How to learn Spanish? One word at a time

A parade in El Alto in Bolivia. I trained publishers and editors there.

When you go to parties, adults of a certain age often express one of two regrets. They wish they had stuck with studying piano. Or they wish they had learned a foreign language.

That may explain how Rosetta Stone booked $265 million in revenues last year [this was written in 2014] offering its language learning products. They have great marketing.

The advertisements I see for various language learning products all suggest that with their special technique, you can learn to speak like a diplomat quickly and painlessly. I don’t believe that.

Languages are a passion of mine. And while I find studying languages fun, interesting, and rewarding, I don’t think that the learning is easy. Just like learning to play the piano, it takes practice. A lot of practice.

French to Italian to Spanish

In high school and college, my passion was French language and literature — Rousseau, Voltaire, Stendhal, Zola, Hugo, Camus.

In my 30s, I took Italian courses at Ohio State University and spent hours watching the 20 language training videos from the BBC’s Buongiorno Italia series available at the public library. I wandered around the house mumbling phrases to myself. Our 4-year-old was irritated. “Dad, don’t talk Italian!”

After three years, I was good enough to conduct interviews in Italian and was invited to give a lecture to a journalism class at the University of Genoa.

I love Italian. Its musical sound and rhythm give almost any conversation the feel of a dramatic encounter. It is perhaps no accident that opera took root in Italy. Then there is the great food, the great places to visit …

But Italian, it turned out, wasn’t going to help me satisfy my dreamy longing for the expat life of the literary heroes of my adolescence — Fitzgerald, Joyce, Hemingway, Beckett, Eliot — who abandoned the Anglo world for the countries of the Romance languages. There weren’t enough people in enough countries who spoke Italian. Spanish seemed like it would be more practical — about 400 million native speakers in a couple dozen countries.

So at age 43, I started on Spanish. It was indeed more practical. In the eight years since retiring from my job as publisher of the Baltimore Business Journal, I have worked much of the time in Latin America as a journalism trainer and teacher. Out of stubbornness, my preference has been to work 100% in Spanish.

How did you do it

People often ask how I learned Spanish. Nearly all ask if I have tried Rosetta Stone. No. Don’t know much about it. After taking one course in Spanish at a community college, and finding the pace way too slow, I decided to do it on my own. Basically I learned Spanish through a kind of artificial immersion. Previous study of Latin, French, and Italian provided a solid base.

  • I used language books, tapes, and CDs available at the public library. My favorites were the Just Listen ‘N Learn and the Living Language series. I also bought a set of grammar tapes used by the State Department.
  • When first starting out, I invited a neighbor who was born in Cuba to have coffee with me once a week and converse in Spanish. Carmen Mendoza accommodated me by speaking slowly and tolerating my numerous mistakes. She told stories of her girlhood in Cuba, recommended authors, and gave me a grammar book that I still refer to. She later took her skills to the classroom and has had a marvelous teaching career.
  • I subscribed to an audio magazine called Puerta del Sol, hosted by Iñaki Gabilondo, a media star in Spain. It was like listening to “All Things Considered,” but in Spanish. I played the tapes going to and from the office and studied the printed transcripts, which was especially helpful with the slangy man-on-the-street interviews.
  • I read the Sunday edition of Spain’s El Pais (the printed version; this was before the Internet). At first I mostly was deciphering rather than reading. Later it became more natural. It was a beautifully written newspaper.
  • I recorded the TV news from Univision and watched it over and over again to see if I could catch every word. The hosts were Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas, who are still doing the news there, 20 years later.
  • Once or twice a month I would invite a native speaker in Baltimore to have lunch with me. The only ground rule was no English. Almost no one refuses to have lunch with a newspaper publisher.
  • The business manager at the Baltimore Business Journal, Linda Schummers, had studied Spanish all through high school and college and wanted to practice. We had a Spanish-language lunch once a week.
  • At a foreign trade event, I met a former university professor from Argentina, Maria Mazzoni, who ran a translation and tutoring service in downtown Baltimore. I signed up for a one-hour lesson once a week. She was an excellent teacher and patiently corrected my essays. We would talk mostly about business.
  • I read short stories by the Argentine Julio Cortazar and novels by the Colombian Nobel winner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

It took a number of years, but all that study paid off in 2006 when I was awarded a Knight International Journalism Fellowship to train publishers and editors in Bolivia. And now I have a blog in Spanish on entrepreneurial journalism.

No shortcuts

As a college student, I was struck by a scene in Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure, when the young Jude begins to study Latin. He is surprised to find that there is no secret code, no one magic trick that unlocks all the meanings of all the sentences in this foreign tongue. He has to learn the language one word at a time.

That’s basically the trick. Learn the words, practice them over and over again in phrases, sentences, paragraphs, essays. Read, write, watch, listen, speak, repeat. Every language learning method is some variation on this.

Achieving fluency

My advice to people who are learning a language is not to worry about making mistakes when they speak. (Writing is a different story.) Just say it, put it out there, keep the conversation going. It is so much fun to have an interchange, to understand and be understood. You have to be a bit of a ham.

The point is communication, not perfect correctness. The more you communicate, though, the more correct your speech will become. Words and phrases will stick in your head because you associate them with people and events.

I remember talking about “carisma” (charisma) in a lecture on newsroom leadership with a group of Latin American journalists in Miami. I used the feminine article “la” because normally a noun ending in “a” is feminine.

Afterwards, the host, an Argentinian, and I were chatting and he made a point of saying that he liked my comments about “carisma,” but he used the masculine article “el” with it. A gentle, polite correction. (Masculine nouns in Spanish that end in “a” are usually from ancient Greek roots, like “drama” and “panorama”.)

The joke

LinkedIn has a sensible hierarchy of ratings of language fluency, in descending order:

  1. native or bilingual proficiency
  2. full professional proficiency
  3. professional working proficiency
  4. limited working proficiency
  5. elementary proficiency.

My Spanish is at 1 or 2, French and Italian are 2 or 3, German is 5, and Chinese at something below 6.

You will know you’re achieving fluency when you can tell and understand jokes. They usually turn on a few key phrases or plays on words, so you need an ample vocabulary. Even if you only get some of them, it’s a good sign.

And no matter how much I learn, I am continually reminded of my limitations. While I have the literary vocabulary for a discussion about the works of Garcia Marquez, I can’t explain to the landlord what’s wrong with the stove. When he does tell me the words for knob, burner, and broiler, I instantly forget. You have to memorize one word at a time.


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Entrepreneurial journalism, periodismo emprendedor, multimedia. Work with Tec of Monterrey, ICFJ, FNPI, Poynter, Bizjournals.