By Mónica Barnkow
As a Spanish instructor, one of the questions my students more frequently ask is how long it takes to become fluent. I usually answer with a modest smile, a brief pause, and two words: It depends. As much as I enjoy answering questions, when it comes to this particular one, the reality is, there is no definite answer, as the speed at which people learn varies from student to student and is dependent upon multiple factors.
Far from being taken aback by my sobering words and, worse, losing hope of ever becoming fluent, the proactive student will instead look into those factors that play a positive role in the acquisition of the new language, and envision a personal learning plan to achieve the desired goals.
How can I help? Well, besides being a Spanish instructor, I am a foreign language learner as well. For the past two years, I have been teaching myself German - two years without counting my early attempt at the tender age of twelve. For whatever reason, I find the language of Goethe to be highly attractive, complex, enjoyable - and difficult. Everyday is a struggle. But every day, regardless, I jump at it again. You should face Spanish with the same heroic drive!
Now that we have established some common ground as fellow foreign language learners, I want to share with you some healthy approaches that have worked for me, and hopefully will work for you as well. Kindly take my humble advise and use those tips that best suit you and disregard those that do not.
I believe that learning a new language is somewhat analogous to working out. When we go to the gym we normally engage into action muscles that would not otherwise be engaged in our day-to-day life. Learning a new language requires a similar effort. Just like the results of routinely working out are not visible overnight and we tend to become anxious over the long-term process that takes our physique to show signs of progress, fluency in our target language takes many moons and many suns. It is an unavoidable truth that perseverance and hard work are key factors to success.
Continuing with the gym analogy, I am a firm believer that your muscles get lazy if you put them through the same exercises over and over again. Trust me, I am a fitness enthusiast as well. Overtime, repetitive motion causes desired results not to materialize into the reality we are aiming for. When it comes to learning a new language, the same holds true. Variety is key.
So, avail yourself of a variety of learning avenues. Be a promiscuous learner and do not attempt at loyalty toward a single source. Aim for a balanced routine. For example, listen to your favorite podcast while having coffee in the morning, take a look at your grammar book while riding the subway to work, do five minutes of Duolingo during your lunch hour, and put yourself to sleep while trying to patiently, aided by a dictionary, decipher the meaning of an obscure Borges paragraph.
One thing that I find problematic is that many students are convinced that widespread myths regarding learning a new language are true. One of them is that if you don’t learn a language as a kid you won’t ever be able to do so. Wrong! Trust my word on this one. The truth is we don’t ever get that old to learn new things. In fact, I believe that nobody ever gets old, period. But that is another discussion entirely… As a matter of fact, it was precisely my adult students who inspired me to resume my German learning after an extended hiatus. After witnessing their accomplishments first-hand, I pushed myself to do just exactly what these students were successfully doing in their adulthoods. Their progress was visible and their effort and drive were clearly the only explanation to that progress. If they can do it, I thought, why can’t I?
A common mistake a lot of people make when setting up goals for themselves is failing to be realistic. When it comes to learning a new language, it is important not to be overly ambitious; instead, set realistic goals that fit your needs, your schedule, and who you are. Keeping rigid schedules and frigid study plans that you cannot stick to will only make you grow sour over time, with the risk of boycotting the whole thing entirely eventually. Pat yourself in the back for your day-to-day accomplishments, and don’t punish yourself for getting off track. Embrace your shortcomings, get back on your feet, and do it again!
Mónica Barnkow is a Spanish Language Instructor at Berges NYC.