Why learn Spanish?
Like most kids, I didn’t care about languages in high school. I didn’t want to learn Spanish or French. In fact, I did just enough to get by so that my parents won’t disown me (anything less than an A is unacceptable to brown parents!) but I never took it seriously.
In my final year of high school my English teacher said, “Languages are the most important subject you can take, ever!”
Naturally I thought she was crazy. I was getting ready to go study engineering so I was taking courses in advanced physics, chemistry, math etc. I took English and French to satisfy curriculum requirements, but who cared about languages!
She went on to explain that, “you can be the best engineer, doctor, or whatever, but if you cannot communicate properly with people then what good are you?”
She was right! If you are alive then you understand the gravity of her statement. Everything we do is heavily reliant on communicating well with others. So if you suck at it, you’re ability to engineer anything (or help a patient etc.) becomes less relevant.
This became crystal clear when I started my first job out of University. In 2011 I relocated to the Dominican Republic (DR) for a work project for 1 year. With the exception of our team of 20 engineers from Canada, nearly all the workers were from South or Central America and spoke almost no English.
I realized immediately that I had to learn Spanish in order to have any real success in this project. What’s easier – get 3000 workers to learn English or get 1 engineer to learn Spanish? It was either this or make sure the only translator on site was with me all the time, which was pretty much impossible.
So how did I do it?
Learn by doing and doing in languages is speaking!
In big cities like Miami or even Santo Domingo, not knowing Spanish is no big deal because enough people speak English so you can get by. But when you relocate to the middle of nowhere and work with people who hail from villages in the DR, Chile, Peru or other places in Central and South America then you will have to learn Spanish.
I realized this early on and decided to learn Spanish by just speaking. Who cares if I sound stupid (which I did) or people make fun of me (which they did). In about 1 month I could speak enough to get my point across on a basic level. This was huge for me.
I deconstructed how I did it and I realized that while typical language learning curriculums in schools and even professional learning centers focus on teaching conjugations and grammar rules. Instead I just focused on speaking right away.
In our office I sat in front of a Chilean; Juan Arancibia. He spoke English reasonably well so I made a deal with him, I would help him with his English and in return he would help me with my Spanish. Everything I wanted to say to him, I would do it in Spanish. He was always helpful and corrected me whenever I made a mistake. I will always be grateful to Juan for his help.
To be honest with you, beyond talking to Juan, I didn't think about it too much. I didn't try to structure my learning or come up with a fantastic plan on how to attack learning Spanish. I just focused on everyday things that I NEEDED to say, and I said it in Spanish. This ended up being the key to my success.
Learn Spanish using the 80-20 rule
20% of the effort will get you 80% of the results. This is the 80-20 rule.
It turns out that a small percentage of words from a given language (20%) are used most frequently (80% of the time).
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this is exactly what I had been focusing on which helped me learn Spanish so quickly. Since I was just trying to speak, I was learning the words that I needed in my given situation – I was learning the 20% of the Spanish words that are used 80% of the time.
I then used these words to build sentences – which were therefore the most commonly used sentences.
Cognates made the process of learning new words easier. There are many words that are common between latin based languages like English and Spanish. So whenever you start learning a language, you never start from zero. You will always already know some of the words.
Grammar was the absolute last thing I thought about. In fact I didn’t even bother learning any grammar. The sentence structure it turns out is identical for English and Spanish, so that helped me tremendously and prevented me from sounding too silly.
I still made mistakes, but I really didn’t care. Everyone makes mistakes and the guys who made fun of my Spanish spoke poor English themselves.
How do I say it in Spanish?
When learning a new language it really goes a long way if you immerse yourself in it as much as possible. So that’s what I did. I was already living in the Dominican Republic, but if I really wanted I could get by without interacting with any locals or native speakers. It was almost like we were in our own North American bubble within the DR.
Instead of doing this though, I decided to speak with anyone and everyone who could speak Spanish – South American and Dominican workers, colleagues that spoke Spanish and even local store owners when we went into town. I made sure I did as much as possible in Spanish. I even learned the phrase, “how do I say (blank) in Spanish” so I could ask how to say things in Spanish, in Spanish.
This is where I lived in the DR; trailers on site at the mine
Hard work gets noticed. Those around you appreciate it and try to help you. Then, inevitably when you make mistakes they’re happy to go out of their way to correct you. My main man Juan was very helpful. He would ramble off in Spanish and then laugh when I had no clue what he said. To help me out, he slowed down his speech and explained what he was saying when I had trouble keeping up.
Juan Arancibia - such a joker!
In the DR
There were a few things that made my time in the DR a really fun experience, one of which was meeting some really cool locals, who I otherwise would not have been able to meet if I didn’t learn Spanish and try to speak it as often as possible.
In an effort to improve my Spanish, I made a point to speak at every opportunity.
On the weekend we would either go to a resort or go to the Northern side of the island; to a place called Cabarete which was a small beach town with one street full of restaurants with bars facing the beach on one side and hotels and local residences on the other side. We would drive up on Saturday relax at the pool or on the beach until dinner, smoke cigars after having a nice meal and then party!
On one trip we were hanging out on the beach. These guys carrying boxes full of handmade jewelry kept approaching us and trying to sell us things. It was getting annoying. So to mess with them I told them (in Spanish) I wanted to buy their box. They would get really excited and then I would explain to them that I wanted to buy just the box, not the jewelry. They would proceed to tell me to fuck off and then walk away.
What I didn’t realize though was that I was getting the word for box (caja – pronounced ka-ha) mixed up with the word for poop (caca – pronounced ka-ka). So I kept asking to buy their poop! No wonder they got so pissed off. My buddies who knew exactly what I was saying didn’t help either. They thought it would be funnier to just let me say what I was saying and sound like a jackass!
Memories like that one are priceless.
I want to hear about your language experiences. What are some of the difficulties you have faced in learning a new language? Leave a comment below and tell me about it.