So, you’ve finally started taking those Spanish lessons that you’ve been promising yourself that you would do for months with the hope of achieving a decent level of Spanish fluency. You have your soon-to-be dog-eared Spanish dictionary within arm’s reach at all times (or the electronic version starred “favorites” on your phone/tablet/laptop). You’ve started calling even your closest acquaintances amigo/amiga just to get into the swing of things.
The goal: Total Spanish fluency. As soon as possible.
But how realistic is that goal? The Foreign Service Institute (FSI), the foreign affairs training provider for the United States Department of State, divides languages into four different groups by the degree of difficulty to learn them. Spanish is in group 1 which technically makes it one of the easiest languages to learn.
A Mere 480 Hours Later… What’s Happening to My Spanish Fluency?
However, that may be somewhat deceptive. Just because a language is easier to learn than other languages doesn’t necessarily mean it is easy to learn. Estimates vary widely, depending on whom you ask. According to FSI, it should take approximately 480 hours to master a Group 1 language. But that will probably only put you in the “conversant” category.
How long the process takes to attain Spanish fluency depends on several factors, including how motivated you are, the time you are willing to devote to learning, and, of course, your facility for learning languages. If Spanish is your third or fourth language (how we envy you people!), you are most likely more familiar with the fundamentals of language learning.
Spanish Fluency, Even for an “Older” Learner?
Is there any validity to the widely-held belief that the older you get, the harder it is to learn a new language? Well, it’s true that it may be more challenging learning the rules of grammar and syntax on your way to achieving Spanish fluency, and older learners are less likely to have good accents, unlike children who naturally pick up on sounds, according to Albert Costa, a professor of neuroscience at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona (“Am I Too Old to Learn a New Language?” www.theguardian.com, Sept. 13, 2014).
While neuroscience research indicates that the neuroplasticity of the brain decreases as we age, making it more difficult to respond to new input and experiences, that is only part of the story. Since older people have larger vocabularies, new words can be picked up easier because these new words get “mapped onto a learner’s preexisting knowledge.”
Delaying Dementia While Striving for Foreign Language Fluency
And there’s more good news for us older learners: Recent studies have shown that speaking a second language can delay the onset of certain types of dementia by as much as four years. The reason is that speaking more than one language involves a certain type of “brain training and switching” that helps develop the areas of our brains that deal with “executive functions and attention tasks” (“A Secret Weapon in Dementia Prevention: The Bilingual Advantage, www.alzheimer’s.net, Nov. 11, 2013).
Just Plunge Right In
So rather than trying to determine (a), if you will ever achieve Spanish fluency, and if so, (b) how long will it take, you just need to plunge right in.
- Talk to everyone and anyone who can help you. Often if you explain to a native Spanish speaker that you are a Spanish student and would appreciate any corrections in your pronunciation or grammar, they will be more than willing to assist you, Not only will they appreciate a foreigner trying to learn their beloved language, but they will be even more appreciative if you do not mangle it.
- Make lots and lots of mistakes. While that may sound like a contradiction to the whole “don’t mangle the language” thing, it’s actually not. One of the main impediments to learning a language is feeling the need to say things perfectly. But mistakes are how we learn and each time a mistake is corrected, we learn a little more.
- Approach this language learning experience with enthusiasm, tempered by realism. This is a very cool and wonderful thing you are doing. Whether or not you eventually become fluent should not be your focus. But continuing to learn and improve each day is a worthwhile–and equally attainable– goal.
How is your language learning going? Got any tips for the rest of us? We want to hear from you.
by: Eileen Brill-Wagner