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By Pierre Wauters
No, I don't. How long have you been living here? 1 year, 3 years, 10 years? Why
don't you speak Spanish? Silence.
When I was thinking of emigrating to Ecuador, I remember asking the question to
an expat, who runs a prominent web site about Ecuador and who had been living here
for a long time, of whether Spanish was really essential in Ecuador. The answer
was a clear "no". I was told that it was not necessary.
Today, I have been here for 6 months myself and I totally and utterly disagree with
that statement. Very few people speak English in Ecuador, even at places where one
would expect it the most such as banks or the offices of an airline company such
as LAN. Only big hotels and international airports have staff who could claim that
they speak English.
To make the most of truly living here, there is only one way: speak Spanish,
start learning now !
Learning another language seems to be a daunting enterprise to most north American
expats. This is because the art of speaking multiple languages requires some kind
of switch to be activated in the brain and in the US this switch has never been
touched for most people who only speak one language. In Europe, where I was born,
you can hardly move 100 miles without changing language. In Brussels/Belgium, my
city/country of origin, it is even worse: people speak 2 languages in the same city
and both are mandatory at school. So, I guess, our language "switch" has been turned
on at a very early age and it definitely helps. We also had to learn, or should
I say "study", Latin and Greek. German was optional, I did not take it, pfff give
me a break!
Having said that "the langiuage switch is inactive", it is an easy excuse to say:"
I just cannot remember the words..." or similar things to not even try learning
Spanish when coming to live in Ecuador. It is also a matter of respect for the people.
What would you think if you were in their shoes or if they were coming to live in
your country? After all, Ecuador is their country and the language here is Spanish,
end of story.
How do you go with learning Spanish efficiently so that you can s-p-e-a-k it, in
other words have a conversation with someone? That is the one million dollar question.
I know what does NOT work:
I am not saying that any of these methods is not helpful, far from it (yes I do
"study the dictionary" some times and the dictionary can be an invaluable tool when
one understands its limitations). And yes, teachers are great, particularly those
who make it fun (like Virginia).
What I am saying is that there is something else far more important that needs to
happen if one truly wants to learn.
The first thing to realize is that there is nothing special about learning a language
compared to learning anything else such as the stock market, karate or indian cooking.
I repeat: there is nothing special about learning a language.
Just like anything else, the best way to succeed at learning a language is to watch
people who are successful at doing it and copy them. This is the core principle
of many "become successful" programs.
Let's look at an excerpt of a "self confidence building program" that I found on
the net which says:
Just replace the words "self-confident" with the words "good at learning Spanish",
the word "confidence" with "Spanish learning" and so on and let's read the text
that we obtain:
Am I trying to say that self-confidence has anything to do with learning languages?
Sure but not in the sense that some people have it and some don't.
Who is this one person who you could consider self-confident in a language learning
situation? Think about it. Who does everybody agree is good at learning languages?
Well, we are absolutely surrounded by these role models every single day, there
are so many of them that we just don't see them. They are our models, I name ...
Everybody will tell you: kids are wonderful at learning languages, it is so easy
for them, kids can learn anything etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum.
But why can they and why can't we? Do they really have something that we don't?
I don't think so !
We too can learn anything, we just have to undo some of the damage that school and
life has caused us and then we can grow again.
Let's take a look at a typical kid "learning" a new language in a typical situation
where he/she is interacting with other kids speaking another language. Let's look
at that kid as if he/she was our role model for self-confidence. What is the kid
First, he does not know that he is learning, unless
we keep telling him every five minutes. A corollary of the above is that he does
not know or care that he does not know. He does not keep repeating to all the other
kids that he does not speak the language. They would not care anyway, so why tell
As far as he is concerned, he is playing with other kids who just happen to speak
some gobble-dee-gook but since speaking gobble-dee-gook is fun and they are playing
anyway, it is just like saying peak-a-boo or some other word. That is what I see
when my daughter runs around the fountain in Vilcabamba with local kids. They are
having fun. They are relaxed. This is principle number one: it should not be a drag,
it should be fun and we should stop thinking that we don't know all the time. If
we keep thinking that we don't know, this is what happens, we just won't know, ever.
Second, once the kid knows a few words, he will use these words
that he knows, no matter how incorrect, mispronounced or incomplete, without shame.
This is principle number two: the new words must be used no matter what and even
though a complete sentence cannot be formed. Complete, grammatically correct sentences
will come later. The first prioriy is to make the other person understand what you
Third, kids listen, adults talk, and, more often
than not, "cross-talk"! It is through listening that kids absorb a language. They
have no choice at school but to listen. Or, at the table, when the adults talk,
the kids don't necessarily participate but that does not mean that they are not
absorbing every word that is being said.
Learning a new language is the only situation where I would wholeheartedly recommend
watching TV, a lot of TV, particularly ads or even lunch time soaps. Luckily, it
is not difficult to watch ads, just turn the thing on and you get as much as needed
to teach you all the essentials of everyday living. You will hear about nappies
and baby bottoms, and deodorants and great "healthy-fat-free-frozen" meals, family
life in general as well as banking and insurance. You will learn basic words such
as "cheap", "easy", "safe", "fast", "money", "rich" etc... Don't smile. It does
not matter that a particular subject is silly or of no interest to you. What you
want is absorb the language like a sponge. Do that an hour a day.
In summary, having fun, listening, speaking with no shame
are the three key aspects that I see in a child exposed to a language learning situation.
Since they never fail at learning a new language, this must be what truly works.
Bingo! We found our role model for success.
It is important to note here that when we try to copy a role model and still fail,
it probably means that we haven't observed the role model well enough and that we
are still missing something important. So, if you feel like saying at this point:
"but I have done everything that you just said and I still cannot speak",
well, that can only mean that, either you haven't done it right or that there is
something else that the kids do that I haven't covered. The fact that kids can learn
languages fast and efficiently is indisputable. If we do what they do, we MUST succeed.
If we don't, it means that we are NOT doing what they do (*).
Building on what has just been said, I will propose in a next article a new Spanish
learning technique, kind of an anti-method of learning which I have been practicing
for a few months and which I believe can produce better results than any other method.
See you back soon...
(*) the only alternative would be that kids have some kind of physical ability that
we don't have. This is a tempting explanation but I don't believe in it. Maybe the
photo below will answer that one better than I can.