How to study for my class… and how to keep learning afterwards
These tips are intended mostly for first year language students, although advanced language students can benefit from them as well. One of the most important factors in successful language learning is motivation. If you want to learn Spanish, you will be interested in studying and using the language and will take pleasure in your progress, even if it is slow. If not, you should study another language or subject which does interest you.
In certain ways, learning Spanish is like being a zoologist. In other ways, however, it is like being a musician, learning to play tennis, or studying math. It is like studying math in that good control of the skills taught at the beginning level is important for success at subsequent levels. Just as you must first master basic operations before starting algebra, and must have a sound basis in algebra and geometry before progressing to trigonometry and then calculus, the skills taught in the first language courses are essential and used daily in the later courses.
Learning Spanish is like playing tennis in that what matters is how well you are able to perform certain tasks, not theoretical knowledge about how those tasks are to be performed. Understanding what topspin is and when it should be applied to the ball will not get you very far unless you can actually apply topspin to the ball, and do so in the right circumstances. Simply knowing a set of guidelines for describing actions in the past in Spanish is useless unless you are able to put those guidelines to work and accurately describe actions in the past. Concentrate on practicing your language skills, not simply learning about them.
A good musician constantly listens to the sounds produced by others and seeks to
imitate aspects of those sounds in his or her own playing. In doing so, every characteristic of the sound is considered: pitch, tonal quality, rhythm, changes in dynamic level, etc. Likewise, when learning Spanish you must listen to all aspects of speech and strive to imitate the patterns you hear. This will require the production of sounds you may have never produced before. You will probably not be able to make all these new sounds or patterns of sound the first time you try. Don't worry about your early failure, it is normal; keep practicing.
In learning Spanish, rules and patterns of usage can be seen to emerge. But it would be a mistake to think of the rules and patterns as if they were like those of Euclidean geometry, always holding true in every circumstance. Imagine instead that you are a zoologist observing an animal (the Spanish language)
in the field. Its behavior is quite complex, and just when you think you have it figured out it does something unexpected. Its behavior changes over the years and differs from one location to another. Sometimes it seems quite irrational. You must learn to be comfortable with this complexity and contradiction. The Spanish language was not conceived as a rational easy-to-learn system of expressing ideas, but has evolved over
centuries and continues to evolve in response to complex circumstances.
Here is some practical advice for your studying
- Many brief study periods are more beneficial than one long study session. This is a good thing if you don't have a lot of time to study; it allows
you to make good use of numerous 10 or 20 minute segments during the day.
- Constantly review old material. This will help keep it fresh; once you have
learned something it is not very time-consuming to maintain that knowledge.
- Read aloud. Your speaking and listening skills will benefit from it.
- Relate words to the real world. In studying vocabulary, don't try to imagine
the English equivalents of the Spanish words you are leaning, but rather the things, actions or concepts in the physical world which those words represent. (Of course, this is easier with some words than with others.) A good way to practice this is to use your vocabulary and constructions to describe the people and things you see around you every day as you sit at home or walk around campus or drive through town.
- Learn to tolerate ambiguity. It will be many years before you can recognize all
or even most of the commonly-used Spanish expressions and constructions. While you should
strive for full comprehension in your listening and reading, you must learn to be comfortable with understanding the gist of what is said or written, filling in the blanks in your understanding by making educated guesses based on context or linguistic clues. Context: what meaning would be the most logical or make the most sense in this case? Linguistic clues: could this expression be related to others I already know? Does it look or sound like an English word or expression?
- Take risks and make mistakes. With the exception of your formal compositions, for which I wish to see mastery of current skills, you should always be "pushing the envelope" and trying to move beyond your current level of skill. This is especially true in speaking. Become comfortable with the idea of making mistakes, because everyone in class will make many mistakes, they are an important part of the learning process.
- Learn to negotiate meaning. In speaking with others, if you do not understand part of
what is said, ask a question to help you find out the missing information.
- Different skills will progress at different rates. It is always easier to read than to write, to listen than to speak. It is normal for these skills to progress at different rates.
- See the world differently. The Spanish and English languages divide reality up along
different lines. For example, some things for which we have two different words in English, such as clock and watch, are expressed by the same word in Spanish: reloj. Other things that are expressed by different words in Spanish. Both pimiento and pimienta, are usually translated by the same word in English: pepper (A green bell pepper is a pimiento; pepper to be sprinkled on food is pimienta.) This works not only at the lexical level but at the structural level as well. The Spanish language can express the very same ideas that the English language can, but sometimes uses a different structure to do so.
- Re-learn the alphabet. Spanish uses the same alphabet that English does (with the addition of a few extra symbols) but the sounds those letters represent are not quite the same sounds as in English, and sometimes are very different. When learning vocabulary in class or with other pronunciation models to follow (such as audio recordings) strive to imitate the sounds you hear, not the sounds the letters of the words would represent if it were an English word.
- Keep an even rhythm. Spanish is a syllable-timed language. Each syllable, whether it is stressed (accented) or not, has about the same duration. English is a stress-timed language, which keeps the time between stressed (accented) syllables roughly even, no matter how many unstressed syllables are in between.
- Pitch is important and carries meaning. Changing the musical pitch (intonation; whether your voice is high or low) of a sentence can turn it from a statement to a question. Pitch, along with stress (the accented syllable), timing and rhythm all carry meaning and may be different from English.
- Pronounce unstressed vowels. In English, unstressed (unaccented) vowels tend to make an uh sound, which is called the schwa. This does not happen in Spanish. In general, all vowels are pronounced like they are spelled.
The following acvitities are useful both for learning while taking a class and for maintaining your skills after the end of the term.
- If you use your skills in one fashion or another they will grow. If you do nothing, you'll see them shrink. To put it briefly, use it or lose it.
- Find conversation partners. Practice Spanish language conversation with others who share your same interests, not only in class, but especially outside of class.
- Read about subjects you are interested in. You can find almost anything you want to read about in Spanish on the internet. Using the advanced options of most major search engines will allow you to restrict the langauge of your results. You can also use a search engine based in a Spanish-speaking country.
- Watch subtitled movies from Spain or Latin America. Reading the English-language subtitles as you actively listen to the dialogue in Spanish will help increase your comprehension and vocabulary.
- Watch English-language movies on DVD while viewing the Spanish-language subtitles. Most DVDs offer this feature. Some also have dubbed dialogue in Spanish, which you can display with English subtitles if you wish, or with none at all. (If you
display the Spanish subtitles with the dubbed Spanish dialogue, you will discover that while conveying the same meaning, they are rarely word-for-word the same. This is because sometimes they are written at different times by different translators, and also because the dubbed dialogue has to be delivered while the actor's mouths are moving on the screen,
which restricts its duration.)
- Communicate with others who share common interests in chat rooms or by e-mail.
- Read the dictionary, either a Spanish-English dictionary, or a Spanish-Spanish dictionary, depending on your level. This is definitely not for everybody; some people would be bored to tears by this, but both Malcolm X and American poet Gregory Corso read the (English) Dictionary to educate themselves while in prison. You may wish to use a highlighter pen and treat a short dictionary as your personal vocabulary list.
- Watch TV or listen to the radio in Spanish. At first it will seem that the announcers and actors are talking awfully fast, but you'll get used to it. If you have cable TV where you live you may be able to get Univisión or another
Spanish language channel. WebTV or web radio is another possibility, as is shortwave radio (or Ham radio if you want conversation partners.) Watching or listening to the World News can be helpful, especially if you've already heard the news in English that day.
That way you'll already know the “plot” more or less for many of the news stories.
- Listen to music in Spanish. Sing if you feel like it!