There has never been a better time to learn languages. The world has become much smaller with the internet connecting us to eachother and so we are coming into closer contact with content in other languages. There are a number of reasons people choose to learn another language; whether for business or for personal growth the challenge remains the same. It can be daunting trying to figure out where to start especially if you are learning mostly on your own. I’ve taught at a well known English language school and I’ve also attended language courses for my own language studies. From my experience both teaching and learning I know that a huge part of becoming proficient in a language has to do with the work you put into it personally on your own. It can be the make or break factor. After Chinese and English, the romance languages, particularly Spanish, Portuguese, and French are popular languages to learn. Not only is a lot of business conducted in these languages but there is also a wealth of literature that can be enjoyed if we are able to read in them. Once we’ve made the decision to dedicate time to learning one of the romance languages you may wonder where to start or, if you’ve attended a beginner course, where to focus for improvement.
Here are my 6 tips for moving beyond beginner level in the romance languages:
- Get used to the idea of all nouns being either feminine or masculine
- Know your definite & indefinite articles (the, a , an)
- Master a few common nouns to build your vocabulary
- Study the verbs like a demon
- Keep a vocabulary notebook
- Love your dictionary
All nouns in the romance languages are either feminine or masculine so they will generally end in either an ‘a’ for feminine or ‘o’ for masculine. There are exceptions to the rule but there really aren’t that many.
Next you’ll want to get to know your articles (the, a, an). Because of the gender of nouns you’ll have noticed that there are also both feminine and masculine versions of the definite and indefinite articles to match the nouns. I have found it a good idea to learn new words together with their definite article to help you remember gender. For example: la casa, el gato in Spanish or a casa, o gato in Portuguese.
An incredibly valuable resource for your learning journey is your vocabulary notebook. Be vigilant about writing down every new word you come across and writing its English equivalent next to it. This notebook will become your bible. The process of writing down the new word and looking up its translation is in itself helping you to solidify this new information in your mind. Later, it is the place you return to to recap your vocabulary and also serves as a fantastic reminder of how far you’ve come. I highly recommend studying using a vocabulary notebook.
You will obviously need to look up the meanings of all these new words so a good dictionary is essential. While I was teaching there was debate about how much or how little beginner students should use dictionaries. My opinion is that you should get one and use it regularly. I say this simply because when I was a beginner my dictionary was my best friend. I’m all for immersion but you won’t get anywhere in the beginning without being able to look up the words you are hearing and seeing around you.
The next big hurdle that must be overcome are the verbs. They look scary to English speakers because of their many forms but fear not! To begin let’s talk about why each verb in each tense has so many forms compared to English. For this let’s take a look at our personal pronouns to see all the different perspectives from which action takes place. There is ‘I’ 1st person singular, ‘You’ 2nd person singular, ‘He, She, It’ 3rd person singular, ‘We’ 1st person plural, ‘You’ 2nd person plural, and ‘They’ 3rd person plural. In English the form of our verb only changes in the 3rd person singular: I walk, you walk, she walks, they walk. Easy. The only difference in the romance languages is that for every person the verb changes. It does initially seem like a lot to remember but look closely and you’ll see there is a pattern to those changes that you can learn by heart. And herein lies the important advice I give to beginners who truly want to be proficient. Don’t shy away from learning those verbs. Take the bull by the horns and write them out, study the endings for the pattern of change, and keep doing it until you know those verbs inside out. Start with the present simple tense and when you know those by heart move on to the past tenses. The most important verbs to learn to conjugate at first are: ser, estar, tener, and ir which are your ‘to be’, ‘to have’, and ‘to go’ verbs in Spanish. All stem verbs in Spanish and Portuguese end in ‘-ar’, ‘-er’, or ‘-ir’. Each one of these stem verb endings has its own pattern which dictates how the verb will change to match the personal pronouns I mentioned above. So choose one verb for each of the endings (hablar – to speak, comer – to eat, salir – to go out) and learn the pattern of the verb changes for each and then apply those to other verbs with the same ending. In addition to dictionaries you can also buy dedicated verb books which take verb by verb and give you all the changes in all the tenses. A super reference tool! What has been your experience with beginning language learning?