How I learned to "Speak" Spanish

A few two years ago, I decided to brush up on my Spanish that had virtually disappeared completely. 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 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 three 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 everyday vocabulary. Thirty years later I wanted to recover what I had previously known, but I felt that I had forgotten it entirely. I also wanted to progress and simultaneously to ward off any signs 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 on a motorbike 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 fascinating things to listen to or to read or even to watch.

At first, the podcasts seemed quite challenging, but then little by little, I began to understand what Ben and his wife Marina Diez were saying. I could hear the Spanish words distinctly one after another instead of a string of unintelligible sounds. Of course, the scripts that you can buy on their website made it easy to understand whatever had bothered me during the listening. Thanks to the system of podcasts and my iPod that had recently been marketed 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 precisely 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 contrary. I think he speaks excellent Spanish and has acquired so many of the tricky expressions inherent in the Spanish culture. His proficiency is not quite equal to someone born and educated in the country. That is what makes the podcasts so refreshing and pedagogical. We all want to speak like Ben, and since he isn’t a native speaker, we think we might be able to imitate him to a certain degree. He knows when he makes mistakes, corrects himself and explains the errors.

People raised in a country and who are not teachers often have no idea of the difficulties others encounter when learning a foreign language. So they cannot give as many useful insights.

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. I have frequently been told that my French is excellent, but I know I will never speak like a university educated native. 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 when it comes to teaching, writing materials, and producing podcasts.

I also want to say that Ben Curtis has set up his website 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 did so myself—“Marianne en Francia.”

With Marina, Ben has produced podcasts for different level: Advanced, Intermediate and “Inspired” Beginners. The topics they choose are very topical. You should 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 worth the small fee they charge.
Getting back to my attempts at relearning of Spanish, I decided I needed to find people to “talk” to in Spanish. For a few months, I had to lie in bed because of an injury 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 was living 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 go over 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. It is an almost impossible situation for the teacher. I would 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 websites. With “YouTube” and “DailyMotion”, you can watch videos and even make videos in a foreign tongue. There is no longer any excuse at all for not speaking English or other languages since you can learn by yourself without spending much money.

I am currently taking advantage of all the possibilities I have mentioned, but I continue to 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 claim to speak well, but people generally congratulate me on my capacity to express myself, which they think is a compliment to their language.

By the way, I love to watch TV series. In the past, I was a fan of the U.S. series "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. A couple of years later, I purchased the Spanish parody of the American "Desperate Housewives" called "Mujeres." With the subtitles, I managed to understand the story very well. It is amusing and entertaining, but there is a little too much swearing which keeps me from understanding everything.

Now let me say one last thing about my work as an English teacher. I felt I wanted to contribute to this great "sharing" of linguistic materials on the Internet. I believe in trying to make education as democratic as possible. So first I wrote a manual for teachers, a digital resource book with text, audio, PPT, and video. I even included films made by my students.

The latest version of the manual is called "QualityTime-ESL: The Digital Resource Book” 2.0. It used to be on a DVD, but now it can be downloaded in three zip files.

You may justly ask yourself “What does Marianne Raynaud have to offer now that so much wonderful material is already 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 logarithms in a field and can apply them, you can solve a problem correctly! Once you can manipulate verbs in the right tenses and formulate clear sentences, others will understand and communicate with you. If you wish to learn correct English or Spanish for that matter, you have to do oral exercises that could be called "Language Gym.” Good luck with your training.
Marianne Raynaud


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