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 you begin to study, you may discover it's more difficult than you realized.
You have to study grammar rules. Some expressions in the Spanish language translate easily, while others don't translate at all. Sometimes, the vocabulary you try to learn includes low-frequency words that Spanish speakers seldom use in everyday conversation.
Then, once you think you have a grasp on the theory, you have to put it into practice. Suddenly, you are back on shaky ground. Words you thought you had learned elude you. You speak hesitantly and muddle your points of grammar. Your mind freezes up as you worry about making mistakes or frustrating the person you're trying to communicate with. You worry when you hear native speakers use the language in a way that wasn't taught to you, or when you don't manage to understand every single word they say. You may even begin to feel that learning the language is too complicated, and entertain thoughts of giving up.
Such fears prevent you from acquiring fluency. But, it is important to persevere.
The best way to learn is so simple that you were doing it when you were a kid; it's just that you have since forgotten the method. When you were acquiring your mother tongue, you didn't do it by studying grammar and memorizing vocabulary lists. You just plunged in. You never gave up. And, you 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! All children learn something new through curiosity, and also by encountering a real world example, which means the term is more likely to stick with that child for life. Now, the child can test his or her new word by applying it to different situations. The TV is broken. The car is broken. The computer is broken. First, the child creates an image, then he or she forms sentences.
Before we went to school when we were children, 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:
We listened. We heard people talk and then we spoke.
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.”
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.
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!