Sunday, April 4, 2010

How I Learned Your Language – Spanish by Mike Harrison

A potted history of my language learning life – like many, I started learning languages at secondary school. The first was German, followed a year later by French. I had ditched German and I added Spanish when I started university. Each of those languages has been my favourite at a particular time, and in fact, each became my favourite in turn (German, French, then Spanish) – I really am fickle with my languages. I studied German for a total of 7 years, and have studied French for 14 and Spanish for 10 (though my formal education for those two finished in 2006).

Anyway, on to the main part of my post. There have been things in common with all of my language learning experiences (location, teaching styles, learning environments) but I think I have had by far the most success with Spanish, and I want to find out why, in particular why I succeeded more than with either French or German. Come on a journey with me.

First steps in language learning  – German and French 1995-2002
I learned both German and French at school. My teachers were not native speakers, but British. There were the usual activities – grammar gap-fills, listening/reading comprehension, role plays, dictation, spelling – all quite normal, and we did work from text books. Despite not being native speakers, both my German and French teachers spoke a lot in the language they were teaching, right from the start. I thrived in that environment and got As for both languages in my GCSEs (exams you do in the UK aged 16). But after that I started to get confused between French and German and also between the different cases in German (possibly the most difficult thing I have ever studied). I fell out of love with German and eventually dropped it aged 17. I continued with French and went on to study it at university.
The absolute best thing about studying both languages at school was the chance to go on exchange trips (twice to Aachen in Germany and once on a work experience trip to Nantes in France).

Next steps in language learning – French and Spanish 2002-2006
When applying to go to uni, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and ended u applying for languages because I was good at them (despite the break up with German). However, I did know that didn’t want to do just French. I toyed with French and War Studies (don’t know where that came from); French and Italian; French, Italian and Spanish at Bangor, and what I ended up doing – French and Spanish.
I really enjoyed the shift in how I studied at university. The onus is more on the student than at school. You have to put in the work in your own time or you won’t improve. I found studying a new language stimulating. All the while surrounded by highly educated people teaching about matters related to the language (literature, film, geography, history...) and native speakers (part of the key to REAL progress here) for conversation and grammar classes.
The best bit was being able to live in Spain for a year, which I did working as a language assistant. I had a room in a flat just down the road from the beach,  and not 10 minutes walk from the school I worked at.

Learning on my own – Spanish 2006 onwards
I don’t think I’ve stopped learning my languages, and I was lucky to be able to make use of my Spanish language skills fairly soon after graduating. I moved to Pamplona in 2007 and worked there for a year teaching EFL. My French to some extent, and certainly my German, have fallen a bit behind and I think I know why. The language I have lived more is Spanish. Living and working in Spain has meant that I have had to use the language and also I have had to learn new things about the language (more conversational, more idioms, more vocab.) and I’ve been able to do that in a native speaker environment. I also had an Argentinean girlfriend which helped motivate me! If you’re not sure about that, check out Ken Wilson’s comment at the end of this video by Lindsay Clandfield:

So there you have it. My tips for language learning are:
be motivated or find an environment that motivates you
living the language is key – if you have to use the language in your day-to-day life it will become part of you

Mike Harrison is an ESOL teacher in London, in the UK. In his spare time he tries not to fall over while doing capoeira. He is on Twitter at and blogs at


  1. Hi Mike

    A very interesting post! Like you, I studied languages at university (French and Italian) and I learned more when I actually went to live in Genoa as an au pair for 3 months than I had ever learned before. I spoke no English for the whole time and so it was full immersion, which was great.

    I spent a year out at Dijon University, studying French literature and language with a big group of students from all over the world as part of my French degree programme. I'm afraid I didn't learn so much French, because the other students insisted on speaking English with me, despite my obvious reluctance to do so. Result was that I didn't really improve as much as I should have done.

    I totally agree that living the language is absolutely fundamental to effective language learning. Your post has brought back happy memories of all my foreign language learning experiences. Thank you!

  2. Interesting post, Mike - you have my sympathies grappling with cases in any language. I wonder how you often you attend to your German and French as you say they have fallen behind. I spent a lot of time at different stages learning Italian, Japanese and German and frankly I can barely recall how to say 'My name is...' in any of them now because I haven't used them for years. The only language that's burned into my brain is French and that's not a particularly high level but just the residue from 10 years at school. I also find that every time I learn a new language, I lose the previous one I was learning.

  3. Hi Janet, thanks for the comment! It's funny, isn't it, how sometimes people can go with the flow and immerse themselves into a culture, and sometimes hang back and surround themselves (or find themselves surrounded) by people who speak the same language. Glad to bring back some happy memories - some of mine have been during my time I was in Spain =)

    Hi Sputnik - glad I'm not the only one who finds cases difficult! If I am honest, I don't work so much on French or German nowadays, though if I find myself teaching students from either country it motivates me to try. I'd say that my French is 'there' and just needs sustained exposure and practice to be usable but German is a lot further behind. I think I would find that difficult to get to a similar level since I stopped a while ago, and I only learned 'secondary school German' and not much informal stuff. Having said that, I'd like to revisit it sometime, and learn (or have a stab at learning) some new languages. I hope they won't take the place of what I've already got!!

  4. Mike,

    To begin with, thanks a lot writing a post for me :)I couldn't agree more with your tips for language learning.

    It's amazing how girlfriends/ boyfriends can motivate us to learn a language. Loved the way it was shown in 'Love Actually':)

  5. You're very welcome! I had a nice time writing it as it brought back the memories of being in Spain (might go back to live sometime in the future) and I think having a good experience in a place is also good motivation/encouragement to keep at a language.

    I think this is a really interesting series, Anita, and hope that more people chip in with their language learning experiences. =)

  6. Hello, Mike! I'm an English teacher here in Indonesia. I've been teaching like..almost seven years, and I'm still learning, since English is not my native language. Often times, my students ask me.." Miss, have you ever been abroad? " Lol..when I saw my students' expectancy of my answer, I was like..Lol..I told them quite frankly that I have never been abroad, and I would love to go there someday..Lol..

    Well Mark, I do agree with you that we must find our own supporting environment to learn a certain kind of language, but most of my students' difficulties is that they can't find any supporting environments. They feel shy speaking in English in front of a lot of people *I mean outside the classroom* I have suggested them make a kind of English club or something like that to make them practice more outside the classroom.

    FYI, my background education is not English. I learned Indonesian Literature in University, and I end up teaching tell you the truth, my passion always goes to languages. I excelled in French when I was in High school, but I never use it, so I sort of..Lol..forget about that language. Reading your post, I feel like, remembering my ambition long long time ago, which is being able to speak in at least four foreign languages. Lol...

  7. Hi Verra!

    Thank you very much for your comment. I think the idea of an English club is great - a colleague of mine is trying to set one uo at the college where I work. I think even students who live in the country of the language they are speaking often don't make the most of this opportunity - it's all too easy to stay in their own community groups and speak their own language. While I completely understand, and am glad they are not forgetting their culture and who they are, I think they miss out on a lot.

    I think for students studying English but not living in an English-speaking country it's always going to be a difficult thing (see a post on Ken Wilson's blog Ten Things I Think I Know About Teaching where he blogs about this very topic) - English is slipping in terms of its importance, and it can be difficult to motivate others (and oneself) to learn if the benefit is not clear. I think this is a challenge to be met as a teacher and a learner.

    I have ambitions of being proficient in a number of languages - I don't think I am at the moment (just English and Spanish probably). I'd love to learn more languages - just a question of time really.

    I hope you get the chance to travel soon - for me it's one of the greatest things to be able to visit different places.

    All the best