For most of my life I have been fascinated by other languages. I remember being somewhat excited at the prospect of studying a language in high school, but the end result was a big disappointment. During the two years of studying the Spanish language we learned little more than asking for names, proposing to go to the cinema or asking where the bathroom is. In two years we hadn’t done much more than study the fundamentals and, in the last month of class, we were finally able to build mind-boggling phrases like “I am going to go to the movies” instead of the simpler “I go to the movies ” , which we have been used to for over a year and a half. At this point I seriously doubted that I was destined to know and understand another language. At university I chose to study German and learned more of that language in a semester than the Spanish high school course had taught me in two years and I felt quite refreshed in the hope that one day I would become bilingual. Time passed and I had moved away from the study of languages for a few years, when I decided that I had to make a commitment and learn very well a language other than my mother tongue . I chose Spanish for several reasons. The main reason, however, is the ease of access to cable television and the Spanish weekly newspapers. In the United States, with some regional exceptions, it is probably the second most comfortable language to learn.
About seven years have passed since I decided to learn Spanish and I have the impression that last year, in particular, was the most effective and fruitful. Throughout this journey I have learned many things about myself, how I learn and how people generally learn, and I have come to some conclusions about how I am going to refresh and improve my understanding of the German language, which is next on mine list. For much of the memorization work, be it pronunciation or dictionary words, I highly recommend using the Spaced Repetition Flash Card program. For brevity, I will only say that the concept is to go over the objects of memory every day, which can take from 5 to 30 minutes. You give yourself a self-assessment of how much you knew the items to remember and start again the next day. The program uses your self-assessment to determine when to re-submit that information. It has been a year since I started using Mnemosyne , a spaced repetition program, and I attribute to it the enormous improvement of my Spanish lexicon.
In approaching a new language , the first thing I would do is learn the alphabet and pronunciations. Many introductory language courses provide an English word as an example of character pronunciation. I think my approach would be to bring the letter on one side of the flash card and the sign indicating the pronunciation on the reverse of the card. First of all learn these elements as best you can. Grammar is certainly important for the structure of a languageand to look like a well-educated individual, but my opinion is that you shouldn’t get bogged down in grammatical details too early. Learn the basics of grammar. Learn if particular endings exist for different verb forms, whether nouns have a gender and what rules apply. Learn the fundamentals of adjectives, if they are agreed with the number and gender of nouns. But, if some rules are too demanding at the time to avoid confusion, then go ahead.
In my opinion, the top priority should be word learning from the start. As soon as you are ready to start learning words in the language you are studying, do it. Swadesh lists are a good place to start. Online you can find the 207 words most commonly used for the most studied languages. Learn those and then start adding more words. When new terms happen to you, write them down, search for them in a translation dictionary and add them to your deck of flash cards. Here is how I studied in the last year and with Spanish I have achieved such a result that, almost every week, I can read the local newspaper without having to look for any words. As you increase your vocabulary, you will inevitably encounter grammatical examples. Read the words slowly in your head, to help you perceive the pronunciation and grammatical rules that you will take as an example.
As you go on learning the vocabulary, I think it’s time to go back to grammar lessons and try to improve your understanding. Find examples of those grammar rules in your readings. You can use various sources as material for building your lexicon, as well as for grammatical examples. For example, books, periodicals and newspapers (including online versions) may be the best source for your lexicon, as these media tend to highlight a wider vocabulary than television or film. That said, TV, radio and movies can be excellent ways to familiarize yourself with the spoken forms of the language and perhaps even to correct your pronunciation or give you an idea of the regional variations related to the pronunciation of certain terms.
When you have a 2000-word lexicon your ability, at least to understand the language , will start to be really good. Use your lexicon to communicate in any way possible, to increase your confidence in speaking and producing the language , even if you only speak to yourself! Keep working with your flash cardsevery single day and advance in the expansion of your lexicon. The bottom line is that 95% of your work must be lexical acquisition. If some of the grammar rules are too complex now, don’t get stuck, get busy and learn for examples, you’ll go over the grammar later. With this system, I am convinced that I can reach a high level of knowledge in almost any language, with a year of study or less.