Curiosity and fun: how to really learn a language

High School language learning

I am not a native Spanish speaker, but I have befriended Mexican and Honduran co-workers working in restaurants, majored in Spanish at Yale, assisted Spanish-speaking voters on a political campaign in Arizona, translated for Latin American asylum speakers in Maryland and San Diego, consulted newspaper archives in Peru, and interned for an NGO in Guatemala. I have been incredibly fortunate and privileged to have had these experiences, but they have come from me seeking out work, volunteer, and funding opportunities. These experiences required me to have deep Spanish speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills, but they also improved these skills. I have developed my Spanish language abilities to enable these experiences by being curious and having fun. 

Learning a language requires time, dedication, and consistency. But none of this is possible without enjoyment. If you are hoping to learn a new language, the key is to find joy in the learning process and exciting opportunities to develop and use your language skills, so that learning the language becomes a hobby, not a chore. 

I have learned Spanish by staying curious. The history, language, culture, and politics of Spain and Latin America fascinate me, and learning more about these subjects requires Spanish language abilities. I find the border crisis and experience of Latin American migrants in the U.S. complex and compelling issues, which has motivated me to volunteer as a Spanish translator for asylum seekers. I took many Spanish courses in high school and undergrad, which fulfilled my interest in these subjects while refining my language skills. 

I have also learned Spanish by having fun. I love watching movies and TV series in Spanish. I am a huge fan of reggaetón, salsa, and bachata music, and have seen concerts in these genres and am now a pretty-bad-but-not-terrible salsa dancer. My favorite food is tacos, and I have ordered tacos in Spanish at incredible restaurants in Arizona, San Diego, and Guatemala. 

So if you find yourself struggling to learn a language, think beyond the Duolingo or grammar exercises you are doing. Think about the trip you want to take to a country that speaks that language. Watch movies, TV series, and Youtube videos in that language. Put subtitles of that language on when you’re watching content in English. Listen to podcasts in that language. Think about the history, culture, and politics of countries that speak that language, and read articles and books in that language about those topics. Look into work or volunteer experiences that use that language. Find friends that speak or are learning the language, and practice with them (check out italki.com if you can’t find such friends). With modern technology, you can fully immerse yourself in a language wherever you are. If you do so, you will learn. 

I’m currently studying Portuguese, and am already saving money for travel to Brazil. I am thinking about which Brazilian history books I will read, which Brazilian cities I will visit, and which Brazilian dishes I will try there. 

Henry is an MPhil Candidate in Latin American Studies at the University of Oxford. Previously, he earned his BA in Spanish and History at Yale.

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