By Joseph J. Keenan
The greatest enemy of learning a language, especially as an adult, is a person’s inhibitions. These vary with the individual, of course. Some people seem to have been born without any, while others are so afraid of making a mistake that they never give themselves the chance to. Methods of overcoming these inhibitions also vary with the individual. Most people lose their fear of sounding silly after a few weeks of speaking a foreign language; others lose all inhibitions entirely after a few cervezas under the stars on the town plaza. One rule applies universally: to learn a language you’ll have to conquer your inhibitions eventually, so the sooner you get started, the better.
One way to get started is to remember that however silly you might sound using your incorrect Spanish, you’ll sound a lot worse trying to speak English to someone who speaks none. Then again, you could simply choose to clam up altogether. After all, as they say, better keep quiet and b thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. If this is your strategy, you’ll neither improve your Spanish nor become acquainted with the new world the Spanish-speaking one that for whatever reason you are making an effort to get to know.
So relax. You’ll definitely make mistakes. But you won’t be the first one to make them.
In general, try to speak to as many people in Spanish as possible. While that sounds easy, the sad fact is that it’s often awkward to speak to your fellow citizens in a foreign language, and from there it’s a short jump to seeking out your English speaking friends and then speaking with them in English almost exclusively.
The intellectual energy that goes into starting a conversation in a foreign langue can be quite daunting, especially in the early stages. Sill, it’s worth the effort. Concentrate at first on short ‘conversations’ (or extended greetings) and gradually lengthen them as you find people whom you feel comfortable speaking with (and are able to get away from when your vocabulary expires).
Finally, don’t hesitate to ask others to speak slowly. No one expects you to understand rapid-fire Spanish in your first few months of learning it, yet many people speak that way out of habit and need to be reminded that you comprehend at about one-fifth the rate they’re speaking.
You will progress by small leaps and bounds, followed by long, frustrating plateaus. The plateaus, furthermore, always seem to hit when you think you should be progressing the most – after an intensive course, for example. At times it will seem that your brain is too busy absorbing new information to be bothered with relaying it to your mouth. Fear not. The information is oozing in and assuring itself a place, and one day it will suddenly be available and act as if it had been there all along. So stick with it. The day will come.