Culture Sarah DeVries
baby with parents Children's native language acquisition begins with a long period of listening and observing their parents' speak. Second language learners can profit from their example. PeopleImages/IStock

In Mexico struggling with learning Spanish? Try being a baby for a while

Sarah DeVries' quick tips includes giving yourself permission to simply observe Spanish in use, like infants do

The first year I was in Mexico, I took Spanish classes at the School for Foreign Students at the Universidad Veracruzana. My classmates were mostly college students like me, and they came from all over the world.

The European students always made me feel a little bit jealous. As I struggled through verb conjugations and new vocabulary, they’d say things like, “Oh, I just keep getting Spanish confused with Italian!”

When it comes to those of us from (north-er) North America, we’ve really only got the one language, unless you happen to be French Canadian. And when your native language is the lingua franca of the day, it means that not much effort is made to take advantage of kids’ spongey brains language-wise. What for, we think? You already speak the language that everyone else in the world must adapt to.

This means, of course, that most of us learn second languages as adults, when it’s decidedly harder. Learning a language as a child happens naturally, and as long as we are around the language and are forced to use it, we’ll learn it.

So unlike, say, the Danish, who learn English and perhaps a few other languages as children, we English speakers are both privileged in that most people attempt to speak our language and at a disadvantage because for the most part, we get to adulthood not knowing how to learn another language; the experience simply hasn’t been necessary.

Even so, we all know the joke: “What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.”

While this is fair, I can’t help but feel a little offended. I mean, all emotions aside, we’ve got one giant ocean on one side of us, one giant ocean on the other side of us, and a world full of people who already speak our language. What do you expect?

If you’re reading this article, chances are you’re interested in either learning Spanish or continuing to learn Spanish. Maybe you’re already fluent! (If that’s the case, feel free to add on in the comments to what I’ve written.)

As someone who went through the humiliating yet very rewarding experience of learning Spanish as an adult, I’ve got some general tips. Read on if you need some encouragement!

  1. Just listen for a while. Think about how we all learn our first languages: we don’t even attempt to start saying anything coherent until we’re at least a year old, and I personally know plenty of four-year-olds that can still only barely be understood. So give yourself a break, and remember that it’s okay to just sit there and absorb the sounds around you without worrying about what they mean. Try to do so as often as possible. Pay attention to the sounds people make when they’re speaking, the tone of their voices in certain situations, the cadence of their speech. It’s also a nice way to calm down your anxiety about not understanding: “It’s alright, I’m just a baby.”
  2. Listen to music and watch TV and movies in Spanish. This is an even more stress-free way to simply listen, as there’s no expectation that you’ll need to answer the other people. Keeping subtitles on might help as well. There are plenty of phrases, words, and common exclamations that I know today because I read English subtitles while they were said on TV and thought, “Oh, so that’s how you say that!” It’s also a great way to get yourself out of the habit of trying to translate something from English, because it widens your repertoire naturally, introducing aspects of the language without first passing through your native language filter.
  3. Now that I’m on my third tip, it occurs to me that most of these are still about listening. No matter! Again, so much of learning is simply paying attention. What do people say when they greet each other and when they leave? What do they say when they want to get someone’s attention? What do they say when they’re surprised, and what are the filler words and phrases they say without thinking (”ahorita,” anyone?)? Learning these will get you far on your quest of speaking like a native.
  4. Don’t get too hung up about your accent. We all have accents; even “native speakers” have regional accents. I won’t lie: the English-speaker’s accent in Spanish is not very sexy. It’s not like a French accent in English or even a German accent in English. But you know what? That’s okay. And the more you listen to others, the more you’ll be able to imitate them. Learning to roll your r’s, for example, is a big step and really does come with practice.
  5. Some further tips on pronunciation: remember that all the letters in Spanish are pronounced (for the most part) individually and that they are pronounced the same way every time, in every word. So an “o” will always sound the same, as will a “g”, as will a “u”… you get the idea. In English we’re able to be a bit lazy with our vowels in that we let our mouths keep moving once we’ve started saying them (think about how we say the letter “a” for example: “aee.”) In Spanish, the vowels don’t move around as the milliseconds go by, and making sure you don’t let them will do wonders for your accent. Nail the vowels – they are all sounds we also have in English – and you’re golden. Consonants are mostly the same, though the “d” is a bit more forceful in Spanish – almost halfway to a “th” sound — and the “b” and “v” are pronounced so similarly (each one about halfway between the two) that even when Mexicans spell out a word aloud for someone else, they will usually say B-grande to mean “B” or B-chica or V-chica to mean “V” so that the person writing down the word can be sure which they intend. (There is some conflict among Mexicans about which to use. Some will insist that the chica version is said with a “B” and others say it’s with a “V,” but they both sound the same when said aloud, so…)

So remember, be like a baby: listen closely and don’t stress. And even if your Spanish remains subpar for life – hey, not everyone’s got a knack for languages – remember that at least in Mexico, you’re surrounded by tolerant and friendly people who will do their best to communicate.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sdevrieswritingandtranslating.com

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