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.
Put on the spot
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).
Why the worry about accents? Some feel that a little bit of an accent may give a person a sophisticated touch. While that may be so, too much of a good thing can be a liability when people simply do not understand what we are attempting to convey. I learned English as a youngster, along with my native Spanish. I attribute my strong accent mostly from having learned English from people who had an accent.
Are there different types of Spanish? National and regional differences in vocabulary do exist, but they are minor, probably involving less than ten percent of the words used in Spanish. Nations and regions incorporate some native vocabulary into the language. For instance, seaweed is alga marina in most Spanish-speaking nations, while in Chile we use the native cochayuyo for edible seaweed. Apricots may be known by a number of different names, including albaricoque or chabacano in México and damasco in Latin America. Differences between Spanish-speaking nations are underscored when slang is used, and minimized when a more formal Spanish is utilized.
False friends. When it comes to vocabulary building, English speakers have a great advantage when learning Spanish, as so many words have a common etymology or root. These cognates make it so much easier to learn without having to completely start from zero. Sometimes we encounter faux amis (or, false friends), that is, words that sound the same, come from a common etymology, but over time have come to take on different meanings. (In contrast, false cognates are words that sound alike but never had a common root.)A young woman, after some coaxing, was prodded by her boss to say a few words in Spanish to a group of colleagues. “Estoy muy embarazada,” she began. And turning to point to her supervisor, added with a smile, “¡Y toda la culpa es de él!” (She thought she was saying, “I am very embarrassed and it’s his fault!” Instead, she had exclaimed, “I am very pregnant, and it’s his fault!”).
Unintended consequences. Most of these differences, or faux amis, are cause for a little comic relief, although at times they may have serious unintended consequences. They may occur between native Spanish-speaking individuals from different—or even the same—nation. I once thought I was asking a Mexican woman if she was sad, “¿Siente pena?” But when she was offended I realized something was wrong. The most common acceptation in México for pena is embarrassed. A better question, one that means the same in Chile and México, would have been, “¿Está triste?” It happens, then, that our false friends can play their little tricks on anyone.
Are there differences in accents? National and regional differences in accents are much more pronounced than differences in vocabulary. Four very general types of Spanish accents would include those that (1) emphasize the letter “z” as distinct from the “s” (e.g., parts of Spain); (2) have a nasal quality (e.g., Cuba, and some Central American nations); (3) accent a different part of the word (senTAte vs. SIÉNtate) and tend to use a “sh” sound (e.g., Argentina, Uruguay); and (4) non-nasal (e.g., México, Colombia, Chile), often with regional “sung” qualities. So, given a choice, it is ideal to learn Spanish from someone in the target nation that most interests you.
Learning Spanish, or another language, then, takes commitment, but the rewards are enormous, even if your focus at first is only on learning some very basic vocabulary and polite expressions.
Gregorio Billikopf is a labor management farm advisor for the University of California. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.