I’ve heard it thousands of times from my students and clients: learning Spanish is too hard. Difícil. As a Language Specialist who has taught Spanish and English for over a decade, I would have to disagree. Yes, there are two different “to be” verbs in Spanish, but each is used for specific purposes. Yes, the use of prepositions, such as por and para, can be confusing at first. And yes, the subjunctive mood alone requires hours to learn. But if you are a native English speaker and you think Spanish is hard, think again.
If you are a native English speaker, English may seem quite easy. But remember, you learned English as a toddler. When you are a child, you learn languages by using the motor area of your brain, which is responsible for unconscious actions, says Dr. Paul Thompson. In other words, you are very much like a sponge. As an adult, however, once these centers of language learning have stopped growing, you become more of a conscious learner. You want to be in control of everything, even your language mistakes when you are learning something new like Spanish.
Children don’t have the inhibitions adults have, so I always tell my students to try to be like children when they learn Spanish: remember to laugh, play, make mistakes, and let go of their need to grasp everything. It is supposed to be an act of trial and error. It is supposed to be fun. If you take all the fun out of Spanish, you will lose the love for the language. Had you learned English as an adult you would be able to see the difficulty of your native tongue as do linguists. They seem to agree: English is one of the hardest languages to learn. It is a Germanic language rooted in both Latin and Greek words, which means it shares many cognates with Spanish. However, English has too many exceptions to the rules, including hundreds of irregular verbs. Spelling can be unpredictable (the e before or after the i in “believe”?), and in pronunciation, letters often go unpronounced (know, debt, thought). In English, consistency is not the norm. With this in mind, let me proceed to explain how vastly different this is from Spanish.
Unlike English, Spanish is a phonetic language: Words are pronounced exactly as they are written. Every letter is pronounced. What you see on the paper is what you get. This makes reading, spelling, writing, and pronunciation very accessible. For example, if you are learning English and you come across a word you’ve never seen before, you’ll likely mispronounce it; in Spanish, if you know the rule, you can pronounce the word.
It is uncertain how many vowel sounds there are in the English language, but we can conclude that American English has around 16 sounds, and British English has around 20, according to The National Institute of Education. Compare that to the five vowel sounds in Spanish: a, e, i, o, u. Once you learn the sounds, you can pronounce almost any word. Also, most consonants are accompanied by a vowel. English also has many two-consonant combinations. Spanish has only a few: mb (también), mp (tampoco), ch (chaleco), cc (acción), ll (llaves), and rr (perro). Spanish also relies on accents to tell you where to put the stress of a word.
You might think Spanish has too many rules. Believe it or not, that is a good thing! If there are rules, that means you can memorize them. The exceptions often follow a pattern or are not so difficult to memorize. The indicative imperfect tense, for example, only has three irregular verbs (ser, ver, ir). English, however, has hundreds of irregular verbs that do not follow a pattern. Just to name a few, let’s look at the present and simple past of these: think/thought, wink/winked, preach/preached, teach/taught, bet/bet, get/got.
Even though the path to fluency is different for each person, if you are a native English speaker, it only takes 23-24 weeks, or 575-600 hours to learn Spanish from a novice to proficient level, according to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI). As a Language Specialist, I can attest to this being the case. My advice to learning Spanish the fastest and most efficient way possible: learn in a classroom setting, be disciplined and consistent with your studies, and put your learning into practice through a vacation, an immersion program, living abroad or by spending time with a Spanish-speaking buddy. Think 600 is a lot of time? These 600 hours are miniscule compared to the 23,214 hours the average person spends washing clothes over his or her lifetime, according to The Daily Mirror. Or how about the 5 months spent complaining? Or the 5 year spent online? Hopefully you will spend a portion of those years trying to improve your Spanish ;).
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Irma is a trained linguist, native Spanish speaker, and teacher. She is the founder and CEO of Diáfano.
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