How to Teach Yourself a foreign Language in Five Steps
“Necessity is the mother of invention.”
I still remember when I affirmed my decision to learn Spanish. It was a nearly a year ago. As I write this now, I can confidently say, I have achieved that goal. I taught myself to speak Spanish fluently and fluidly, and you can teach yourself to speak another language too!
Please note, fluency is not mastery. I haven’t mastered Spanish to the degree I’d like to yet, but that takes time, and I am consistently working towards it. However, if you were to hear me speaking, you wouldn’t know I hadn’t achieved mastery unless you were a native speaker..
When I made my decision to learn Spanish, I had just been hired to run orientations for a diverse charter high school in Austin. The job description was for someone bilingual in English and Spanish, and preferably Arabic too. My boyfriend at the time forwarded me the listing confident it’d be the perfect fit.
I agreed, but there was one problem: I didn’t actually speak Spanish. I mean I spoke Spanish the way anyone does after learning it in high school: hardly. Still, because I’d been raised in a bilingual home, I had an ear for foreign languages. When I lived in Japan, I challenged myself to learn enough Japanese to get my family and me around. When I lived in Amsterdam, I challenged myself to learn enough Dutch to show off at parties.
All in all, I was confident in my ability to acquire a third language—overly ambitious even, as many of us are when we set out to tackle a new goal. In the interview for the school, ironically, I wasn’t asked to demonstrate my Spanish ability. They were certain that if there was anything I had exaggerated about in my resume, it was being fluent in Arabic. So they tested me, and to their surprise (and my relief), I communicated flawlessly with one of their Iraqi students.
They brushed over the Spanish at that point, because we live in Texas, and I look Latina. Questioning my Spanish seemed like a waste of time after they’d just heard me go off in Arabic. I was lucky, but I also had quite the challenge on my plate: to learn Spanish before I lead my first orientation. I knew I would be in training for a month before that, so I got to work.
Here’s how I taught myself Spanish, and how you can teach yourself a language, in five steps:
Listen and learn.
As children, we listen to language the first several months of our lives before we attempt to speak. Listening to a foreign language helps us learn the cadence and flow of how sentences are structured. Everyday during my hour lunch break, I streamed a classic Mexican telenovela (soap opera) Rubi. For the duration of the hour, I’d sit and listen to the actors interacting. I paid attention to the words that came up often and wrote them down. In time, I was able to understand enough to write down more words that I recognized. Then once the episode finished, I would write down the translations for all the words I took down and study them. I did this for an entire month, sometimes spending hours after work watching Rubi (frankly, how hard is it to binge-watch a good show…even in a language you don’t understand?).
Obviously, speaking a new language is much more intimidating than listening to it, so I took baby steps. I started practicing with people I was comfortable with. Luckily, my boyfriend at the time was Mexican, so he was an accessible resource. On one of our first dates, we spoke in Spanish for two hours! It’s truly astonishing how much of a language you can learn simply by exposing yourself to it daily. I was able to have a conversation, albeit mostly in the present tense, with flawless cadence and rhythm. In addition to speaking, I downloaded Duolingo which is the most popular language learning application in the world. Best part? It’s completely free, and has a podcast you can follow along with. When you first get started, it asks you to set a daily goal for your practice. I chose to do twenty minutes, which the most you can do, because I had a hardline deadline to learn the language. On days where I wasn’t as motivated, I’d make up for it for tackling on an extra twenty minutes another day. Duolingo was tremendous in improving my grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary.
Apply what you learn to real life.
This was the most challenging feat of all the steps. No one wants to sound silly when they speak, especially when it’s part of their job to know a language. I didn’t want to give these high school students an opportunity to make fun of me, but I also had to step up to the plate and own my role. The first few orientations I lead in Spanish, I read off of a Google doc I’d prepared ahead of time. It contained more or less everything I’d need to say to accommodate the tasks we had to complete, as well as various phrases that explained that I’m still a Spanish learner, and to please speak slowly for me to understand. The orientations ended up being much smoother than I could have anticipated, mainly because Spanish is such a warm and welcoming language because of the cultures that speak it. Every one of my students made me feel supported on my linguistic journey. They often complimented my Spanish and were astonished when they learned I also spoke Arabic. I, in turn, used my own example as the potential they had to learn English. I showed them my color-coded journal, filled with words and phrases in Spanish in red on the left, and their English translations in black on the column alongside them. I told them of the hours spent translating popular reggaeton songs and how I listened to the news every morning in Spanish. It was motivating for them to see that one could acquire a foreign language with exposure and practice, and above all, patience, which takes me to the fourth step.
Hire a tutor.
Even with a Mexican boyfriend and a job that required me to speak Spanish everyday, the immersion was not rich enough. Unless the native speaker you’re practicing with is always willing to correct your errors and offer explanations, then you run the risk of retaining the language incorrectly. Moreover, working at the school meant most of my conversations revolved more or less around the same academic topics which limited the amount of vocabulary I was picking up on a daily basis. Hiring a tutor when I did was a great decision. I’d been learning alone for a year with a new journal that was almost maxed out. During our first session, the tutor got a feel for my level. He drew a line and labeled it one to five. He drew a point between three and four, the dot being closer to four. He explained that I was an intermediate speaker who could pass for fluent if she didn’t have to elaborate in the past tense. For some reason, I’d mastered the present and future tense, but had gotten away without communicating often in the past tense.
In the weeks to come, we worked on my pronunciation and grammar. I learned how to use the subjunctive form, a concept that admittedly still amazes me. There’s an entire form in Spanish dedicated to desires and things that were supposed to happen but never did, or are yet to. I’m in love with this idea, because it shows how much of life is still left up to chance. Anyway, I benefited greatly from this tutor. He enjoyed my enthusiasm and always added time to our session because of it. But even my sessions with him reached a plateau. We both knew that in order for me to advance, I’d need to be fully immersed in the language, which is the fifth and final step in mastering a language. This meant that I’d need to move to a Spanish speaking country.
The idea excited me, and went down in my list of goals several weeks later. This is where I stand now, fluent and comfortable when speaking Spanish, but still hungry for a creative native tongue. There’s a difference between communicating clearly and making art out of conversation. As a writer, I am undeniably drawn to being able to do the latter. In Arabic as well as English, I speak before I think, or without thinking. Words flow through me and sometimes when I look back, I have no idea how it happened. But with Spanish, I still feel a two-step process to my communication: formulating the sentences in my head before I say them. Hence, I’ve set a goal to move to Argentina once the lease on my apartment in Austin is up. Until then, I keep myself immersed by conversing with language partners and pen pals—people I’ve met on the Internet from Spanish speaking countries. This has been a great opportunity for me to learn about other cultures and keep my conversational Spanish sharp in preparation for my move.
To conclude, learning a new language is absolutely possible for anyone. It won’t be easy, but learning a skill that’s worthwhile hardly is. I hope this post inspires you to take on that new language you’ve expressed interest in. If you have any questions about setting out on your linguistic feat, feel free to email me or drop a comment below.