December 27

Learning a new language part 1: More than watching TV (Listening)


Learning language is an extremely interesting skill. As an educator, I know that language plays a crucial role in our brain and cognitive development. Each area of interest has its own vocabulary and syntax, and as a science teacher, the sheer number of new words and concepts is staggering.

But living in another culture requires some mental gymnastics around language acquisition. A common point of advice is to watch television in the new language. I think that's great advice, but my real language advancement has come when I had to engage more than one skill in the real world. There are four major language development skills (at least in today's world): Speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Gentle reader, would you like some practical tips for each of these four skills?

This post, we will tackle listening.

I'm often asked how I learned Spanish, and I always preface my answer with, "I'm a horrible Spanish student." It's true. I don't study as much as I should, I haven't memorized conjugations of critical verbs, and often have to use "caveman talk" to get my point across. I still have so much to learn, and I'm learning over a long period of time, and for the rest of my life.

Before I lived in Spain in 2013, I found a language tool that really helped me begin my Spanish journey. It's called Fluenz, and this tool concentrates on listening, reading, writing, and pronunciation. Every lesson is a short conversation that is then explained to you, word-for-word, by a bilingual speaker. Following the lesson, there are multiple exercises to build your proficiency.

What I really appreciate about the Fluenz approach, though, is the gradual acquisition of new vocabulary, new concepts, and new language uses in a progressive pattern. I really thrive in structured learning environments, and this tool gave me the steps I needed when I first started learning Spanish.

Watching TV (or YouTube videos) is good advice once you have reached a level that you can understand some of the language. Don't be discouraged if it's too difficult, because that is a sign that it is, in fact, too difficult. Head for a kid's show instead, or a cartoon. Find a YouTube video that is the right level for you (search "learning Spanish" and find a teacher and a structure that appeals to you). Podcasts, like News in Slow Spanish are excellent for tuning your ear to new language skills.

If you are motivated to start learning right away, then I recommend thinking carefully about how you prefer to learn. Would you thrive in a live classroom setting? Do you prefer to learn in a quiet personal setting? Are you most successful when you can study and then discuss your learning?

Another thing that many language students forget is time. Learning a language is not a quick race, but a marathon that will take quite a bit of time and energy to yield success. If you start with your listening skills, then you are on the right track to language learning.

One final note: If you know where you want to live that speaks that language, then try to find speakers in that area. For example, Spanish, English, Portuguese, and French have millions of speakers and dialects, and it's very helpful to "tune your ear" to that style of pronunciation sooner rather than later. Heck, in Spain, accents change from village to village!

Stay tuned for more language considerations in upcoming posts!


Castellano, language learning, spanish

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  1. I Always enjoy reading about language learning. Love hearing about your journey! Pimsleur was my best introduction (for both Italian and Spanish). I enjoy watching the videos on Dreaming Spanish— interesting topics for adult language learners at every level.

    1. Those are great ideas, Rebecca. Thanks for the ideas, and I will definitely give them a good look!

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