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My wife’s cousin Anna, from Mexico, married a Dutchman, Ruudek (Ruud) and they now live in West Africa with their two children Elea and Ulysse. The children, ages 5 (Ulysse) and 9 (Elea) both speak 4 languages fluently: French, English, Spanish and Dutch. They even speak a smattering of an African language. Both children learned Spanish and the other languages without making any particular effort – just as children and many adults do all over the world. I’m amazed when I watch them switch easily from one language to another. Yet, they acquired those languages through the natural language acquisition abilities that all we humans have.
They both have attended schools where they received some formal language instruction, so they also learned French and English as well as acquiring it. Here’s how they are able to speak 4 languages today. Their parents met and eventually married in Paris where both were studying. Since neither spoke the other’s native language at the time (i.e. Dutch and Spanish), they spoke French and continue to speak French with each other to this day. When Elea was born they decided that it would be good if she could speak Spanish and Dutch, too. So Anna spoke to Elea in Spanish and Ruud communicated with her in Dutch.
When Ulysse was born a few years later, his parents continued the same pattern of speaking Spanish and Dutch with him. Of course, both children have also been hearing French in their home ever since they were born because their parents speak that language with each other. The family spent several years in an English-speaking West African country and both children picked up English from daily exposure to it from the nanny, from school and from playmates.
If you are reading this blog, most likely you are an adult. How can you or I learn from the example of Ulysse and Elea? Many people assume that children learn languages faster than adults, but it’s not clear that children really do have such an advantage – in fact the opposite may be true. However, t’s pretty obvious that Elea and Ulysse have the right conditions to learn languages.
I recently started watching the television drama from Spain called Gran Hotel and, I have to say, I’m hooked. The series, filmed over the last 3 years, consists of 39 episodes and takes place in Spain at the beginning of the 20th century. It’s reminiscent of Downton Abbey and is an interesting mix of drama, mystery, romance and comedy. The Gran Hotel (it’s titled ‘Grand Hotel’ in English) has won many awards (scroll to the bottom of this article to see a list) and is proving to be very popular in many countries. I found that it’s a wonderful way to acquire Spanish.
Palacio de la Magdalena, Santander, Spain, where Gran Hotel was filmed
What I like about Gran Hotel is that it’s very entertaining and I find myself engrossed in each episode from beginning to end. I’ve been watching the show on Netflix and their version has English subtitles. So I find myself glancing down to read the subtitles, especially when the actors are speaking rapidly. And at times some of the actors’ lines don’t have subtitles – which is a great opportunity for me to take in the Spanish and understand as much as I can (a subsequent subtitle usually clarifies anything I might have missed). This series provides an ideal way to improve my Spanish because it engages my mind in the drama so well, while exposing me to hours of Spanish – all in the context of lively action and a beautiful environment.
I’ve written several times about Bernardo, the man who works on my family’s ranch and only speaks Spanish, and am going to follow that trend today. I called him last week to relay a message from my dad about things that needed to be done that week, including charging the display screen for a scale they have. I wasn’t sure exactly how to say this so, of course, googled it, which yielded “pantalla de la escala.” Literally, this is “screen of scale,” and while it didn’t feel quite right, I figured Bernardo was used to my flavor of gringa Spanish and would be able to interpret it.
Another reason I am usually confident that he’ll get what I’m saying is that he has a context for the the things we’re talking about since he works at the ranch every day, while I’m not as familiar with the equipment and all that since I’m not there as often. This process of communicating with Bernardo has helped me learn Spanish vocabulary, ranging from the widely applicable to the ranch specific.
One thing I love about where I work is that we have a vegetable garden. There are basil plants, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, and a few other things. I think it is a great example of our company’s vibe and part of what makes it a great place to work. It has also given me one of many opportunities to learn Spanish vocabulary words in context, although you might not expect a company garden to be a hotbed of language learning.
I was recently walking by the garden, and a coworker – who is a native Spanish speaker and knows that I speak Spanish – was admiring some of what was growing. He motioned to me as I approached and said something in Spanish that I didn’t understand right away so he repeated himself. I still wasn’t getting it, so he gestured with his hands and (for some reason) I interpreted it as him holding out his hand like he was talking about something he could hold. He was saying “sandía” and hearing that, combined with the hand gesture that I took to mean something small, my mind went to Sandies, the little pecan shortbread cookies that my grandmother used to buy. So, I said, “Cookies?” I knew that didn’t make sense based on our context, but it was all I could think of.
A great way to improve your Spanish listening skills and overall fluency is repeated Spanish listening exercises. When you listen to the same content over and over, your brain gets more and more adjusted to the flow, rhythm, and structure of that audio and can thus understand and absorb more and more. I love when I find a song in Spanish that I enjoy because I know I’ll be able to listen to it many times without getting annoyed by it, which will mean more learning and improving.