One of the questions I'm most frequently asked is: "How can I become fluent in Spanish?”
The answer is simple: with practice. First, you need to choose the kind of Spanish you want to learn. Although Spanish is spoken in many countries and the grammar is the same, there are important differences to consider. For example, the Spanish from Spain is not the same as the Spanish in Mexico. These differences can be in pronunciation, local expressions, and even some pronouns.
However, when we begin to study, we may discover it's more difficult than we realized.
We have to study grammar rules. Some expressions in our language translate easily, while others don't translate at all and vice versa. Sometimes, the vocabulary we try to learn includes low-frequency words that we seldom use in everyday conversation.
Then, once we think we have a grasp on the theory, we have to put it into practice. Suddenly, we are back on shaky ground. Words we thought we had learned elude us. We speak hesitantly and muddle our points of grammar. Our minds freeze up as we worry about making mistakes or frustrating the person we're trying to communicate with. We worry when we hear native speakers use the language in a way that wasn't taught to us, or when we don't manage to understand every single word they say. We may even begin to feel that learning the language is too complicated, and entertain thoughts of giving up.
Such fears prevent us from acquiring fluency. But, it is important to persevere.
The best way to learn is so simple that we were doing it when we were kids; it's just that we have since forgotten the method. When we were acquiring our mother tongues, we didn't do it by studying grammar and memorizing vocabulary lists. We just plunged in. We never gave up. And, we weren't afraid to ask questions. This is most obvious during what in Mexico is known as the 'why's age. It’s common in Mexico to say, “My son is in the 'why's age (edad de los ¿Por qués?).” Any parent of a toddler will be all too familiar with this at-times-endearing and at-times-infuriating stage. An example of such a conversation may go like this:
Child: “What are you doing, Dad?”
Father: “I’m fixing the TV.”
Child: “Why are you fixing the TV?”
Father: “Because, it doesn’t work.”
Child: “Why is it not working?”
Father: “Because, it’s broken.”
Child: “What does broken mean?”
Aha! We learned something new through curiosity, and also by encountering a real world example which means the term is more likely to stick with us. Now, we can test our new word by applying it to different situations. The TV is broken. The car is broken. The computer is broken. First, we created an image, then we formed sentences.
Before we went to school, we didn’t know about verbs, articles, sentences and nouns. We learned to speak without knowing the formal rules of grammar. They were taught to us after we learned to speak.
When we were starting to talk, we followed these four steps:
1. We listened. We heard people talk and then we spoke.
2. We repeated what we heard, but we didn't understand it, we babbled. Then we began to say our first words correctly through image association. Words like Mom, Dad, milk, dog. For example, when we saw a cat, we said meow! But, our parents gave us the word. They told us “Cat, it’s a cat.”
3. We read. This was taught in school, after we learned to talk. Teachers first taught us the letters of the alphabet and syllables before we learned to write.
4. We wrote.
So, don't waste your time trying to translate the meaning of every word you hear into your native language. When you think you need to know a new word, ask yourself why? If you really need to learn it, do so in several phrases or sentences instead of trying to learn the word itself in isolation. Create an image in your mind as you learn the word. If we follow these steps, and are mindful of the processes we just mentioned, the method will work. We know it does, because we all speak our mother tongue fluently. With perseverance, we'll be fluent in our target language, too!