How to Learn a Foreign Language in One Step

I learned Spanish when I was 33 years old. We’ll start there because one of the most common excuses I have heard is, I’m too old to learn a foreign language.

If you’re over the age of five, don’t panic, because it’s just not true. I accidentally stumbled upon a magic step to become fluent in a foreign language on my journey to learn Spanish.

The step appeared at a time when I was fumbling and frustrated with my progress in the language. I had reached a point where nothing new was sticking, that famous plateau in language acquisition where all the knowledge you've gathered falls flat.

I can’t wait to share it with you, but first, why should you listen to me?

I know what it’s like to not learn a foreign language.

There are countless articles and videos, schools and polyglots that have already shared secrets on the best and easiest methods to learn a language. I know because I’ve drawn from these resources myself. The trouble is that I felt like I had tried them all.

It not just picking up Spanish in the golden years of language acquisition, my thirties, that makes me qualified. I also live daily with the absolute absurdity of having studied French for 8 years in school, and speaking like a metronome on the slowest setting.

I loved studying French literature and cinema at university. A degree in French, however, is not the same as speaking the language. Do I feel elite when I’m in Paris and order a cafe au lait, or am able to give someone directions on the street?

Oui!

Those spoken phrases are major moments of lift, but it was thanks to Duolingo, not my very pricey education memorizing 16th century poetry, where I learned what I call my street French. If you had told me this would my legacy as a French student before I registered, I would have thought you were wildly jealous of my intention to speak a foreign language by studying its parks and statues. Sadly, I could not have been deterred.

The gap between my interest in spoken French and the curriculum I was studying, was vast. I absorbed very little that I could put to practical use. I wanted to connect with real people and have normal conversations.

I know how unfair it feels to have to try.

I don’t remember ever not speaking English. Even though it’s not my native tongue, I express myself the best in this language. I learned English by watching television before I started my first year of school. I can’t recall a single memory from my childhood where I struggled to come up with words in English.

In a way it feels like I was born speaking two languages. In reality, I learned my second language after four years on earth, half of which I was speaking gibberish.

Persian, or Farsi, is my native language by definition, English my native language by default. When we moved from Iran to the US in 1987, I became one of those lucky people who magically absorbed a second language at a young enough age where it was effortless.

As an adult it’s a very different story.

I studied abroad and immersed myself in Spanish.

I believed there must be a better way. Many people will say you must live in the foreign country, immersed in the language, to really learn it. I disagree. I know because that’s exactly what I did in 2016 when I moved to Spain to learn Spanish.

My plan was to pick up the language on what would be the study abroad trip that I never had in college. An autoregalo, now one of my favorite Spanish words, which translates to, a gift to myself.

One year wasn’t enough, not even with immersion. In light of my primary focus being to take courses in a language academy, I felt less like a Spanish speaker, and more like a Spanish student.

I had compliments raining in from native speakers left and right, Hablas muy bien español! Still, I wasn’t where I wanted to be. I learned that natives are often generous with compliments when you make an effort to speak their language, which can be both good and bad.

Compliments can keep you at the plateau, where you speak just enough to get by, but never really becoming fluent. They can also motivate you to keep going and not lose momentum.

For me, regardless of what anyone else said, it was frustrating not to reach my goal to what I considered fluency, within that first year.

I was immersed! I had been promised fluency. This was supposed to be the magic step. Unlike French where I never got to really use the language as I was learning it, Spain had become my home.

What was missing?

I wanted that effortless absorption I had experienced in childhood. I fell for the myth of living abroad as the magic trick to become fluent. I felt like it took me 365 days to get only about halfway up the stairway to polyglot heaven. Until I stumbled onto the magic step. That was when I first began to consider myself a Spanish speaker.

The Magic Step

It’s not a magic wand. Before taking the magic step, it’s important to know the basics. I emphasize step, because you have to take action. Having a good grasp of the grammar is essential. Start learning correct pronunciation from day one, no shortcuts there. Both are a must to learn any language.

You don’t want to HA-Beh-LAR Es-Pann-Ole, you want to Ah!blar Español! Just like all magic, you have to believe it’s possible. If not, then you already have a built in excuse to give up.

You can learn the basics within a couple of months on your own. Processing the information from your brain out into the world is the really tough part and the best way to seal the deal.

This is why so often people stop learning, or disparage themselves. Both are obviously very counterproductive. To stay positive I recommend remembering your why. Maybe it’s to travel to a foreign country, or use the language when you travel for work. Whatever it is for you, define it and recall it. That is where some of the magic will always live.

But what about THE magic step?

Learn a foreign language through an intensive course in a topic that interests you, not a language course.

At the beginning of my second year abroad, I had nearly decided to pack it up and head back home. I knew I could successfully manage a book of clients in Spanish. I could work in consultative sales like I had before I moved abroad and carry a solid conversation. Instead, I chose to stay and enrolled in a bootcamp to learn a subject I had always been interested in.

I enrolled in UX / UI Design bootcamp in Madrid, Spain called Ironhack. It was a grueling two month program. It emphasized learning by doing, a strong parallel to learning a language well. We were challenged to create a portfolio, and use it to land a job by the end of the course.

The program wasn’t cheap. The steep price tag was definitely a motivator to get the most out of it. The curriculum and fast pace were anything but easy, however, being forced to speak daily gave me a more instant recall than speaking with someone at the post office in Madrid ever could.

But the stakes weren’t just high financially.

The course was taught entirely in Spanish! Every student being either a native, or already fluent in the language. To my absolute horror, all presentations were to be given in Spanish. This meant I had to really step it up and commit. I had to apply what I knew and fill in the gaps where I would learn needed filling. No more half baked homework assignments with no accountability, or earning badges for a day’s progress with language learning apps. It was game time.

When I spoke with the admissions person at the school she told me my Spanish was better than another foreigner who had recently taken the course. They had all done muy bien, she told me. I took her expert opinion, or effective sales savvy, and registered for the course. It was a nearly immediate return on my investment to learn Spanish. I don’t work in UX / UI and probably never will directly, but it has been my best education.

I learned slang; that my first presentation was Super Crack! which means really great, that shouting animo! is the equivalent of let’s go!, that the word coño is not so bad of a word as I had thought, depending on how it’s used.

These bite size lessons were what made learning more exciting. The magic was in the little words and phrases I was effortlessly picking up. Giving presentations meant I had to tell stories in the language, craft imagery and expand my vocabulary and use of adjectives. I used connector words like, tal como, en concreto, aparte de, those little gems that bring the language together and boost your confidence.

If I didn’t know a word, I wrote it down and reviewed the list when I went home, usually after at least a ten hour day at school. I would repeat what my classmates used to express themselves.

This was incredibly helpful, as these were common phrases that I would have translated directly from English and fumbled. After just a few weeks it began to feel like the same magic I had experienced as a child, a nearly effortless flow into speaking a language.

By the end of the course, classmates were telling me how great my Spanish was, and I could finally agree. I had video evidence of my presentations, charting my progress with each project.

This was in contrast to basing my confidence off of the last experience I had had with Spanish. These interactions often had me seesawing between positive and negative encounters with the language. Taking a non language course was the best decision in my journey to learn Spanish.

It helped that I was focused full time during those two months on the course. Even if you find something for a few days a week, it will make a huge difference. Studying a specific subject will immerse you where it counts, versus learning phrases like David trae agua para su papá (David brings the water for his father), and other thrilling textbook lessons you will never use.

Choose a topic that interests you, where you can speak with people. A friend of mine is taking a course in astrology where students get together to discuss the lectures once a week outside of class. The course is not in her native language, and she is feeling more confident with small talk and real life usages of verbs and nouns after just a few weeks.

If you’re going to join a book club, join three of them, read the summaries and participate in the discussions if you don’t have time to read all the books. If you’re brave, take an improv class and force yourself to listen actively and respond quickly to train your brain.

There are only so many grammatical rules your brain is going to be able to process. Learning a spoken language is about communication, not commands like a computer language. At some point you need to put the knowledge to use or you will start to short circuit on all the memorization.

I still forget words all the time in every language I speak. The usual culprits are the most simple words, those that are said often and impulsively, like, what? how? why? Yes. Ok.

These words just pop off in any language from time to time. For the most part, no one seems to notice, and after taking my magic step to get my certificate in UX / UI Design, I had built confidence. Losing track of a couple of words here in there didn’t make me feel like a broken robot in Spanish anymore.

Speak a new language so that the world will be a new world.

— Rumi

Choose what world you want to immerse yourself in. Explore a foreign language within that new world, and it can be simple to learn a foreign language. You simply have to learn something foreign in the language.

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