When we are put on the spot we may temporarily forget even mastered words. But as soon as we relax a bit these come dancing back into our minds. With time and usage, this willingness to put ourselves on the spot helps to cement what we have learned. Language, like other types of learning, requires constant usage. Even in our native language, we sometimes cannot recall a word or expression and it seems to be on the tip of our tongue. I like to think of human learning as pouring water over a pot with small (and sometimes not so minute) holes. The water being poured into the pot represents knowledge; the holes, our forgetfulness; and finally, the water level in the pot, our ability to retain information. We lose unused vocabulary, but gladly not entirely. As we begin to relearn it, it comes back quicker. This is why it is so important not to get discouraged and stick with it.

Developing an ear and training our tongues. Human sounds vary from pronouncing the letter “eñe” in Spanish, rolling the tongue to make an “erre” sound, or the various clicking sounds in the African Khoisan languages. English speakers take for granted their ability to say “sheep” and not have it sound like “ship.” As an amateur radio operator I had to learn Morse code. The dots and dashes, at first, seemed to blend so all the letters sounded the same. With time I began to distinguish their sounds and rhythms. A friend gave me some good advice. “Don’t even attempt to learn how to send code,” he said. “Once you have learned how to listen, sending the code is the easy part.” My friend was correct. This advice is only partially true for learning foreign languages. While we still benefit from focusing on listening and more listening in our new target language, it will also require effort to speak properly. Our mouth, cheeks, nose, and tongue, along with breathing in or out will need to be applied in different ways in order to effectively produce the right sounds.

The very worst approach to learning a new language is to use a phrase book, where a word’s phonetic pronunciation is given (transliterated) based on a language other than the target language being learned. Many language CDs, tapes and computer programs come with a manual that includes phonetic pronunciations. Unless it is an emergency, these aids need to be avoided so your Spanish does not sound as bad as my English. Having said this, looking at the written language can sometimes be helpful when it is difficult to determine which letter a native speaker is pronouncing (such as may be the case with the letters d, t, or p, which at times may be challenging to differentiate).