Practice makes perfect in language learning

A man in Los Angeles told me he moved from Tampa a few months ago and is going to learn Spanish because the Latino population in L.A. is so large. His imagination has gotten the best of him. If he didn’t find motivation to learn the language in the Tampa area, he won’t find it in L.A.

He should’ve taken the phone call I got from a Florida woman. She told me, “There’s a young man down here who has become fluent in Spanish.” I asked her how he did it. She said, “He kept practicing and practicing, and now he can speak all kinds of Spanish.”

That’s precisely the trick — practice and lots of it. Any language program you can stay excited about for a good while will probably be worth your time. But learning a language in depth is difficult, no matter which program you choose, mostly because a tremendous amount is required.

If difficulty doesn’t scare you off, the learning will automatically be easier because you won’t fight the process or look for shortcuts.

Many Americans want to think they can learn Spanish, for instance, by taking a set of courses that hit the language hard. The problem is that no matter how hard you hit it, you still have to practice beyond lesson time.

And most Americans don’t have time for that. They want it all to happen during the lessons.

But maybe you don’t need to learn a language in depth. Most people don’t. At first, they think they do. Time shows they will happily settle for the ability to carry on a little back-and-forth with native speakers on a cruise ship or a short visit overseas with a community club, school program or church.

That’s a much more manageable undertaking. For these encounters, the following categories are usually very useful: numbers, greetings, clothing, animals, colors, telling where you hurt, some adjectives and several verbs.

Let’s take these categories one at a time.

Numbers: Counting to 50 is pretty easy, but learn them out of order, too. Why do we spend so much time saying them in order, when they are so often used out of order in real life?

Greetings: Learn to say hello and goodbye in various forms, according to times of the day. Buenos días can mean hello or good morning, for example. Buenas tardes can mean hello or good afternoon. Work on pronunciation so that you are understood to be a person who respects other people’s language.

Clothing: You might want to tell someone you like his shirt (camisa) or her ball cap (gorra). You might want to buy a dress (vestido) or leather shoes (zapatos de cuero).

Animals: They are everywhere. People like to show off their stuffed animals and pets and to know what pets you have. They may have critters you don’t see often. Maybe lizards (lagartos), birds (pajarillos), donkeys (burros) or poisonous snakes (víboras).

Colors: Here are a couple of phrases to try. I like your red shirt: “Me gusta tu camisa roja.” The boy with the blue hat: “el muchacho con el sombrero azul.”

Telling where we hurt: “Me duele la cabeza” can get you a pill to fix your headache if you want one.

Adjectives: Learn to say and correctly pronounce these words: tall, big, small, pretty, good, bad, sick, fine, happy and sad.

Verbs: There’s no end to what can be done with verbs, but here are several to learn: Want, give, tell, take, write down, taste/try.

Language students generally fly off into overrated declarations about how they’re going to buckle down and really learn the language. They rarely follow through. So take it easy and, as my mother would say it, don’t put more on your fork than you can fit in your mouth.

Be happy — be thrilled — to master a little language at a time. That will set you apart in the world of language learning.

In the next column, I will show the psychology behind fluency and good pronunciation so you can see one of the main difficulties of language learning.

Max T. Russell writes for the international business intelligence community. You can contact him via his website,