Hi, I’m Andrew, and I’ll be your friendly guest poster today. I run a website called How to Learn Spanish and I’ve been a big fan of Jenny’s site for a while. I believe, based on my own experience, that resources for learning a foreign language that are designed for children are also some of the best possible resources for adults who are learning a language. I’m constantly encouraging my own readers to check out various children’s learning resources, many of which I get from this site. Today I’d like to tell you why I believe this is. This is relevant to you if you’re an adult learning a language, you teach adults languages, or you know any adults who want to learn a language.
Why most people fail when they try to learn a language
The most common reason that people who try to learn a language don’t, is because their motivation for learning the language is not sufficient to overcome the pain (difficulty, boredom) of the actual process – learning a language is hard and requires quite a bit of effort. What I’m going to talk about today is how to change how the process feels, how to make your pile of pain as small as possible and your pile of motivation as large as possible.
What do I mean by pain? I mean anything that causes you to feel negative emotions – feeling bored, the amount of effort you have to put forward (people hate putting forth any more effort than they absolutely have to), the time you have to take to do it, the trouble you have to go to, the feeling you get of not seeing much in terms of results after putting forward what felt like a good deal of effort, the feeling you have after several months of study when you realize you still can’t have a simple conversation with a native speaker. When people feel these negative emotions, the problem is that their pile of pain is larger than the pile of motivation they have (imagine the two side-by-side in your head, like two mounds of dirt), and the very second that they realize that their pain pile is larger than their motivation pile, that they don’t have enough of a reason to overcome that particular amount of pain, they quit.
Now, you can just grit your teeth and push through it: yes, you can, but why would you (we’re back to motivation now)? And that’s why you don’t, because you just don’t have enough of a reason to do it. If your job depends on you learning this language, then yeah you’ll learn it. You’ll grit your teeth and force yourself to pay attention in the class to do the boring, confusing, difficult homework – you have enough of a reason to (even then, why make it any harder for yourself than it has to be?), but that’s not most people who want to learn a language! Most people want to do it because they’d like to have access to a little bit bigger slice of the world. Essentially, they just want to be able to communicate with people who don’t speak their language, primarily for fun, or they just think that learning a language would be a fun thing to do (it can be! if you do it right). If someone were holding your kids hostage and threatening to throw them off a cliff if you didn’t learn this language in three weeks or something, oh sure you could do it. You could do it no matter how boring or dry the learning material you had to work with was. Sure. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? You don’t have that kind of motivation.
Make it fun
If it’s not fun, I want nothing to do with it – yes, I said “I”, I’m not just picking on you here. I’m the same way, and I’ve learned that the hard way over the years. The best way to do this is to make it as fun and entertaining as possible for yourself instead of trying to fight it and beat yourself into submission with discipline and boring textbooks and lessons.
Remember what I said about motivation and pain? Well, the more fun it is, the more motivation you’ll have to do it, the less effort (pain!) that will be required and the less boredom (pain!) you’ll have to endure. Making it fun simultaneously increases your motivation pile and reduces your pain pile.
Yes, you, unlike a 3-year-old, can force yourself to concentrate on something horribly dull and boring, and to learn it, for 30 or 60 minutes at a time or even longer if it’s absolutely necessary. And you can do it tomorrow. And the next day. But for how long, ultimately? Let me save you the trouble: not very long. In the long run, you’ll lose. You’ll quit after a few weeks or months and say “well, I guess I just can’t learn languages, you have to be a kid for that or born with the right language genes.” Don’t do this, just make it fun and require that as much of your learning material as possible be fun too.
I understand that sometimes it can’t be fun – occasionally you just need to read a grammar book or memorize some vocabulary or whatever – it happens, just do your best. The majority of your learning material should be fun and interesting.
Why you should use kids’ stuff to teach yourself (or other adults) Spanish
Because kids’ stuff is fun and memorable. Learning material designed to teach children a language is specifically designed for people who have only a very basic grasp of the language, who require that the material be fun and interesting (kids have short attention spans, adults frequently aren’t much better) and who need to remember. So, it is taught in such a way (fun! entertaining! silly!) that they will learn and remember it. In other words, it’s perfect for beginning adult language learners as well.
How could you not be amused as a beginning Spanish-learner by trying to understand the Spanish version of Sesame Street or Looney Toons? How could sitting there and trying to decipher what Big Bird or the Cookie Monster are saying in Spanish not be fun? Of course that would be fun! So do it! Pick something that would be entertaining and amusing to you, and go with that. Personally, I find that most kids’ cartoons and books are at least somewhat amusing for me (enough so that I won’t get bored and have at least a little bit of fun messing with them).
Kids’ stuff is designed to teach the most commonly used, necessary language–things like “arm”, “go” (and how to conjugate and use it), “car”, “mom”, “help.” How to say they want to go somewhere and simple manners and greetings, etc. You know who else needs to know this sort of stuff? Anyone learning the language. Beginning language learners have precisely the same needs with regards to which parts of the language they need to learn and in what order. Beginners are beginners, whether they’re 5 or 50, and the words, phrases, grammar, and syntax that they’ll need to learn first and foremost when starting out in a new language will be the same regardless. And if you teach it to them in a manner that’s fun and memorable, you’re much more likely to have success than if you don’t.
If you’re a beginner in the language, you don’t know how to say things like “arm” or “go” or “road.” You definitely need to know these things. You need to learn the most common, useful, and essential elements of that language. That’s precisely what these programs and books are designed to teach and they’re designed to do it in such a way that what they teach is fun and memorable and therefore easily learned after only one or two viewings or readings. For example, they use goofy animated characters who point to the objects as they say the word, e.g. a giant animated talking monkey points to its hand and saying “mano” while swinging from a tree in front of a school: you think you’re going to forget that the word for hand in Spanish is “mano” after watching that? Exactly.
What I like, you may not like, but there’s so much available (go through the archives on Jenny’s site! They’re over there on the left under ‘Archives’) that you’re certain to find something, e.g. I personally love to learn Spanish with comics such as Garfield and Calvin & Hobbes and I know a lot of other people love comics as well, so perhaps that’s something you should check out.
It’s fun, it’s easy to find material (tons of resources, many of which you’ll find here on Jenny’s excellent site), and it makes the Spanish that you learn memorable (much more so than if it were in a textbook). One of my favorite sayings is: “If it works but it’s stupid, then guess what? It’s not stupid.” If it works, use it. This works. So use it.