How I learned to "Speak" Spanish Very Quickly

Marianne Raynaud explains what helped her the most when trying to review Spanish. She speaks of two websites: "Notes in Spanish" and "SharedTalk" plus the French book entitled "Spanish in 40 Lessons".

About two years ago I decided to brush up on my Spanish that had virtually disappeared totally. Once, a long time ago, I had been offered a teaching position at a university in Venezuela on the condition that I learn "operational" Spanish in 3 weeks. So at that time I simply had to learn Spanish to get the job. I was given a book of exercises, and I worked on my own every day doing drills, simple drills; but I did them orally all alone. I knew I needed at least the basics to be able to teach English to the Venezuelan students, who were just a bit younger than myself. After 3 weeks of intensive work with this self-learning book I started on the job. And a year and a half later I could express myself quite correctly in Spanish but with limited vocabulary. Now thirty years later I wanted to get back what I had previously known but had completely forgotten. I also wanted to progress and simultaneously to ward off any sign of impending Alzheimer’s. I thought learning or relearning a language was just as valid as doing sudoku number puzzles or even ordinary crosswords to keep my mind active!

I started by buying some language books and CDs. I have always liked the self-help books for autonomous learning so I picked up “Spanish in 90 lessons” from a French publisher with sentences to translate from French to Spanish. It was good, but I also bought “Spanish in 40 lessons” for my husband, and I soon found that what I needed were in fact those very basic notions dealing with verb tenses and everyday expressions. I plowed through “Spanish in 40 lessons” reaching lesson number 17 in a few weeks. The lessons were simple but very useful. Suddenly I wanted to “speak” Spanish. I went on the Internet and found different sites. The most interesting one for me was “Notes in Spanish”. A young Englishman was married to a Spanish girl and lived in Madrid. His name was (and still is!) Ben Curtis. He was about to go a motor bike tour of India to gather funds for charities and had set out to do one podcast about Spain and Spanish culture for listeners every single day. He hoped in turn that listeners would donate to the charities he and his group of bikers wanted to help. He lived up to this challenge of one podcast a day! And then he went on from a blog to set up a whole website with literally hundreds of interesting things to listen to or to read or even to watch.

At first the podcasts seemed quite difficult, but then little by little I began to understand Ben and his wife Marina Diez quite well. I could hear the Spanish words distinctly one after another instead of just hearing sounds. Of course the scripts that you can buy on their website made it easy to understand what had bothered me during the listening. Thanks to the system of podcasts and my marvelous iPod I could listen to Spanish wherever I was i.e. standing in line at the supermarket, traveling by train up to Paris, even flying across the Atlantic. Everywhere I went the iPod went too! And so did Ben and Maria’s podcasts!

What I find unique about the podcasts of “Notes in Spanish” is first the fact that Ben and Marina speak slowly and distinctly with exactly the sort of vocabulary we learners wish to learn and use. They ask each other questions about life in Spain and Spanish customs compared to those in Ben’s homeland, England. Ben speaks like a “foreigner” who has completely absorbed all the language and culture of the country where he has chosen to live. When I say “foreigner” I don’t mean it in a derogative way, quite the country. I just think he speaks Spanish in an excellent way as someone from another country would do after some 20 to 30 years; yet not as perfectly as someone born in the country. The later has no idea of the difficulties others have in learning the language. So he or she cannot give as many useful insights into the language. I feel the same way about French. I am Swedish and was brought up in the USA. So I had two languages from the start. But then I had to learn French. I have now been in France for a long time and have obtained French nationality. My French is very good (they say),but not as good as a native speaker. However, I have the advantages of knowing where the difficulties lie. That is how I can help others. Moreover, I have also been teaching English for a long time. The fact that I am studying other languages like Spanish or Russian helps me in the teaching I do, for teaching materials I invent and for the podcasts I am publishing on iTunes.

I also want to say that Ben Curtis has set up his web site all by himself. It is splendid, the colors, the photos, the articles…everything! And now there are video blogs that listeners send in. I even sent one in some time ago from “Marianne en Francia”. With Marina he has done podcasts for different level: Advanced, Intermediate and “Inspired” Beginners. The topics they choose are very interesting. You should definitely give them a try. The concepts are explained very clearly. I learn so much more from them than from watching Spanish television for instance. And the worksheets are really worth the small fee they charge.

Getting back to my own learning of Spanish I wanted to find people to “talk” to in Spanish. For a few months I had to stay in bed for a long time and couldn’t type emails. So I went to “SharedTalk” and found two wonderful language partners, a woman in Barcelona and a Spaniard in Paris. I have written about them in my article “Finding a Language Exchange Partner on the Web”. The woman was originally from Columbia but now lived in Spain after having spent twenty-two years in Sweden! She even had Swedish nationality! Whenever we couldn’t say the right word in Spanish or English we would revert to Swedish!

I think the time has come for all young people to take initiatives to learn foreign languages on their own. We shouldn’t blame language teachers in high schools or even universities. Often they have 20 to 30 students per class. This is no effective way of teaching. It is an almost impossible situation for the teacher. I would even go as far as to say that it is a waste of time. Now young people can read, listen to and even speak English with native speakers just by clicking on different web sites. With “YouTube” and “DailyMotion” you can watch videos and even make your own video in a foreign language. There is no longer any excuse at all for not speaking English, since you can learn it on your own and without spending a lot of money.

I am currently taking advantage of all the possibilities I have mentioned, but I still – even today! - work with my self-help book “Spanish in 40 Lessons” (in French). And although I have progressed, I still haven’t done more than 27 lessons. All this material is so rich and helps me make sure I am speaking "correct Spanish"! I don’t say I speak well, but people generally congratulate me on my correct Spanish, which they think is a compliment to their language. By the way I love to watch TV series such as "Desperate Housewives". I bought the DVDs in Canada so that I could have the series not only in English but also in Spanish with Spanish subtitles! That is a marvelous way to improve your language skills. When I was recently in Spain, I also purchased the Spanish parody of "Desperate Housewives" called "Mujeres". With the subtitles I managed to understand the story very well - it is extremely funny, but there is a little too much swearing which keeps me from understanding everything.

Now let me say one last thing about my own work as an English teacher. I felt I wanted to contribute to this great "sharing" of linguistic materials that is to be found on the Internet and I consider to be essential in trying to make education as democratic as possible. So first I wrote a book. It is a digital resource book for teachers with text, audio, PPT and video. There are even films made by my students. My book is called "QualityTime-ESL: The Digital Resource Book”. And it is on a DVD. I also created a website called www.qualitytime-esl.com. I am presently launching a series of podcasts on iTunes called “Better Speaking Skills”. I invite you to listen to the language drills I have invented!

You may justly ask yourself “What does Marianne Raynaud have to offer now that all this wonderful material is out there already on the Internet?” The answer is simple: there are some but not many people teaching “correct English usage through grammar drills". You can find such drills in bookshops, but not many are on the Web. So that area has become "my niche". I feel that language is like mathematical equations. Once you know the basic equations in a field and can apply them, you can solve a problem … correctly! So I say once you can manipulate verbs in the right tenses and formulate correct sentences, you can be understood perfectly by others. If you wish to learn correct English and are willing to do some “English Language Gym”, please do join me on iTunes or on www.qualitytime-esl.com for 10-minute sessions of grammar and vocabulary exercises in the series “Better Speaking Skills”.

Marianne Raynaud


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