In my last article (Learning Spanish – Mental Preparation) I started to write about some of the first steps I took when I decided to learn the Spanish language. In this article I want to talk about two different approaches to learning a new language that you may want to think about before you dive head long into a text book or start trying to memorise hundreds of Spanish words.
The way that people best absorb and retain information differs from person to person but generally speaking our brains work better if the information we are trying to absorb is presented to us in a way that is informative and interesting. If the human brain attempts to learn by being continuously presented with factual information it will very quickly suffer from Neural System Fatigue; that is, our ability to remain interested in what we are trying to learn will quickly be lost.
New information is best absorbed by the human brain if it triggers our human emotions. Learning facts anecdotally is one method of achieving this. The key is to provide the brain with stimuli. It is far more likely that the brain will absorb new Spanish words for example if those words can be related to something else or if they forms part of a small list of other similar words. Trying to learn hundreds of unconnected words at once is likely to be less effective. I will talk more about learning vocabulary in later articles.
So what stimulus works best? How does the human brain react to different types of stimuli? Well, this of course is what differs from person to person. We are all different. Something that interests me might be the most boring thing in the world to somebody else!
Often you will see teachers and text books trying to teach Spanish by following two different general approaches. The first approach is what I like to call, teaching ‘parrot fashion’. This involves the student processing and remembering new Spanish words and phrases and then simply repeating them our loud. Certain words and phrases can be associated with different topics. The student can simply learn a particular word and remember that that word is only used in particular situations without necessarily understanding why.
The second approach to learning is more methodical. It requires the student to learn a new word or phrase and then to understand why that word or phrase is being used in the way that it is. What we are really saying here is that the grammar of a language is important. We can learn Spanish by trying to understand some fundamental points about the structure of the language.
So which method works best? The truth is that you are unlikely to be able to learn Spanish effectively without having some understanding of Spanish grammar. In reality it will probably take you far longer to learn Spanish if you simply rely on trying to remember when certain words and phrases are used in speech.
A good example of how useful learning Spanish grammar can be is when trying to learn different verb tenses. The way verbs are formed in Spanish is very different to the way they are formed in English. I will talk more about this in later articles. The great thing is that if we learn certain rules about how one particular verb should be formed in one particular tense in Spanish then quite often we can apply this rule to hundreds of other verbs too.
By learning Spanish grammar we can form words and sentences without necessarily having to learn hundreds of words individually. Following grammatical guidelines and applying rules will ultimately allow us to learn new words more quickly.
The problem is that learning Spanish grammar for many is quite boring! It essentially requires that the human brain absorbs technical and factual information. Without varied stimuli learning Spanish grammar might take a very long time.
To avoid losing concentration and becoming board it is probably best to mix both approaches to learning Spanish. This is especially true at the early stages of the learning process. By learning Spanish words and phrases ‘parrot fashion’ at least the student feels immediate satisfaction by being able to communicate. Learning the basics using this method is probably best. It doesn’t take much for anyone to learn how to say hello and introduce themselves!
I mentioned in my last article that when first learning Spanish you shouldn’t get too bogged down with how different words and phrases are formed. The point is that you want to feel enthused about learning. However, if you are serious about learning Spanish then at some point you will need to learn Spanish grammar. Don’t rush it and make sure you provide your brain with the stimuli that it needs. In the next article I intend to talk more about different types of stimuli and how I managed to keep myself enthused when I first started to learn Spanish.
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