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Learn Your Second Language and Enjoy the Journey

When people hear I'm studying Spanish, they often are bemused. I want to share a secret: learning a second language is both harder--and easier--than you might think.
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When people hear I'm studying Spanish, they often are bemused. Seeing the middle-aged man that I am, they ask, "Why?" And then, "How?"

I answer the "why" question differently, depending on my mood. I might say it's because I want to visit Miami. Or, if I feel like being serious, I tell them that someday, if I can talk Lori into it, I'd like to live for a time in a Spanish-speaking country and pursue an expanded life. I'd like to help with things I'm passionate about here at home, like literacy, entrepreneurship and libraries.

As for the "how," I've created a virtual Spanish immersion experience by setting all my devices and media to Spanish. These are surprisingly many: iPhone, iPod, iPad, camera, computer, radio, television, websites, music, movies, ATM and self-checkout at Home Depot.

I've also discovered that one of the joys of learning a second language is learning new proverbs. No te ahogues en un vaso de agua. (Don't drown in a glass of water.) That's another way of saying, don't make a mountain out of a molehill.

And now I want to share a secret. Learning a second language is both harder--and easier--than you might think.

What makes learning a language hard

When people ask me how I'm learning Spanish, they wonder if I've stumbled upon the single best program, as if knowing this would provide a magical key to learning quickly and painlessly. Here's the bad news: there is no single course, software or method that will be so easy, so compelling, and so effective that you'll be smiling all the way to rapid fluency. While all of the major language- learning courses are pretty great, the bad news is that learning your second language will take time--lots and lots of time.

Michael Masterson, a bestselling author on self-improvement, says it takes 1,000 hours to move out of incompetence in nearly any valuable skill, and 5,000+ hours to step into mastery and beyond.

Malcolm Gladwell has described the phenomenon in Outliers as the 10,000-hour rule. People are inclined to think it's just natural talent that makes a Paul McCartney or Bill Gates, and tend not to be interested in the hours they put into their craft.

And so many people asked Lance Armstrong about his equipment that he found it necessary to title his memoir, It's Not About the Bike.

Likewise, it's not about the language course. In fact, if you want to really learn your second language, plan on taking all of the language courses you can find. Let's do the math.

  • 300...Rosetta Stone Spanish currently has five levels in Spanish. A company representative told me that most customers report that by spending 45 minutes to an hour a day, seven days a week, it takes them about two months to complete a level. Using an hour for easy arithmetic, that's 60 hours times five levels, for a total of 300 hours of instruction, or about one-third of your way out of incompetence.
  • + 150...I enjoyed Rosetta Stone myself and did the course through level two in Spanish before my computer died (of unrelated causes). I have yet to reinstall the software on my new one. I found it easier to switch to an audio program that didn't tether me to my computer and discovered Pimsleur, which I recommend highly. I went through all 100 lessons they offer in Spanish. Each lesson is 30 minutes, and I'd guess I've listened and repeated each one three times--mostly while doing dishes, washing cars, and walking my dog, Ladi--so that's 150 hours. By the way, Ladi now responds to Venga aqui! (Come here).
  • + 24...Then I listened to Michel Thomas Spanish, which is only 8 hours, but they are exceptional hours, teaching the backbone of the language: verbs. I've listened to it four times, for a total of 24 very valuable hours. (By the way, Michel Thomas is the fellow who taught Doris Day how to sing Que Sera, Sera.)
  • + 6...Then for a change of pace, I downloaded Spanish for Restaurants, which includes such useful phrases as Limpia todas las mesas (Clean all the tables) and !desenchufe lo! (unplug it!) . I've listened and repeated that three times, for another 6 hours.
  • = still not a thousand. I've been studying Spanish now for two-and-a-half years in my spare time, and I've yet to reach my 1,000 hours necessary to emerge from incompetence (although I enjoy flashes of understanding, and can provide some high amusement for Spanish-speaking friends.)
  • When you complete different language courses, one after another, they will reinforce each other. You gain confidence knowing the answers ahead of time. At the same time, they will take you in new directions that can be delightful.

    Should Gladwell's 10,000 hours really be any surprise? Not when you think back to how each of us learned our native language. Most babies take two years before they begin to speak (in my case it was three). Multiply 14 waking hours of language immersion, times 365 days, times two years, and you get 10,220 hours.

    The good news is...

    So what's the good news I promised? It comes from within you, once you and accept the fact that it will probably take you thousands of hours to become conversational, and several thousands more to become fluent.

    Enjoy the journey that will take you years, even if you're naturally good at languages, and even if you're lucky enough to be able to immerse yourself. Don't have unrealistic expectations that after taking a course, you'll be confident enough to pass for a local.

    Often I encounter people who are exasperated with themselves and say something like, "Yeah, I took four years of French and now can hardly speak at all." But when you do the math of actual time spent listening, speaking and writing, four years of classroom study add up to relatively few hours.

    Be patient, my friend. Take courses. Use technology and media to provide exposure here and there throughout your day. Watch a movie on weekends. Do what you can to get your hours.

    Take satisfaction in your small steps, the flashes of understanding, the phrases, the little triumphs. Enjoy your journey. Buen viaje!