Casting Aside Myths to Learning Spanish Efficiently

The most common mistake I’ve seen with Spanish students is that they don’t make an effort at the beginning to learn how to make the sounds. The double “rr” is the only difficult sound, so you can create the illusion that you are nearly fluent in a week or two with minimal effort.

In the Leitner system, correctly-answered cards are advanced to the next, less frequent box, while incorrectly-answered cards return to the first box. Text and diagram courtesy of Wikipedia.

The next most common mistake is to try to learn too many words. You’ll encounter many uncommon words once, so memorize only the common words. Your most important tool is A Frequency Dictionary of Spanish, which lists in order the 5000 most common words. Use a Leitner System flash card tool, a form of spaced repetition, to learn the first 1000. I use an iPod Touch because I already stare at a laptop too often. When you reach intermediate level, memorize the next thousand or two.

Avoid Badly Prioritizing Your Studying
If you’re a beginner, don’t waste your time learning the Spanish subjunctive; it’s only used 2% of the time. If you’re saying “actualmente” rather than “en realidad”; or if you confuse ser and estar; or if you pronounce vowels wrong or make the English ‘z’ sound; then your priorities are wrong. Learn the subjunctive after you’ve mastered the 1000 most common words and can conjugate irregular verbs in the common tenses.

Don’t waste your time using songs to learn common words. It’s more fun than flash cards but is ten times less productive. Learning Spanish is the hardest thing you’ll ever do, so don’t make it harder than necessary!

Children Don’t Learn Spanish Faster than Adults
Don’t believe the widely repeated nonsensical myth that children learn faster than adults. If you’re reading this, then you’re almost surely an adult. Ben Casnocha explains:

This seems to be one of the most dangerous myths circulating about language learning. We are damn good at coming up with excuses or rationalizations!

Various shooting paths used by college students in Beer Pong. You can learn Spanish faster than these students because you're more motivated. Diagram courtesy of Wikipedia.

A child uses the net to play games and listen to music, while college students use it to access Facebook to inform their friends about the amount of alcohol they’ve recently consumed and their performance in Beer Pong. College students could conceivably learn faster than older adults, but study Spanish solely to meet a credential requirement, which is a silly reason. They know this, of course, so they consume alcohol to escape from a society that overvalues credentials to maintain jobs for college professors, administrators, and lobbyists. Motivation is more important than physical capability; a student who wants to learn to use the language for a practical purpose will learn faster.

In reality, children learn Spanish much slower than adults because they’ve never learned a language based on Latin, as you have. They must learn grammar that is nearly identical in Spanish and English, and I suspect that 50-70% of the Spanish and English words are cognates. If you know what “verity” and “veracity” and “infirmity” mean, then you’ll memorize “verdad” and “enfermedad” faster than a child.

Find an Interesting Spanish Video to Transcribe
Children have more acute hearing than adults, so you’ll find it difficult to understand Spanish speakers. The best way to learn to listen is to search on YouTube for a video that you can practice transcribing that is available in Spanish and English. I use an episode of the Megastructures TV program about the Palm Island in Dubai (Isla Palmera in Spanish). Use Audacity sound editing software to slow down the sound so that you can transcribe as much as possible. You’ll find it necessary to check your work using the English version because it’s a daunting exercise.

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