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?