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Why speaking a second language is important (to me)

I have always wanted to speak a second language. Having grown up in a country with two official languages, you would have thought that Canadian schools would take the teaching of these languages – French and English – more seriously. Apparently, no such luck. ?

After eight years of French classes, and a serious desire to want to speak French, I emerged from high school with virtually no pronunciation skills, no vocabulary, and nothing to show for these efforts except being able to rattle off the days of the week and a few numbers in French. C’est la vie.

However, now we are about to embark on our journey down the Pacific coast to ultimately end up in Mexico (fingers crossed!), it makes sense at this juncture to set aside French and focus on the language that is spoken predominantly in Latin America – Español.

This is how I plan to learn Spanish on my own

Self-directed learning is certainly not the preferable way to learn a new language, since language is inherently a social activity.

Children learn to speak their first language through socialization. Hearing the words and having a language spoken around and to them “trains” their ears and helps them to establish a vocabulary. Eventually, and without a conscious realization on their part, they’ve become a native speaker!

As an adult, however, and being physically removed from an environment containing my desired language, I am at a bit of a disadvantage. But this will NOT be a barrier to my learning… oh no! I will consider this only an added interesting challenge to overcome. ?

Step 1 – Train the Ear and Practice the Sounds

Since we will be travelling around on the boat, I won’t have the opportunity to join a class or meetup group in person to have the language spoken to/around me. So to remedy this, I have purchased an audio program that I have been listening to on and off since before Christmas.

This program by Earworms Musical Brain Trainer combines listening to two individuals speak the language (English first, then Spanish) all while “catchy” music plays in the background. The intent is that the “earworm” effect of how music can get stuck in your head will be combined with the words you’re hearing so that they, too, will get stuck in your head.

I have to say, it’s actually working better than I expected. Other than a lot of the so-called music is absolutely ridiculous, I have gone from knowing zilch Spanish to being able to mix and match words I’ve learned to create small but useful sentences.

Speak Out Loud Too… Don’t Just Listen!

And though they don’t tell you to try and speak along with the tracks, I’ve been doing that too. I will even pause the tracks and keep repeating the word until I can say it the way I’m hearing it. I feel that doing this has been super helpful for developing my pronunciation skills… even Josh says I’m starting to sound more like a native speaker and not such a gringo!

Step 2 – Build a Vocabulary and Use It

Of course, there’s no trick or shortcut to being fluent in a language other than just rolling up your sleeves and learning it. And that means developing a vocabulary!

The Flash Card Method

While I continue to try and master speaking (and memorizing) all of the words and syntax/grammar rules I’m learning with my audio program, I plan to also use the flash card method to teach myself new vocabulary words.

Though this isn’t the only way to do this, I know this method works for me. I used to attend college to study horticulture, and my final exam for one class included identifying and rattling off the Latin names and a bunch of facts for about 400 plants! To accomplish this monstrous task, I had made a handwritten card for each plant and studied all of them each day on my bus ride to and from school (which totaled about 4 hours a day of study). I was shocked at myself when I aced that test. Not because I passed… but because I couldn’t believe a brain could learn that much random knowledge in only four months! 😉

Not unsurprisingly, I’ve forgotten most of that info now… but at least I’ve made room in my brain for all the Spanish I’m about to learn!

Since I have a penchant for technology, I decided to go digital with my flashcards this time. I purchased this neat flashcard program called Studies (for Macs).

It seems pretty cool. Thus far, I’ve been able to populate it with the words from the audio program I bought. The app lets you import information as an Excel CSV file so that you don’t have to hand-create each individual card if you already have a list of terms you want to use (so, AWESOME time-savings there)! Another cool thing is you can download other people’s cards, called “stacks”, if they’ve shared them with the Studies community. I took the liberty of downloading someone’s stack of Spanish vocabulary to peruse when I’m done with my own.

Because it’s digital, your cards can also feature video clips or sounds (VERY cool!). So I could potentially have a card that is just someone’s voice (or mine!) saying a word or phrase in Spanish, and I have to identify what was said. I think this could be of huge benefit to keep up the ear-training.

I will report ongoingly on my progress with this app, but so far it looks like it should do the trick!

Step 3 – Work it, baby!

Immersion is key, I think, with any language learning. I expect my ability to speak and use the language will improve dramatically one we actually enter a Spanish-speaking environment. But in the meantime, I intend to simulate a Spanish-speaking environment by immersing myself in as much Spanish as possible.

There’s a Spanish language-learning programme called ‘Destinos’ by the Annenberg Foundation that is available for free online. It is formatted as a daytime TV drama/soap opera, but is slowed down and geared to beginner Spanish learners. I’ve watched only the first episode thus far, and it looks like it’s gonna be a bit cheesy, but a lot of sites about self-learning the language seem to mention this show again and again as a great resource.

In addition to this, I got some online advice that I should also immerse myself in reading the language to become fluent. Other than being an excellent visual cue for when I hear the words spoken aloud, reading is apparently the best way to really grasp the “rules” of the language and experience the richness of its vocabulary.

So to this end, since I love learning about other cultures, I plan to work my way through a book on the history of Mexico… written in Spanish. After perusing the Google Play ebook library, I’ve chosen my first book to be Nueva historia minima de México published by El Colegio de México. With my trusty translation books at my side, I hope to emerge from the endeavour both with a deeper understanding of Spanish and the country we hope to visit.

Thanks for reading. Please feel free to leave any questions or comments below. I’d love to hear from you!

Stay awesome,


  – Morgan