Learning to Speak Spanish

By: Douglas Bower

So just where did this hideous stereotype about adults learning foreign language originate? It came from some very old science.

There used to be a theory on "brain development" from the 1960's which taught that there was a "crucial period" an individual had before the brain lost its "plasticity," making learning a second language too difficult. (Lenneberg, 1967)

It was a believed if you didn't get your second language learning done before puberty, your goose was pretty well cooked.

Modern studies have shown though some differences between how a child and an adult learns a second language do exist, the older learner has the distinct advantage. The adult learner of Spanish can learn the language faster because of the following:

The adult's maturely developed brain has the superior ability to understand the relationship between semantics and grammar.

The adult's brain is more mature in its ability to absorb vocabulary, grammatical structures, and to make more "higher order" generalizations and associations.

The adult learner's better-developed brain is better at "putting together all the pieces" with a more developed long-term memory.

The biggest obstacle for the adult is the emotional factor. Adults have bought into the myth that they just cannot do it. They are also afraid of making fools of themselves. I have often thought this is the reason children seem to learn Spanish faster than adults do-they are not afraid of the embarrassment factor.

Children also seem to learn Spanish faster because of the natural method to which they resort. They approach learning a foreign language in the identical manner as they did when they learned their native language. If you have children, you witnessed this event. Was there not a time when you just knew that your "yet-to-speak anything other than goo-goo and ga-ga" child understood far more than he was letting on?

We had some friends for whom we often baby-sat. There was a point when I could see that little Scotty was more on the ball than he was letting on. Though he could not yet speak, I could say, "Show me what you want." and he could not only comprehend the question but also show me what he wanted. I am sure you had the same experiences with your children.

Children have an "intensive" period in language learning where all they do is listen. Whether it is their native tongue or a second language, they do a lot of listening. Before your child began to speak his native tongue, he went through a silent period of listening and taking in everything. He said nothing-just listened. Before developing the high degree of spoken fluency he was destined to develop, he listened to literally thousands of repetitions of his native language from his parents' mouths.

The same thing happens in foreign language learning for the child.

The child trying to learn Spanish will go through a period of listening intensely to thousands of repetitions of the target language. He will not speak much-he will just listen. During this "period of silence," the child does almost no repeating but only listens to the sounds of the language and the meaning of the words. He sees pictures and actions associated with words and sentences. This is how children learn vocabulary and functional grammar.

Then one day, after the "period of silence"-poof-he starts talking and he has largely conquered the basics of the new language. It seems fast and easy as we adults observe it but it is only the natural and fluid manner by which we all acquired our first language.

You could use the same way-the same identical method-to learn Spanish.

Adults often decide (and are led to believe) if they enroll in a conversational class, it will solve the problems of second language acquisition. It won't and here is why. You will be in a class with other non -native speakers who are trying to do what you are trying to do. Mostly what you will be exposed to are non-natives speaking Spanish poorly. You will be constantly exposed to students making huge pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary mistakes. This will hinder your progress and teach you bad habits.

What would work, with regard to a conversational class, is a private one-on-one tutorial experience with a native speaker. But, as they say, which of us could afford that?

Conversational classes work when you are the only student and you can interact with a native speaker without other non -native students hindering your progress.

Remember the child. He is listening intensely to the native speaker whose is speaking the target language correctly. During that silent period, he is learning correct accent, vocabulary, and natural grammatical structures.

The Horse you must seek is the development of a high degree of spoken fluency in the target language in the same way a child learns languages.

In a study by Petoskey, 1974; Winitz, 1981; J. Gary and N. Gary, 1981, they postulated that the most effective methodology for the adult learner of a second language is one in which listening (that "period of silence") is the focus before any speaking is done.

"According to this research, effective adult language training programs are those that use materials that provide an interesting and comprehensible message, delay speaking practice and emphasize the development of listening comprehension..."

Listening first, and I mean lots and lots of intensive listening, and speaking second is how you, Mr. Adult Wannebees Bilingual American, learned your English and it is the same method you must use to learn Spanish. It is the Horse-the high degree of spoken fluency-that you must develop first before trying to pull the Cart (formal grammar instruction).

This is not only possible but I am going to tell you how I did it.

NEXT: Still Looking for that Horse

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