.

This is so essential to understand. To learn Spanish, you have to use the same natural, fluid method you used to learn your native language. You have to use the same method to learn Spanish that you used to learn your native tongue. Never lose sight of this fact. Bilingual Mexicans, too poor to afford English lessons, do this all the time to learn English. More than half of all of Europeans learn this way and most are fluent in multiple languages.

Listen up, America. Learn to use the correct, natural method and you too can become bilingual. You do not have to attend formal classes or spend a fortune to study in another country. It is possible, right now, to begin acquiring a high degree of spoken fluency in Spanish.

First, it is the horse you must seek. Then, later comes the cart.

NEXT: How to Begin

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