Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Gathering your materials

I've given quite some tips on how to begin, how to keep momentum, etc., etc. The thing I haven't discussed is what I think are the best materials. Sure, sentences are a important part of my learning routine (and should be important for you aswell), but it's not the only thing. I use some very handy (and often cheap or free) resources to get exposure from. That's what I want to do today; some resources I think are necesarry for you all or which will boost your learning progress.

Get exposure/input
Language learning is all about getting yourself enough exposure. Textbooks want to let you believe this can only be done by artificial dialogues and stupid work lists. Bull**** I say, that's not how natives learned Spanish. Spaniards learned Spanish from hearing and seeing a lot of Spanish, that's why they're so good at it. So the tip I want to give you, is this: Get. Native. Materials. NOW! It's that simple. Buy Spanish books from or get them from a Cervantes library near your place. Although Amazon doesn't have much DVD's for Spaniards, there are plenty other good (Spanish) companies around which sell them at good prices (again, if there's a Instituto Cervantes near your house, you might get them there aswell).

Me for example: I love watching Friends. And although I used to hate dubbed series and movies (which is not good if you want to learn Spanish, so you'd better get over it), I got muself two seasons of it on DVD and searched the internet for transcripts in Spanish. Although I only use the audio for understanding (yes, I don't use the subtitles), I can use the transcripts if I misunderstand something or for acquiring more sentences.

Another thing you should consider, is getting yourself a satellite dish. Yeah, be like a foreigner in your own country, but if you don't live in a country where there are a lot of Spanish channels on cable tv (like in the U.S.) you might want to buy a satellite dish. They can be a bit expensive, but if you can tune in on hundreds of Spanish channels, it's work every dime. You could also try WWITV of course, but there are only a few good channels and buffering a channel can take ages.

If you were going to spend money on Spanish learning materials (other than native materials), you'd better spend it on SpanishPod. The first 7 days of your account you have access to all the premium materials, which are really good. Not only you have a nice podcast to listen to, you also have a PDF file with the dialogue transcript, a vocabulary list (brrrr, word list), expansion (THIS is what you need. Ready-to-copy sentences. Personally I translate the English part to Dutch, but it's still good) and some good exercises to train and measure the learned language. After the 7 days it can get ugly, because a premium membership is $30 a month. If you can't miss that amount of money, consider the basic membership, which gives you the dialogue PDF and mp3 in CD quality. But better get the premium content, because it's a great source of sentences (the first 90+ lessons will give you over 1500 sentences).

So what's the best way to use SpanishPod? Of course to listen to the podcasts, but try to listen to the ones you like (subjects you like, of course) and things you think you may need in the near future, and listen to them often. The podcasts aren't linked together liked normal lessons, so you can pick out the ones you want to do first. Also, find out what's the highest level you can take at the moment. The first few levels are in English, but later on (the higher levels) they're entirely in Spanish (which is good, because you want to have a lot exposure. Believe me, you want to get to it quickly). Listen every podcast a few times and read along with the dialogue. Also try to mine sentences from the dialogue to add to Anki.

Next thing to do is (if you have a premium account, or when you're still in the trial period) to copy the sentences from the expansion part to Anki. This won't take much time, and you're even learning from quickly seeing the sentences. As Anki supports audio, it might be a nice idea to download and edit the fix (this comes with every podcast, but is premium content) to add the audio of the sentence to the written sentence. The fix contains the loose vocabulary, but it also has each and every example sentence from the expansion tab as audio.

So not a member? Sign up NOW! (Yeah, some blatant advertising from my side, but I mean each and every word of it).

Stay tuned for more b*d-*ss material tips!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

How difficult is it to study Spanish?

People often ask me if it's hard to study Spanish, or they simply say it is a tricky language to learn. However, the biggest problem for them is that they see this 'wall' (an unknown language) and think it's almost impossible for them to get around it, or that only smart people can learn Spanish or another language. The truth is, however, that Spanish is one of the easiest languages to learn, if your native tongue is a European language. But even if it isn't; you already know English (otherwise you wouldn't understand this post) and English and Spanish share the same alphabet and other nice things (the spelling of Spanish is nothing compared to English; they came up with a 'concept' where you spell the things how you say them. [sarcasm]WOW![/sarcasm]). According to Khatzumoto (yeah, sorry, I like the way he thinks. And he is just right regarding a lot of things) it's possible for everyone to learn Japanese, so why wouldn't you be able to learn Spanish?

So how is it possible that people study Spanish for years and years, and that they're still not able to have even the simplest conversations? It's just a matter of choosing the wrong approach. A lot of people use textbooks with artificial conversations, old words, boring content, etc., etc. Textbooks are expecting someone to know a rule by heart by just seeing three examples, or force people to learn out-of-context words. So it's not that Spanish is difficult, that's what some people want you to believe. Just look to some of the advantages you have as a speaker of the English language:

It has the same alphabet, is spelled phonetically, has some of the easiest sounds to produce, has a clear grammar, not many hard-to-pronounce words, etc., etc. So far I can see it's pretty easy to study Spanish. The only thing that lacks most of the time, is that people believe they can't do it. Why would say if it's impossible if you didn't even try?

So, the biggest hurdle to take is to say to yourself: I. Can. Do. It. NOW! And instead of just saying it and then doing nothing, start acting like you can do it. Gather materials, USE them and you'll see Spanish really is one of the easlier languages to master. "Ahhhhh, sure Ramses. I can start studying Spanish, but my accent will suck anyway, I will never master the grammar or idioms and I will NEVER have a big vocabulary" you might say. Nonsense, I will say. Just go, study, enjoy the language. Enjoy your progress, enjoy hanging out with Spanish people. Enjoy each and every thing you do in Spanish, enjoy using Spanish. Just say to yourself: I can do it, and I WILL succeed and master Spanish to the point where I can say it's my second (or third) native language. It's not that hard, it's perfectly possible.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Colour your words

Previously I wrote about word lists and that I believe they don't work. Don't worry, I still think they don't work, but I had some discussions the last few days about it with some people. They find sentences way too confusing to learn the most important words. Also, I've noticed something in my own learning method which should boost your learning progress aswell. But first I'll tell you how I used to create my sentences in Anki.

When I first began to use sentences I was worried about the fact that I wouldn't learn individual words. So instead of just adding sentences I'd first add the infinitive or noun and then the example sentence. Something like this:

La gasolina es más cara que el gasóleo

Petrol is more expensive than diesel

First I thought this was perfect. But I soon found out that adding the infinitive is just useless. I don't want to use Spanish like it's a programmed language. I don't like to think too much about grammar which causes me to be less fluent. I want to be able to get an intuition, just get the flow of the language and understand most of what I hear in a small amount of time. So I decided to get rid of the infinitive and make sentences like this:

La gasolina es más cara que el gasóleo

Petrol is more expensive than diesel

Ever since I've been using this format. And it works, it simply works. After a few months practicing my few hundred sentences like this I was able to have nice conversations and even pull off more complex presentations. But after a update of Anki, which enables people to add colours to their words and sentences, I've come up with the idea to colour the hard words to help them stick better. So instead of just making a word bold, you can simply add a colour to it, which (according to some studies) boosts the learning progress. And again, everything is much more clear right now, because of the extra attention to difficult words and parts. This is how my sentences look like right now:

La gasolina es más cara que el gasóleo

Petrol is more expensive than diesel

Of course this is just a simple example, most of my sentences are more complex than this. Besides, it's possible that I have only one coloured word in a sentence, or none. But the thing is that you need to analyze your sentences, read them aloud (if you're alone, of course), write them down (if that's possible, I don't do it normally), etc., etc. Giving colour to the words not only helps you with remembering them in the future, it also helps you with analyzing them because you can distinguish the coloured words easier and see their translations faster aswell.

So bring colour to your sentences and let your learning be more fruitful!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Spanish natives are just cooler

Why are Spanish people cooler than the people from your own country? I don't know, just because they are! Ok, the truth is that you can simply learn a lot from them. Not only language-wise, but you will also learn a lot about the country where they're from. My class counts about 7 nationalities, of which 5 are from a Spanish-speaking country. Every day they teach me 'official' Spanish words, slang words and give me a better view on their culture. Not for the sake of learning, but just because they seem to be cooler I 'hang' with them.

My last stay in Spain I had the chance to spend time with some very cool people, from other countries than Spain (nor they were speaking Spanish like a native). Instead I choose to get myself some new friends, Spanish friends. In the beginning this was kinda hard, because where do you get a pack of new friends? Luckily I was visiting some Dutch friends who know a lot of Spanish people, so I was soon going out with Spanish people aswell. It simply boosted my knowledge of the language and increased my feeling for it. Besides, I also gained a bigger liking for Spanish.

Of course it can be tiresome for natives to always correct you or to learn you new things. You should be aware of that and not want to learn new things language-wise all the time. What you can do is spend some time talking about the differences between your culture and their culture. Often you will see that Spanish speaking people are really interested in completely other cultures. Even the fact that Dutch people have their supper at 6PM amazed a lot of Spaniards. This way you'll pick up some serious new vocabulary, understanding of the grammar AND get a better understanding of the customs of your new friends.

A lot of people say that the best way to learn a language is to go to the country where it's spoken. This can be true is some cases, but it's not fool proof. What will work is to get know some very cool, new, people where you go out with. They'll be happy to help you with your learning and you will pick up an understanding of a new culture aswell. The nice thing about this is that you can find natives in your own country. Go to parties where Spanish speaking people go to. For example; a few months ago there was a big salsa festival in the Netherlands. Some classmates of mine went and met some very cool Spanish speaking people. So don't say it's impossible, just look for the right opportunity. You will find your pack of Spanish speaking friends.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Word lists don't work (and why they don't work)

When beginning with Spanish, your first goal is probably to get a big basic vocabulary. That's a logical step, as you want to understand at least bits of the Spanish you read or hear. You probably learn a nice amount of chunks to survive in a simple Spanish conversation. That's all fine and good, but how are acquiring a new vocabulary? Word lists? Alphabetical word lists? Thematic word lists? Frequency word lists? It doesn't matter and I don't care. As long it's a word list without example sentences (sentences are gooood, because you can add them to your Spaced Repetition System) they're worthless and mostly work contra-productive.

When I started majoring Spanish in college I knew almost nothing. Ok, I knew how to say hello and ask people how they're doing. But that's nothing. So I first started with reading a lot, which I still like. I even made a word list for my tests, just to survive. The first word list was also the last one, and I used it for about 20 minutes. It just didn't like it, it was dull and gave me the feeling I wasn't learning anything. However, I've had many discussions with classmates who think word lists are the one true learning method. They learn a few hundred words before an important test, know them for about three days and then forget 95% of what they've learned. It's no surprise they've only made little progress or at least not as much as I did. The only reason I've learned so much in the past few months is because I started to learn everything in context. I got myself a thematic dictionary, but not to learn the words but to add the example sentences each word has to my SRS.

So what's the reason word lists don't work? "I'll get myself a big word list and add it to my Spaced Repetition System" you might say. Good luck... with failing, I would say. The weakness of word lists isn't just the way you use to tackle them. It's the concept itself. Loose words are useless, especially in a language like Spanish. Unless the language you're learning is Esperanto (where word order isn't that important and words stay the same most of the time - but not always) I wouldn't even consider learning loose words, it's a waste of time and energy. Almost every word in a Spanish sentence depends on a noun, subject or a specific tense. Learning words in one particular form is just useless, and again a waste of energy. You want to see everything in context, using sentences for your plain learning moments or simply watch tv or listen to the radio. It doesn't matter, as long as the words are in context.

The power of context is not only that you get a better understanding of the Spanish grammar or that you get an intuition. Every sentence tells you something, and the words you don't know will stick better if you understand what the sentence is trying to say to you. Analyze your SRS sentences, look for the unknown words and special forms of verbs and nouns. Look for the awkward things in Spanish, it'll be even funny. Each and every sentence which contains a hard to remember word will help you to remember that particular word. It will also help you with remembering most of the other words in the sentence AND the grammatical structure. So throw your word lists away, get yourself a (thematic) dictionary word LOTS of example sentences and start adding them to Anki. Don't have a computer at hand? Doesn't matter, just listen an audiobook or a podcast. Don't want to use the computer but just being plain lazy? Doesn't matter, fire up a DVD with Spanish audio (even a lot of dubbed ones are fun to watch. Me for example always enjoy Bad Boys 2, it's just funny as ****) - better not turn on the subtitles (not even the Spanish ones), they make you lazy.

It doesn't matter how you acquire vocabulary. It doesn't matter how long it takes before you feel confident (but hopefully it won't take too long either). Just do a little bit every day, in context, and you WILL build an impressive vocabulary.

Monday, March 3, 2008

How to roll your R

Check the post on the new blog!

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Reading children's books

Every serious language learner encouters it soon enough; a too small vocabulary. Vocabulary is one of the most important things, because you can get fairly far without a strong grammar base. That's why you want to build your vocabulary FAST. "Ahhh, that's easy! I just use a list with the 3,000 most common Spanish words" you might say. Well mate, loose words suck. You want to use sentences instead. But sentences will mostly help you in the long run, instead of in the very beginning.

So what's the best way then? It's hard to say what's the best way, because it's probably as case of combining several methods and investing a lot of time, especially in the beginning (not that I'm saying you should invest less when you're further on your way to fluency). However, reading children's books can and will help your progress significantly. I've discussed "children's books" for adults in the past, but just too short to be useful. What you want are books which are most useful to adult learning and which use a limited lexicon. Books as de ones of the University of Salamanca and esparaleer are probably the best ones around. They don't really contain dull children's stories, but rather short stories which are enjoyable for adults. The downside is that most of the books are quite short, so you want to get yourself at least 3 or 4 to do some serious reading.

So, you have been reading the books and you like them. Starting at level 1, which uses about 400 words, and working you way to level 6, which uses about 2,500 words - taking the books of the University of Salamanca as example (getting to level 6 will take, of course, a lot of work besides reading these books). But what is the best way to use them?

A good friend of mine who speaks several languages at near-native level, says he just takes a book he really likes and start reading, a dictionary at his side to look up unfamiliar words. Normally he won't look up every word he doesn't know, but rather take the words which he stumbles upon more than a few times. This is a method he generally uses for longer books, such as novels. But it can be used for short books aswell. Applying this method to the espareleer books, for example, will result in building up a basic vocabulary fast. An extra feature these books have, is an explanation (in Spanish) for difficult words, just at the bottom of the page the word is on.

But beware, don't read a book just once. Ok, most esparaleer and Santillana (the ones of the University of Salamanca) books are written in the same style, but it's possible that another book relies on another basic vocabulary. The thing you want in this case, is to know each and every book you're going to 'tackle' very well. Add sentences to your Anki database, add words you like or find difficult to your personal notebook (and write one or two example under the word) or mark the words in your book (if it's yours). Do anything you want, as long as you learn from it. The strength of this is that you see everything is context, which is the most important thing in gaining vocabulary. You want to learn these words NOW, and you will. You in the end you will also want to know the structure of Spanish, gain an intuition. You will, but be sure to do everything in context. Even analyze the sentences in the easiesier books, you will find out this can be fun. Read, look up, write down, analyze. Do this with children's books or the simple books mentioned before, and you will get a bigger basic vocabulary soon.