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October 30, 2014

Become Fluent in Spanish and 3 More Languages? It’s Not About Effort

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.

Become fluent in Spanish like Elea and Ulysses
Ulysse and Elea

How did they do it?

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.

What are the right conditions to become fluent in Spanish?

Language learning is approached in two basic ways: formal language study and language acquisition.  Formal language study equates mostly to a language class in school or university, or to self-instruction using a language CD or computer program: the language itself is your focus.

Language acquisition refers to learning the new language through some kind of social interaction with others (or their equivalents – e.g. TV, film, radio, telephone, etc.) in the new language.  Language acquisition works because our brains have a built-in capacity to learn language.  We learned our native language through language acquisition from our family members and others around us. With language acquisition your focus is on social interaction and the emotionally based desire to communicate with other people.

And, of course, we can learn language through hybrid approaches that combine language acquisition and language study techniques; some classes and private tutoring techniques employ hybrid approaches.

For adults, a hybrid approach works best: language acquisition alone is sufficient but learning can be accelerated by utilizing the well-developed analytical mind we adults have.  However, formal language study alone is rarely effective in getting students to a comfortable level of fluency.  How many people do you know who have taken 1, 2 or more years of language study at school or university – yet now are unable to converse with others in that language?

Elea and Ulysse have spent years immersed in the 4 languages they know, hearing them and speaking them on a daily basis all within the context of interacting with their own family members and friends.  These are ideal language acquisition conditions.

Fluency in Spanish is what’s needed to have rewarding social interactions

A formal language learning approach may be a convenient way to begin learning Spanish but to really become fluent in Spanish or any  language you will need language acquisition, too.  The only reason most of us have for wanting to become fluent in  Spanish is to be able to  have rewarding social interactions with Spanish speaking people – for fun, for business or for travel.  Language acquisition works because it is deeply connected to our desire for social interaction.

It’s easy enough to find Spanish classes or to buy language learning programs. It’s not so easy to find language acquisition opportunities.  Ideally, we would move to Mexico or Spain or another Spanish-speaking country and live there for several months or more.  Short of that we can watch Spanish speaking TV or radio, we can find reasons to interact with Spanish speakers in our own country – perhaps at Hispanic markets or at other locations in Spanish speaking neighborhoods. These are all good things.

One convenient language acquisition tool that can help you become fluent in Spanish is the Pars Omni Spanish Voices program.  It gives you access to dozens of recorded, unrehearsed conversations with native Spanish speakers and includes many language acquisition, translation and language learning tools to help you tune your ear, expand your vocabulary, practice fluent speech and more. Download Pars Omni Spanish Voices to find out how it can help you become fluent in Spanish.

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