Is learning Spanish like learning anything else?

Mostly no. For the vast majority of those of us who research second language acquisition, the consensus is that there is something special and unique about language. We believe that language learning is “encapsulated” in a special module of the mind/brain. For this reason, you can only learn language by being immersed in it; that is, by hearing lots and lots of it over time. The process takes years. Memorizing grammar and memorizing vocabulary don’t directly lead to language acquisition. There is some evidence that they help, but you shouldn’t think that just because you study (and study) the grammar and the new words that somehow language will emerge in your head. It will only emerge with lots and lots of exposure to “communicative language.”

For this reason, we see language evolve in people over time, just as it evolves in children learning a first language. Adult learners begin with single words, then combine these. They also work with “chunks” of language; whole phrases that they have internalized. Creative ability with simple sentences emerges slowly, as does the ability to participate in conversations. Grammar is acquired in stages and pieces over time.

At the same time, it’s difficult for adults to stick with single words the way a two-year old might. You have so much you want to say! For this reason, you will naturally try the communication strategy of “think in English and dress it up in Spanish” to try and communicate beyond your current level. This causes you to make lots of mistakes and to often sound incomprehensible, as translation word for word doesn’t necessarily work. This is why in class, we don’t push you beyond what we think is reasonable for your level, and when you do make mistakes, we know they are natural and unavoidable.

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