As a native of Chile, I am frequently asked questions about Spanish, and the benefits and difficulty of learning it. I hope this article will also be of interest to those learning other languages. I am assuming that your interest is in conversing in another language, rather than just being able to read.  

It pays to be bilingual. Although it is not an easy task, surely there are benefits from learning another language. My oldest son related the following story he heard in Uruguay, “A skinny cat stood for hours waiting for the mouse to walk out from behind the hole, so he could nab him. He was having little success. A fat cat walked by, inquired about the nature of the difficulty, and volunteered to show the skinny cat the ropes. The cats moved to a new vantage point where they could observe the hole without being seen. Next, the plump cat barked, “Woof, woof.” The mouse, confident that a dog had scared his nemesis away, thought it safe to venture out only to be nabbed and devoured by the chubby cat. “You see,” explained the fat cat, “it pays to be bilingual.”

How difficult is it to learn another language? Some individuals have a knack for picking up another language. But for the rest of us, learning a foreign language requires much effort and sustained commitment over a long period of time. This is why setting a preliminary goal of picking up some polite expressions and basic vocabulary is not so hard—and can be a lot of fun. While it is easier for youth to learn another language, it is never too late to start. More than short term, intense efforts, the key to learning a new language is setting aside time to listen over a long period of time—hopefully five or six days a week. I believe that even a few minutes a day—as long as we are consistent—can give us surprisingly positive results. Obviously, more challenging goals will require additional effort. Repetition, and more repetition, will begin to create the magic of learning. The key, then, is to have staying power and not to expect results overnight. Create realistic goals and stick to them.

A good way to get started is by listening, and then listening some more. Hearing music is especially helpful; when words are sung, vowels are drawn out so their major pronunciation points are emphasized. Whether we use a computer program, an audio program, or smartphone apps, I recommend that we resist the temptation of pronouncing words and expressions out loud at first, but instead listen to these several times before attempting to pronounce them. Give your brain the opportunity to slowly absorb new material. Be patient with yourself. It generally takes hearing some words multiple times before we begin to incorporate them into our vocabularies. In a second phase of learning, we may not recall a word, but will recognize it upon hearing it. With time, we can move a word into a third phase, where it is so deeply embedded in our minds that we have perfect recall.