Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Building and maintaining your accent

When it comes to learning a language, it's a pity that a lot of people neglect the custom to use a proper accent. Ok, in the very beginning it can be difficult to have a proper accent, but you shouldn't worry too much about output in the beginning anyway. Using a proper accent from the beginning is the only way to fluency. It doesn't matter if you choose to use a Mexican, Argentinan or Spain-Spanish accent, as long as you stick with the accent you choose to use. This will be easier for you in the end, and will boost your learning progress because you'll be confident speaking Spanish.

In once met a woman who has been living in Spain for over 20 years. Her Spanish was just perfect, vocabluary and grammar wise. Her pronounciation, however, was just terrible. You could clearly hear she was from England as her r was exactly the same as an English r. Her rolling r was simpy non-existent. Of course people were able to understand her, but they would often make fun of her accent or just wouldn't listen because it was such a drag to do so.

This shows how important an accent can be. You want to be taken seriously, don't you? "Ahhh, as long as they understand me it's ok. It's just impossible to sound like a native". WRONG! I've had some serious 'rolling r' problems myself. I just couldn't roll my r with the tip of my tongue. So what did I do? I've been practicing like a madman for weeks. My roommates got crazy because I was trying to produce rolling sounds all day, but I didn't care. Eventually I was able to produce a rolling sound, but wasn't able to put it into words. So I've been practicing again, for weeks and weeks. Now I can finally put a nice, smooth, rolling r into every word I want. With ease. Why? Simply because I want to have a perfect accent and I don't want to give up this beautiful language just because I can't roll my r.

I liked reading Barry Farber's book "How To Learn Any Language". He said something like: Why would you invest a lot of time and energy in gaining a proper accent afterwards if you can get a proper accent from the beginning with juuuuuuuust a little bit of extra energy? I think is right on this one. I've been practicing a lot of Spanish speaking with a bad accent, and it cost me quite some energy and time to abandon this accent and get myself a proper one. It even set me back a little bit. First, because I was spending so much time practicing my accent. Second, because I felt bad because of my accent and 'why I couldn't do that r sound'. This shouldn't happen to you, if you take up the challenge to make your accent perfect.

I like to visit the How-to-learn-any-language forum, as a lot of great people with great ideas regarding language learning visit it every day. There I've read something about shadowing (another link, with some useful threads). It's quite difficult to exactly explain, but it works like this: you listen-read a text, or a part of a text (for this you need a piece of text - better take a long book you REALLY like - with the matching audio, obviously), and then COPY the spoken text yourself. That's not the trickiest part, but it will get tricky as you need to speak out every word at the same time as the audio. I know, it's hard to do, but it will get easier. I've done it myself, and I actually like it. It enables me to copy the proper accent of the speaker of the audiobook, which will stick and will be there outside the shadowing exercises.

To put it together; acquiring a correct accent isn't hard and won't take much time, if you begin acquiring it at an early stage. However, it can be a pain in the *** if you start too late with it, so you better start early (preferably in the first month of your studies, maybe even the first two weeks). I might take a bilingual book/text to shadow with, so you can pick up some new vocabulary aswell.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The importance of liking your music

I know a lot of people who tend to say that music has really helped their language learning experience in a positive way or is helping them to get a grip on their target language. I agree with them, although I must say that you must not rely too much on songs for language learning. Usually words are changed in a way that they sound nice, but they're not necessary correct when used in the songs. However, songs can be really good to get used to the sound of the language and to boost your love for the language.

I've been struggling with finding music that I really like for long. The Spanish language comes with a list of music genres which are typical for the language. The truth is however, that merengue and bachata music can be nice, but they're not really my type of music. I really like rock music and punk rock in particular. That said, it has been a real drag for me to find some bands I really like. "It doesn't matter if you like the music or not, just listen to Spanish music for the sake of listening" lots of people tend to say. This is not true, you will find out when time passes and you study more and more. You WANT to like the music, otherwise it will just negatively affect your progress.

My search for music that I really like led me to situations I prefer not be in anymore. Because of the lack of music I like, I started listening to some pop music and bachata music. Instead of helping me learning Spanish and increasing my love for the language, it began to break down the love I already had for Spanish. Every minute I listened to music I didn't really like, the more I began to hate the sounds of Spanish itself. I know, maybe I was overreacting, but that was how I felt.

That changed when I found music that I DO like. I started to love the language again, and the sound of Spanish now sound cooler than ever. This shows how important it is that you like the music of the target language you listen to. Maybe the music you like doesn't help you with building vocabulary or getting a better understanding of the grammar, but it can help you gaining a bigger 'liking factor'. On the other hand; listening to music you don't like can seriously damage your progress. In the end you will start studying less and less because you start hating some parts of the language, and the things you want to happen is that you start loving almost every part of it.

Another fun thing to do is to learn the lyrics by heart. This can look dull, but if you're really into a song it can be a really good thing to do. You will get used to the sound, maybe even the particular accent of the singer (if that's an accent you want to learn). Lots of sites which prove lyrics often give the translation of Spanish songs, so you can get a gist of the meaning of the words and sentences (remember: you don't want to translate word-by-word, simply because it doesn't work).

Friday, February 22, 2008

Why sentences are so damn important

If you have been reading Khatzumoto's blog, you probably have read enough about sentences. But it doesn't hurt to just talk about it again. To be honest; I've been really sceptic about this method for a long time, until I decided to just pick up the idea and put it in practice myself. And I have to say, it just skyrocketed my progress in Spanish.

I'm surrounded by native speakers of Spanish in college, and we all just prefer to discuss our daily things in Spanish instead of in Dutch or English. In the beginning this was kinda hard because my vocabulary sucked in Spanish and my feeling for the structure of the language was just dramatic. This resulted in some pretty funny situations. Funny for the native speakers. I just felt depressed at some times and had a headache every day the first three or four weeks. Now I can discuss a lot of subjects with a fairly high level of confidence, just after five months or so. Still, my vocabulary isn't even near that of a native speaker, but I've grown an intuition for the structure of Spanish.

So what has helped me to get this? Simple; sentences. Adding new sentences every day, saying them out loud and decipher the meaning of the words and the structure of the sentence. Instead of learning I just read them, and it worked. It has been working since the first week I began to use my growing sentence database and it still works months after. I don't have the feeling that I'm actually learning something (which will be awkward for you and can result in a minor depression in the beginning), but I am learning something. A few weeks ago I had a presentation about a subject I never talked about before. But I was able to pull it off with just a few minutes of time to prepare, and the words flew out of my mouth. Afterwards I got some compliments about how my Spanish has grown in such a short time. It's not that I'm looking for compliments, but they're always nice.

My sentence database isn't that big at the moment, but I'm always looking for things I might need in the near future. It's handy to have a thematic dictionary because you can pick things you want to learn at that moment. I've been in Spain for almost a month last December. I knew that I'd go to bars and clubs with friends who are native speakers, so the things I wanted to learn involved names of drinks, youth slang and so on. That's why I've been looking for sentences which covered that particular subjects and added them to Anki. The people I went out with were suprised I knew some neat slang words and I was able to understand them when they used sub-culture words themselves. It certainly boosted my 'liking factor' of Spanish, and thinking back about it just makes me happy (something you'll need, because you want to remember yourself why you are learning Spanish - to communicate with cool people).

So start building you own personal sentence database NOW. Don't do excercises now and then but do them every day. It doesn't matter if you do 10 sentences of 100 per day, as long as you keep you Spanish alive and growing. Remember; this isn't time I've come up myself. I've just read a lot of posts of Khatzumoto who got his ideas from the great guys of If it has worked for them, and if it's working for me. Why wouldn't it work for YOU?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The difficulty of beginning

Almost every language learner has difficulties with it; starting with the target language. Where does someone need to start? What is needed to start? I found beginning with Spanish just a pain in the ass. The market is flooded by learning materials for Spanish, but most are just rubbish and no-good at all. So where do you want to start?

(Real) materials
I'm not saying learning materials aren't good in general, the case is that just most aren't useful. "Learn Spanish in 2 weeks" Suuuure, if you only want to be able to order cervezas and tapas. If you REALLY want to learn Spanish, you want to have a lot exposure to the language. In fact, the best learning materials are available for free. Take the FSI Spanish course for example, or it's money costing (and slightly better, in my opinion) Platiquemos course.

Of course that's nice and all, to begin with. And the beginning is the most difficult part, next to halfway the way to fluency. As soon as you have a certain rythm it gets easier, until the 'depressing period' (something I'll get back to later) starts. But the thing you want are LOTS and LOTS of natural materials. One way to get these is to watch a lot of television and listening many hours to radio stations in your target language. The problem with this is that you need a fairly high level in the target level to understand much, so you want to have a part in your language learning you can actually understand.

This is where another neat method kicks in.

This is something I didn't come up with (just as most things I use for my language learning), but a guy called 'Khatzumoto' used this to get fluent in Japanese in about 18 months. The whole system works like this: use a computer flashcard program like Anki (don't use paper flashcards for this method as you'll deny de Spaced Repetition philosophy), add cards to it (and I mean A LOT of cards) in this way: target language - native language (or a language you know really well). That's it. Khatzumoto gives the advice to add about 10,000 cards over time, which is possible. As Dutch is my native language I used a Dutch bookThematische woordenschat Spaans (Thematic vocabulary for Spanish) which contains about 5700 example sentences. Other sentences can be get from language learning meterials, like the FSI textbooks or dictionary (especially English - Spanish and Spanish - English dictionaries tend to have heaps of example sentences). Personally I use my college textbooks to mine sentences from. This way I prepare for my exams and learn in a VERY effective way.

It the beginning this may look ineffective, but in the long run everything that's essential in a language (from patterns to the weird irregular verbs in Spanish to the idioms), will be in your brain. Khatzumoto has some very nice thoughts on this subject, so I urge you to check his blog now and then. He also has heaps of reading material regarding the sentence method.

How to get materials
Getting languages courses for Spanish is quite easy, but also expensive. You might consider just buying one course (or legally download the FSI course for free) to begin with and soon switch to real materials, sources Spanish speaking people use for their daily entertainment. This may incluse getting a satellite dish, comics (I actually have all the Tintín comics in Spanish, simply because I LOVE them), books (to begin with, the esparaleer series or the beginners books of the University of Salamanca are with their money) and radio stations.

I'm lucky to study in Utrecht, which has an Instituto Cervantes. Many big cities in the world have an Instituto Cervantes aswell, you can get heaps of reading material and DVD's to borrow at a low price (contribution is only €20 for me, for example). If you're not that lucky, both the internet and Amazon can be your friends.


Welcome to the brand new weblog called "Spanish Only". To be honest; this is not my first weblog about learning Spanish. It's actually my second one, but I just started over because I didn't like my previous host.

As the title states this weblog is about learning Spanish. I'm currently in my fifth month majoring Spanish in college and I must say I love the culture and the language! I've been struggling with beginning with the language in the past, that's why I decided to just go for it and choose it as my major. My goal is to become a Spanish teacher, either in the Netherlands (where I currently live) or in Spain.

This weblog is, of course, not only about learning Spanish. In the past twelve months I tried a lot of methods more or less with success. Even now I'm majoring Spanish I keep studying on my own with methods I found useful to me. The methods I found useful are easy to use for other languages aswell.

The languages I've studied so far are: English, German, French (without any success due to the high level of suckage of high school classes), Russian and a bit of Chinese. However, my current goal is to just spend as much time as possible on Spanish.

Welcome again! Just relax and have a nice time reading and discussing language learning.