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.