July 15, 2024
How Do You Talk, Eat and Live in a Language You Are Learning?

From teacher to learner

To set the record straight I will confess: as a teacher I was a touch sanctimonious about telling students how easy it was to learn English. Then I arrived in Chile in July 2010 about the only words I knew were hola and amigos. Would what I’d been telling students to do work on the other side of the language learning experience?

Come with me as I live, eat and talk what I preach.

Getting Started

I rearranged my life so that Spanish becomes front and center. The language-learning formula is that you will quickly be able to read and follow what is happening. The context will help even if you don’t understand every word. Next you will be able to increasingly comprehend what people are talking about. Moving right along you may start to talk like an 18-month old, but vocabulary will develop. Writing is the most difficult. Even people who speak the language exceedingly well, rarely write like native-speakers.


So how do I live Spanish? When I get up in the morning I tune in to RTVE radio and/or television out of Madrid on the laptop. No commercials and the announcers speak in clear, crisp voices. If the people you are listening to speak well, it is much easier to follow the conversation.

And when you really listen, you will start to hear how many words are, in fact, the same as English, but with a different pronunciation. English stresses the first syllable; Spanish the penultimate.

Another perk is that the newscasts are repeated so what I miss the first time I’ll catch more of on the second go-round. My usual station is the 24-hour radio exterior – en directo. I became fluent in economics as 23 of the 24 hours are devoted to discussing the financial crisis in Spain.

For newscasts on television, watch the announcer’s mouth. Remember this is now deaf people learn to speak, so pay attention and imitate. Sports broadcasts are also good listening exercises as the vocabulary is limited.

Now I only listen to Spanish music. And only watch Spanish movies. Sub-titles – which makes it a bit of a waste of time as you are reading in English rather than listening in the target language – isn’t a problem on RTVE. If your family and neighbors complain about the gongs and wailing in the Chinese opera you’re listening to/and or watching, get head phones and tune them out.

For the first few months– when I was reading the news in Spanish on the BBC– I really didn’t know much about what was happening in the news. But once I could follow it, I realized I hadn’t missed much anyway. However, my reading skills improved.

I have kept a diary since August 1981. So I force myself to write a bit in Spanish every day. Is t is not great literature, but it is amusing to re-read it after a few months and pick out the mistakes. When I read or write, I try to concentrate on the verbs. More on this topic later.

To live the language, also check out local food festivals, multi-cultural events, language-exchange programs and Internet offerings. Even if you want to learn rather obscure languages – such as Khmer or Inuit — there are online resources ready and waiting.


Studying Spanish – and one should live the culture – is so much more fun with a glass of sauvignon blanc from Chile in one hand and a tapas in the other. The same is true for steak and Malbec at midnight. In fact, after a couple of glasses of Piso Alto vino I get quite conversant.

While you are in the bookshop, pick up a cookbook in the target language and whip up a few dishes. If in doubt about the ingredients, check with a translation program as you don’t want a cup of sugar in your soup. Then put on some music, pour a drink, light a few candles and mentally transport yourself to the target language country.


Once you get past the grunt-in-single-noun stage, it is time to tackle the verbs so that you can talk to people. Even though memorizing how to conjugate verbs rivals getting a root canal all languages hinge around these stubborn little critters. No verbs, no action. End of story so get on with it and embrace verbs as your friends.

Turn learning verbs into a fun activity of saying a sentence in the present, past and future. Then reward yourself with a sip of saki if you are learning Japanese. Read a passage and underline all the verbs.

Also make a note of which tense they are in: past, present, future. All of a sudden you will have a “eureka” and patterns will start to appear. It will all begin to make sense. And when that happens, take yourself out for a meal at your target language restaurant. Hopefully the waiters in the Korean cafe will be able to talk with you.

To learn to speak well you have to practice every day. When I started to work as a lecturer at the University of Waikato I used to practice my lessons in front of a full-length mirror. By watching myself I learned how I presented to the 400 or so beaming second-years in the auditorium. I now do the same things with Spanish. And it is a good thing, too, as I now live in Phnom Penh and Spanish speakers are not readily available.

I would pour a glass of wine, pull up a chair in the front of the mirror and review my day. Topics include what I did and what I will do tomorrow. Sometime I just sort of wander off and talk about whatever. I take my Spanish book with me so I can refer to it – particularly the verbs – when I need to.

Okay, so it may sound a touch strange, but believe me it does work. Another option is to video yourself. If you are concerned that other people might think you need a mental health assessment, tell them you are trying out for a part in the Ukrainian play. As long as you have a cover story nobody ever asks.

Learning another language is mental gymnastics. The more practice the better you get. In summary live, eat, and talk it and it will be more fun.