failed Spanish student reveals his 3 secrets to mastering any language

8 long years…

That’s how long I studied Spanish.

Elementary school Spanish was fun. Middle school Spanish a joke. And high school Spanish (or at least the last two years of it) an absolute nightmare.

Entering my junior year in high school, I had resigned myself to the fact that I couldn’t learn a foreign language.

Both my mother and father were useless at languages so I just guessed it ran in the genes.

I could hardly wait to say goodbye to foreign languages upon entering college. But that’s when my life changed forever, and it was in the form of two lovely Japanese ladies.

You see, while I looked like your typical white American, spoke like your average teenage American and felt most comfortable with the American way of life, I wasn’t an American.

As some of you might already know, I was born in England but had actually spent most of my life in Asia.

So it came as a shock to me that I had trouble getting along with my fellow classmates.

Only a handful of them could understand my background.

To go to college in the US had been my dream from the age of 8 but I was only in college for a few weeks before I had made up my mind to visit Japan.

I saw how hard these two women worked to learn my language and felt it was only fair that I try and learn theirs.

A year and a half later, I became the first student ever in my college to go on a study abroad program in his sophomore year.

I knew I had failed at Spanish but figured what the heck. I found myself at a crossroads at college and was looking for a change so why not go for it.

It was tough going at first.

Kanji (Chinese characters) was a mystery to me. Constructing anything longer than “I like ice-cream” was a struggle. But I had a few things on my side:

  • A sexy teacher (I looked forward to going to class)
  • An amazing homestay family (and my homestay mom spoke English which made things MUCH easier)
  • A super cute girlfriend

Within 5 months I had gotten the hang of writing Kanji, was able to combine two short sentences into one longer sentence and the rest as they say, is history.

I set a goal to become fluent but along the way my goals changed so I consider myself a decent conversationalist but more importantly, through teaching English to Japanese students, I have come to understand just how to learn a language. The secrets and the mistakes.

While most of the secrets aren’t really secrets, they are more powerful than any gimmicks that you can find out in the marketplace.

Some of you have undoubtedly bought programs such as those put out by Rosetta Stone or Berlitz. They’re where a lot of people start…I know, cuz I was one of them.

I still remember asking my father to buy me a set of tapes for my birthday present that year…think his heart skipped a beat because it was the first time I had ever asked for an educational product.

But what I discovered is that despite all the fantastic ads you see on TV, the chances of one succeeding in learning a language via audio is like winning the lottery.

I’ve had private teachers. I’ve taken group lessons. I’ve read newspapers, books and magazines. I’ve even taught Japanese.

And through it all I have come to the conclusion that there are 3 real “secrets,” 3 “pluses” and 1 final piece of the puzzle to mastering any language and have confirmed them with numerous people who can speak more than one language.

The 3 secrets are:

  1. Keep Going
  2. A Good Teacher
  3. Good Materials

The first is simply perseverance. Language is something that must be continually practiced. It’s like pretty much everything else, you either use it or lose it.

It is the single biggest mistake I found over my 20 plus years teaching. Sadly, many good students never become great because they believe they are good enough. The best students know there is always more to learn.

I knew people who lived in the US for 10 years and thought they were all that…and granted, they were good…at conversation. But their lack of vocabulary or incorrect understanding of business and casual language often let them down. But even worse than that, as they stopped studying English, it wasn’t long before their English deteriorated.

The second and third are linked together. A good teacher does what they can to inspire students. They help show students why the subject matter is fun. They use humor, surprise and pretty much whatever they can to keep students’ attention.

Secondly, a good teacher knows their craft and knows what materials are worth investing in.

It’s one thing to have a good book, it’s another to get the best out of it. Good teachers can do just that.

Good teachers are often quite strict because they are passionate about what they teach. But they are also kind and very caring.

Always invest in a good teacher if you can find one. They are worth their weight in gold…and this doesn’t just apply to learning a language but absolutely any subject under the sun.

Sadly, I have found that most people think that teachers are replaceable. I haven’t found that to be true, especially with the good teachers.

When we find a good teacher, they become more than just a teacher, often times becoming a close friend and confidant.

Speaking for myself, I have been blessed to have met some wonderful people over my years of teaching and am proud today to call many of them my friends .

The three “pluses” are things that can help aid the learning process (or languages), but do not guarantee success:

  • Study abroad
  • Boyfriend / Girlfriend (love it a powerful motivator to achieve anything)
  • Friends

And then there’s the final piece of the puzzle, my all time personal favorite: study hard.

Learning a language isn’t about skill but rather a matter or desire.

You see, language is essentially a survival tool.

See how long it would take me to learn Spanish if I were in a Spanish speaking country, surrounded by people who only spoke Spanish and I was stuck there for 6 months. I’d learn pretty quickly how to ask for what I need; food, water, the bathroom. And slowly but surely I’d pick up the rest.

But most of us aren’t going to be in such an environment in today’s world with the prevalence of English. As such, we must force ourselves to learn the old-fashioned way; a little elbow grease.

I will say this, learning a language may be hard…but its value is enormous.

The friends you make, the ideas you get and the pride you feel is beyond comparison.

I hope you all take up the challenge.

Adrian Shepherd

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