May 17, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Expat, Spain, Travel

I’ve come to the realization that learning a language is like going on a diet (profound, right?). You try a million different tricks, and while some might work for a select few, in the end, seeing results can be difficult.

Since I get a lot of expats and prospective expats asking what has worked for me, I thought I’d share my potentially ridiculous POV. It’s entirely unscientific, but after trying every approach in the book, and watching others do the same, I suppose I know a thing or two about the whole process.

But first a big fat gigante disclaimer: Sombreros off to anyone even attempting to learn another language – you rock! Everyone obviously learns differently and any attempt at it is impressive! So if you’re happy with what you’re doing, close your eyes and don’t listen to a thing I say.

OK, language learning as diets – here goes:

CDs, books, podcasts, etc.

They’re like diet pills. They make you feel really good, especially right when you buy them. You feel like you have the magic cure right there in your very hands. You start taking them and it seems like any day now the effects are going to kick in. But after weeks of popping pills with very little result, you forget about them and don’t touch them anymore. Sound familiar? CDs, books, etc. promising to teach another language surely have benefits – yes, you can learn how to say basic phrases, and yes, you will learn some vocabulary. But if you’re looking for conversation and fluency, you better double (triple, quadruple) up with some other approaches.

Intensive courses

They are the Atkins diet of language learning. You eat, drink and sleep Spanish for a relatively short period of time and should finish being fluent, right? Not so much. The thing about this approach is that it is pretty much humanly impossible for a person to apply the things learned in an intensive course to real life at such a fast rate. These courses can of course be helpful, just be sure to set your expectations appropriately (particularly because they cost an eye from your face – Spanish saying!). You will make improvements, but probably won’t be able to retain or use a big chunk of what you are taught.

Occasional classes or intercambios (language exchanges)

Kind of like replacing those sodas with big glasses of water. Hey – it’s definitely a great start! Basic conversation, grammar and vocabulary are all at your fingertips. But if you’re looking for more than the basics, then I hope you’re super patient…it may take awhile.


It’s kind of like being a vegetarian – one that doesn’t get enough protein or other key nutrients to have a balanced diet. Immersion is fabulous – you speak, you listen, and you speak and listen some more, and before you know it you’re chatting it up with every Tomás, Ricardo and Enrique! Sweet! When it’s time for pen to hit paper, however, grammar and writing might be a whole other story. But hey, if conversation is your objective, then immersion alone is fantástica!

Ongoing, frequent well-rounded classes

The square meal, three times a day of language-learning. If my classes in the States were a Slimfast milkshake swallowed in one gulp, then my classes here in Spain are the perfect meal with four basic food groups (and maybe a glass or two of wine!). They serve up listening, reading, speaking and writing several days a week and over the long haul. To read more about the classes I’ve taken here in Spain, pop over to Guiri Guide where I’ve written a guest post about my beloved Escuela Oficial de Idiomas.

Ongoing classes, immersion, intercambios, reading, listening…

A square meal, three times a day, with regular exercise, meditation and no smoking. Duh, right!? You basically need to do all of them – exhausting, I know. In my experience, a good diet – ehem – effective language learning involves a little of everything: watching movies in another language, going to class, putting yourself in situations where you have no choice but to speak the language, reading books, listening to the radio, marrying a Spaniard…OK, that last one might be a little unreasonable, but not altogether a bad idea ;).

Surprise, surprise. Just like diets, there’s no miracle method – in the end, it’s all about time and dedication. And also like diets, there are exceptions – you know, those who have abnormally high metabolism or an incredible knack for running hours on end. The language exceptions? Those under the age of 20 (man, kids soak things up so quickly!!!), those that already speak at least two languages (they pick up another language like it’s their job – simply not fair!), and phenoms who perhaps spoke Spanish in their past lives (but hey, that could be you!). I’m severely jealous of you all (the runners and metabolizers included).

Ok, folks who learned a second language as an adult – what worked for you? Have I missed any other methods?


15 Responses to “The language-learning diet”

  1. Sabrina Says:

    So true! I think you can’t really learn a language unless you’re surrounded by it every day – which is probably only the case if you live in a country where the language of your choice is spoken. Well, maybe that’s a little extreme, you can probably take courses at home, try to find groups where you can practice it, find yourself a nice exchange student, …. Man, why are languages so much work?!

  2. Erin Says:

    Puhhhleasseee – I think you are one of the language phenoms. Reading your blog posts, it seems like you speak English like a native. What the heck is your secret??!!

  3. Elizabeth Says:

    This is great!

    I’m glad that you added taking classes, even with complete immersion. Since moving to Spain in September, I already had studied abroad here and had a degree in Spanish. But it’s really weird to not be studying Spanish alongside my everyday conversing. Thinking about jumping back into that so I don’t forget my grammar.

  4. Erin Says:

    I kind of did the same thing – I studied Spanish in the States (in high school – which I don’t think counts – but also several classes a week for a year prior to moving here). Once I got here, I thought that all I needed was immersion. Boy, was I wrong. Having classes has been a huge advantage for me. I’m finishing this month though because higher level courses literally don’t exist…not sure what I will do then. I might just have to take them all over again to make sure I don’t lose all that I learned.

  5. Stephanie Says:

    Loved the post! And all so true! Living in a country is definitely not enough: the year after I finished my Master’s I was working as an English teacher and hanging out with my American friends. My Spanish went to shit! Then I met a Spanish boy, got some Spanish friends… It helped a lot, but now I have the bad habit of inventing words in Spanish out of laziness 😉 You’ve definitely got to stay on top of it!

  6. Sabrina Says:

    Thanks, Erin! I appreciate the vote of confidence 🙂 But I think that’s because I started learning English in 5th grade when it was still easy to pick up languages… and then of course it doesn’t hurt that I’m living and breathing English since 7 years – first grad school, then working. I barely get to speak German anymore 🙂

    You should hear my Italian instead – I’ve been trying to pick it up since Marco and I have been together (2002) and still suck at it. In fact, it’s so pathetic that while I understand maybe 70-80% of what people around me say when we are there, I STILL don’t actually speak it and respond in English instead.

  7. Erin Says:

    I think you deserve a pass on Italian considering that you already have at least two other languages under your belt! I’m actually thinking of taking up Italian next now that I can’t really take any more Spanish classes (and by take up, I mean learn basic convo). On the other hand, that could really mess things up for me considering the languages are so similar. Let’s see if learning a third language is any easier than the second. Somehow, in my case, I doubt it!

  8. Holly Says:

    Having a Spanish boyfriend/husband certainly helps in this department! xxx

  9. Erin Says:

    Yes – he deserved his own bullet actually! He would be the free in-house personal trainer of language learning. Darn! Why didn’t I think of that sooner!

  10. Sabrina Says:

    Good luck with Italian! I think it will be easier for you now since Italian and Spanish are quite similar – or so I am told. I have also heard though that it is easy to confuse things if one is not a native speaker in either. But I am sure you’ll be fine since Spanish is such a everyday thing for you that probably won’t confuse the two.

  11. Laurel Says:

    What a fun article! I’ve just finished 8 months of intensive German classes and agree with your above comments, plus my German skills are nowhere near where I thought they would be by now. For me to learn a language it has to be fun. I cook with German cookbooks (simple recipes) and am taking yoga and pilates courses in German. I find doing these types of activities are really helpful and practical for learning a language.

  12. Erin Says:

    Eight weeks in German – that’s awesome! Did you do them in Germany or back home? Either way, German is something I can’t wrap my mind around, so I think that’s pretty impressive! I occasionally work in a flower shop here in Madrid just to immerse myself in people who won’t try to speak English to me (my husband). What cracks me up is this bizarre vocabulary that crops up from being around a certain part of the language. I’m guessing your German cooking vocab is particularly stellar :).

  13. christy Says:

    i suppose all of this is true. such hard hard work! i also hail from sf, but i live all the way over in girona, spain. i also go to eoi. the classes are great, but i still cannot speak català. doesn’t help that my husband speaks to me in english and all my friends do as well!
    i just hired a tutor to practice speaking and i read books in català daily. but i think the most important thing i need to do is speak- which i don’t….on top of that, i don’t know a lick of spanish- not that that matters much here.
    wish i had me a california native here. i’ve been here for a year and half, but i still haven’t quite adjusted. love the posts on cinco de mayo and pumpkin carving! oh how i miss this time of year at home!!!

  14. Erin Says:

    Wow – I can’t imagine trying to learn Catalan! I suppose it’s just like any other language, but I guess I would find it even more difficult because of the lack of people to practice with – it seems like no matter where I go (here or the US), there are always folks speaking Spanish! Like you, speaking has always been my biggest struggle, and convincing my husband to speak to me in Spanish was a battle for years. Finally we’ve managed to more or less change the “language of our relationship” to Spanish – thankfully.

    I hope you find some Americans (or better yet, San Franciscans!) out in Catalunya. Having some girlfriends from home makes all the difference in the world here. If you ever make it out to Madrid, give us a shout!

  15. Wilner Says:

    For adult learners trying to learn a foreign language and needing to bypass their native tongue, using the aforementioned methods makes sense, whether used individually or in some combination (e.g. Ongoing classes, immersion, intercambios, reading, listening). Everyone is different, and what works for some people may not work for others. The main problem, in my opinion, with traditional language instruction, is that different factions of the language training industry have glommed onto their own preferred ways to instruction or learning and assume that _their_ way is the bet or only way.

    So, Rosetta Stone thinks that a visual / audio approach is best.
    Pimsleur believes that an all-audio method is best.
    Colleges do a combination of textbook, class exercises, and listening, speaking, reading, writing.
    Immersion courses put the learner into the thick of things.


    What method is best: whatever method gets you to where where _you_ want to go? If your language learning is not working for you, try another method for a while.

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