As I know to my chagrin, there is no end to learning a language, and even when you think you’ve made it and are ‘fluent’, there’s always more to go. Prior to my move to New York I was living in Mexico City for 5 years, and even though I say so myself I thought I had mastered the language pretty well. I was able to work in a bilingual office and speak Spanish without the locals wincing at everything I said. My writing was cohesive and accurate, and I even gave a speech in Spanish towards the end of my time there. Yippee – I’ve done it!!
But now, 2 years later, as I get comfortable in New York, speaking English all day and having less and less opportunity to speak Spanish, I can feel myself stagnate. I’m not going upwards with the language, and without a bit of effort I will definitely go backwards. It’s a natural stage to reach, where you can manage most things, and get around the rest, but the pleasure of speaking and getting better has gone, and I want it back. I’m also trying to be realistic about what I will actually do to keep my Spanish going. So here are some ideas I have had to keep myself moving towards that peak:
1. Set goals
What do you want to be able to do with the language? Find a new job in another country? Speak to your in-laws? Have a more rewarding vacation where you can actually speak to the locals, as opposed to gesturing when all else fails? Think about why you are learning the language, and set about finding ways to practise it in those areas.
2. Read in your chosen language
And read more and more – as much as possible. It doesn’t matter what you read really – currently I’m reading an Agatha Christie novel in Spanish – as everything will help you to recognize correct grammar, and will build your vocabulary. Of course reading something written by a native author will be much more rewarding – there’s a range in Spanish from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Isabel Allende to suit all tastes. If newspapers and magazines are your thing then buy one in the language and read the news from a different perspective.
3. Ask friends to help
Whether you’re living in your home town or abroad, there will be people there who you know who speak your chosen language. Obviously if you have moved to the country where the language is spoken you will have many more opportunities of this sort for practice, as even a trip to the Boulangerie will give you a chance to speak a few words. However, in order to improve you need to have correction, which won’t often come from a stranger. Ask your friends to correct you when you speak or, better still, set up a conversation exchange, where you help your friend with English for an hour, followed by her helping you with her language for an hour.
4. Use flashcards
One of the best ways to build your vocabulary is with flashcards. I remember when I lived in Japan I used to travel to work on the train each morning, and would be surrounded by scores of schoolchildren all flipping through little stacks of flashcards all bound together on a ring, with the Japanese word written on one side and the English one on the other. It is a great idea, and easy to reproduce too. Reviewing vocabulary is essential for progress.
I have my favorites for Spanish and Italian, and living here in New York I have time on my daily commute to listen to them. There is a wide range available these days, from language-learning based ones which go through grammar and give you exercises, to radio show style commentaries, discussing the latest news and other more irreverent subjects. You just need to have a look at the ever-increasing selection on a site like i-tunes, and select the ones you like best. Many are free, so you can sample until you find something you really like.
6. Take a course
It’s never too late to learn, and you will find that however good you are at a foreign language, there’s always something more to learn. The ideal way, if you have the time, is to join a group at the right level and have a regular opportunity each week to focus on the language with a teacher to help you and point out all the little errors.
If you want to brush up your language close to home, Cactus runs daytime, evening and weekend language courses in the UK and the US & Canada. For tailor-made, private tuition in your home or workplace, Cactus Language Training will gear a course to your specific needs and interests.
Cactus also runs language courses in more than 30 languages, 60 countries and 500 destinations worldwide. Courses are available from one week upwards, at all ages and levels, and can be combined with a range of fun activities ranging from surfing and diving to cooking and wine tasting.