I always see advertisements for language learning software suggesting that you should learn Spanish (and other languages) like a child does. The implicit, or often explicit, idea is that you can learn a language without having to study, learn grammar, do any memorization, or work hard in general.
This, I believe, is total crap.
I’ll admit, when I started learning Spanish several years ago, the idea appealed to me. Who wants to sit and memorize all the different conjugations in Spanish? Who wants to learn about conditional or subjunctive tenses? Who really wants to do anything hard in general?
But several experiences made me realize that the idea of learning languages “the easy way,” “like a child does” is idiotic. I’ve been studying Spanish, and teaching English classes for a few years now, but most importantly I just had a child (actually, my wife did most of the ‘having’).
Now, I have every reason to believe that my daugther will be a genius, perhaps even a super-genius (as all parents believe). But guess what? After nearly three months of total immersion in English, she can’t speak a word of it. She just makes funny, impossibly cute, noises that don’t add up to much.
In fact, she’ll probably be about a year old before she puts together her first word in English. By three she’ll be jumbling together grammatically incorrect sentences, after five years she’ll be speaking fluently, but she’ll still have a lot to learn. Think about it. How did you really learn your first language? You probably picked it up over many, many years of hearing the language spoken, reading it, studying it in school… Most of us didn’t fully master all aspects of our native language until 18 or so, or even later, if you consider the ability to write and read at a high level.
The fact is, your second language will come much faster than your first. All the years you’ve spent learning your first language has given you some abilities and a framework. You understand how to use context to learn the meaning of a word. You can categorize words like nouns, verbs and adjectives easily and learn about syntax in the language you plan to acquire. You already know how to read.
While my baby, totally immersed in her native language, is still struggling to make noises after three months, a student taking Spanish classes for the first time will have acquired a great deal of knowledge in this time, probably enough to get by on a trip to Spain or South America. A diligent student should be able to really use the language well after a solid year of study.
The only real disadvantage you have over a child is that all the advantages gained by learning your first language may interfere with how you speak your second (or third…) language. You’ll make non-native speaker mistakes, and most likely have an accent you can never quite get rid of. The thing is, native speakers of a language make their own mistakes too, some of which they’re never able to get rid of either (think of people who confuse they’re, their and there… non-native speakers never do this, only natives).
So how do you learn Spanish like an adult? Study your grammar, memorize your vocabulary. Take classes with native speakers so you’ll start to understand how they see the language. Listen to Spanish podcasts. Work hard. If you start now, you’ll be speaking Spanish before my daughter utters her first word of English.