Long-term Language Learning (Why and How)
When you hear us talk about the Spanish classes we’re taking online or the other ways in which we’re engaging with the language do you find yourself having thoughts like “But haven’t you lived in Spain for years?” and “Shouldn’t you speak the language by now?” If so, you’re absolutely not alone! We get questions along these lines regularly and, occasionally, have even had teachers ask why we’re still taking classes! However, the answer is simple: language learning is a long-term (if not a life-long) commitment for us.
Now, before we get into the whys and hows of this topic, let us make one thing clear: language learning doesn’t HAVE to be long-term. You may want to take a crash-course before a big trip abroad or a study abroad experience and then never engage with the language again after that time finishes. If that approach meets your intentions and expectations then that’s A-OK. However, if you want to reach a level of fluency and continue to use a foreign language throughout your lifetime then this is going to require on-going learning.
Why and how long-term commitment improve your language skills
1.) Go deeper: The most obvious reason to keep up with your language-learning long-term is the ability to go beyond the basics. In the beginning stages of learning a foreign language (which could be anywhere from the first few weeks to the first few years, depending on how immersed you are in the language), you’re in survival mode. You’re trying to learn enough to be understood, to get by, or perhaps to pass an exam. When you continue on with your studies long after that first study abroad semester or that pesky language requirement, you’ll be able to enter into the thriving phase. You’ve already got a strong enough foundation to stand on, now you can focus on choosing the most accurate ways to express yourself.
2.) Develop your own style: We’ve talked before about how we speak differently in different languages and how we even feel that we’re different people when we speak these languages. We don’t have these beliefs because we’re crazy but because we’ve spent long enough engaging with the same foreign languages to develop a personality in them that is distinct from our personalities in English.The longer you spend with a language, the more you understand nuance, humor, and connotations. You may even develop the confidence and understanding to make jokes and use sarcasm! Once you have a handle on these abstract facets of language you can begin to use it in your own way. Being able to employ a personal style of speech that represents your personality in a non-native language is difficult but rewarding. It definitely doesn’t happen for most people until they’ve used the language for a long time.
3.) Stay relevant: Even in your native-language, it’s common to come across new vocabulary and expressions that you don’t understand. This can be because of advancements (such as with technology) and the need for new words to describe ideas that didn’t before exist or simply because language changes over time. Continuing to learn a language over years allows you to stay up-to-date with your vocabulary. Some might argue that language is not as dynamic as we make it out to be and that if you have a handle on the traditional vocabulary there’s no need to waste your time with colloquialisms or slang. While that may be true in some cases, Spanish is the perfect example of the importance of on-going learning. The language is very widely spoken, but the vocabulary can be incredibly different depending on where you are. For this reason, it’s particularly important to continue learning if you plan to visit or engage with the people of a Spanish-speaking country in which you did not learn the language. Not sure what we mean? Check out the video below about how complex learning Spanish can be!
4.) No end in sight: Perhaps the best way to summarize all of the above is to say that there’s simply no ‘end’ when it comes to language-learning. You can make the decision to end your studies but we believe there will never come a day when you have learned absolutely everything there is to know about your target language. This might sound daunting, but it can also be freeing. There’s no reason to feel bad or embarrassed when you come across something you’re not familiar with in a foreign language you’ve been studying—even if it’s been YEARS, like it has been for us. It’s simply one more indicator that there will always be something new to learn.
Why and how long-term commitment improve your life
5.) Keep your brain sharp: Studies show that learning a language literally changes the composition of our brains, increasing gray matter density. This is very important because gray matter is linked to language acquisition but also general intelligence, attention, and memory! Furthermore, research has shown that bilingualism can help to prevent or delay the onset of cognitive impairment and Alzheimer disease. If that’s not a good reason to continue engaging with a language in the long-term, what is?
6.) Connect with more people: Still, one of our favorite parts of language-learning is that it allows us to interact with people from different countries and cultures who we may not have interacted with otherwise. Regardless of your level of a foreign language, the mere fact that you are a language-learner can feel like a bridge-builder in some cases. While not a proven fact, anecdotally it seems like life-long learners of foreign languages are many of the most open-minded people we know. When you make a long-term commitment to language-learning, you signal to yourself and the world around you that you are dedicated to improving your skills in a way that helps connect the world and there’s just something positive about that.
How we commit to long-term language-learning (and you can too!)
1.) Take lessons: Even all these years later, Dani is continuing to take private, online Spanish classes. She has signed up for a multitude of different kinds of lessons in the past, but finds one-on-one classes to be the most effective for all of the reasons spoken about in this post. Since moving to Finland, Claudia has taken up the very challenging task of learning Finnish as well! In addition to the time spent in lessons, we both find that merely having classes on a regular basis creates a sense of accountability and motivates us to engage with the language during our free time.
How you can do it: Dani takes two hour-long lessons per week and Claudia takes two two-and-a-half-hour long lessons. We each work on homework in between. Claudia’s goal is to do so everyday for half an hour whereas Dani generally spends an hour the day of and (ideally) the day before the lesson. However you work it, we recommend setting up a consistent plan.
2.) Attend language exchanges: These sort of meet-ups, which we call intercambios in Spanish, are an excellent way to continue language-learning and they’re generally free. The downside (if you choose to see it that way) is that you’ll usually be expected to spend half the time speaking in your native language as well, especially if that language is English. Still, if managed fairly this can be a great way to mutually learn and could be a good place to find a language partner.
How you can do it: We’ve mostly attended intercambios organized on the Couchsurfing website but you might also search for them on Meetup or directly through Facebook events. During the quarantine in Spain, a number of these events have even gone virtual, meaning that they’re now open to anyone around the world. We’ve attended this one run by Connect Now Granada and Tandem Idiomas Lorca, it’s quite popular!
3.) Find a language partner: Also known as an intercambio here in Spain, you can find someone else who is not necessarily a teacher but who you can practice your language skills with. It can be tricky to find the right balance of someone you enjoy chatting with and someone who will actually correct you, but if you’re both serious about learning, it can be done!
How you can do it: Our best language partners have been organized by programs like Dani’s study abroad program in Alicante but you can certainly set one up yourself by pitching the idea to someone you find through a social platform like those mentioned in #8 or at a language exchange itself.
4.) Use entertainment as learning tools: We’ve written a number of articles about reading in Spanish, watching TV and movies in Spanish, and using entertainment in general for language-learning. That being said, there is a difference between passively engaging with materials in your target language (the way that you would normally engage with these things—for enjoyment) and actively treating it as a learning experience. While you certainly don’t need to have your notebook ready to take notes every time you watch Las Chicas del Cable, you certainly could do this and would likely learn much more in the process!
How you can do it: We’ll admit that at the end of the day (when we watch TV/movies or read) we’re often ready to ‘shutdown’ so any engagement with a foreign language is passive. However, in addition to homework directly assigned by our teachers, we like to listen to podcasts, watch YouTube videos, and read articles in Spanish, taking notes as we go and looking up new vocabulary. It doubles as a conversation starter during lessons.
Are there any other ways you’re committing to long-term language learning? Do you agree that language-learning should even be a long-term endeavor? Let us know in the comments!