Sunday, November 20, 2016

Learning a Language

It's time I get back to the important business of blogging. I have been busy since I've been back from Denmark, but I have been busy with the business of learning Spanish.

In other words, this particular post is not about woodworking at all, but my journey so far with español.

Traditional Spanish dancing.
This post is more for me to record my thoughts more so than to be some kind of expert on the Spanish language. Someday I'm going to have to learn German properly, and this hopefully will be a nice record of what I did to learn Spanish.

Perhaps a little bit of my personal history to put my journey into context:

I came to Germany in 1997 with the US Army. Until recently, I have worked for the US Army either as a soldier or a civilian. This means I have always worked in an English speaking environment on a US Army post, where I could spend dollars, eat peanut butter and speak English.

Early on I met the Frau who speaks better English than I do. For some reason (and I think I'm not alone), we find it excruciating to attempt German at home.

I could go on with lots of excuses, but in the end, after 19 years in Germany I am not at all fluent in German, and there is no one to blame but myself. I can follow a conversation pretty well, can read a bit, and can order the hell out of a Big Mac. The problem is when it comes time for me to speak, my brain turns to jelly.

I've been in Spain since August, and I vowed I would not let the same thing happen to me here. I want to speak to the people here. I think it would be way more fun that way. I could get away with English in the part of Germany I was in, as the education system there does a great job of getting young people fluent enough in English. I could get away speaking English because there would invariably be someone who could speak English nearby.

We will go back to Germany in a few years, and I will need to learn German, full stop. I think being in Spain now is an excellent opportunity for me to learn how one should go about learning a language, as I pretty well know what NOT to do to learn one.

I think learning a language is a bit of a catch-22, because in order to really get it, you need to speak it. But, to speak it, you need to know something.

Hmmm. What to do?

There was one giant mistake I did when learning German: I allowed fear to prevent me from trying. I was afraid of making mistakes, afraid of getting the articles wrong, afraid the grammar was in the wrong order, etc. In other words, I was afraid of sounding dumb.

Other people seem to be great at languages. The Frau is fluent in German, English and French. Jonas has Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, German, English and who-knows-what-else. I would call him a polyglot. He would consider himself able to talk to anyone within an hour's drive of his house.

I know this is completely irrational, because I always appreciate it when someone bothers to learn English. They might not be perfect, but it doesn't take too much effort to help someone get out what they are trying to communicate.

For some reason, it is different when the shoe is on the other foot.

I am well aware of this folly, and my propensity to fall in it. I've caught myself a few times already choosing to keep my trap shut rather than say what I want.

OMG! This is going to be a long post. I'll have to find some more pictures to break it up.
Ham! What could be more Spanish than Iberian ham in a market!
Learning a language isn't necessarily difficult, but it does take effort, patience, and you MUST stick to it.

My regimen up until now has turned out to be pretty effective so far.
  • I am in a Spanish class downtown for two hours three days a week.
  • I am taking private lessons from Spanish teachers via Skype
  • I supplement my lessons with YouTube videos on the subject I'm working on.
  • I use my limited Spanish every chance I get.
I feel the need to break these down a bit to explain what I am doing to get anything out of them and what they are.

Spanish Class

My Spanish class is taught by a very nice lady at a language school in town. There are about six students learning basic Spanish, and the teacher speaks very little English in class. I suspect she doesn't really have English at a conversational level, but really I don't know.

  • I'm with a real-live person who can answer questions and demonstrate the language.
  • I can learn along with some of the other students who are in the same boat.
  • There are proper materials provided and a certain expectation that we do our part.
  • We really are getting into the weeds of the bits that make Spanish work and be correct.
  • One can "hide" in class. This is something I am predisposed to do. Remember, I said that to really get it, you have to speak. I've caught myself hoping she would call on someone else when I am not confident with an answer.
  • The class both goes really fast, and too slow at the same time. It sounds weird, but we are learning so much that it seems before I can really get a handle on a concept we are moving ahead to the next step. I could be at it for years before becoming conversational if this is all I do (I know, because I proved it with German).
  • All in all, a group class like this gets you good at analyzing Spanish, but lacks a bit in the creation required for speaking fluently.

Private Skype Lessons

I'm lucky here, because I am doing some private lessons with a company called BaseLang. I'm lucky because they only teach Spanish. I'll have to figure something else out when it's time for German.

  • It is really cheap - $99 per month for as many Skype lessons as you can do.
  • Quality lesson design with flexibility. I mean that this company's focus is to get a student speaking and understanding as quickly as possible. It is flexible in the fact that the instructors all will go over whatever you want them to. I could use them as tutors, for instance, to help with the lessons in my downtown class. I find their lessons to be a great compliment to what I am learning downtown, though. While I am hanging on by my fingernails downtown, here I get to really understand and gain confidence. Honestly, I feel more like my downtown class is a good companion to this one!
  • The instructors are all cheerful, knowledgeable and dedicated. There are dozens of them. I found one that I use most of the time, and I use a few others on days and times when he isn't available.
  • I can do it every single day, even days when I have my downtown class. The most I've used so far is five 30-minute sessions. At a $99 per month rate, this is perfect for me while I am not yet working. I think if I did have a full time job, I could still get really great instruction with a 30-minute class every day and perhaps one day on the weekend with one or two one hour sessions. I think if you do less than ten 30-minute sessions a month, you probably would be better off with a local private tutor.
  • I think the reason BaseLang can keep the price so low is their instructors are mostly from Venezuela, from what I can tell. I think if you are in the US, this is not so much a problem, but Castillian Spanish here in Spain has some differences. I think the differences are about the same as the differences between British English and American English. At the end of the day, I decided to go with this company anyway, as South American Spanish is better than nothing, and there is no way I could afford this amount of private tutoring with a language teacher here. I did find a BaseLang teacher who has been great in helping with the Castillian. He is knowledgeable about the differences, coaches me about them, and adds exercises to our lessons including grammar and pronunciation that I need. He even created one entire lesson for me just on this topic!
  • It is over the computer, which isn't quite as good as speaking face to face with someone. But I have to say it's close.
  • It is restricted to being able to communicate over Skype, which requires an internet connection, video and audio.


YouTube is an amazing resource that wasn't something I would have thought to include in a study regimen even a couple of years ago. Now, it has a TON of good content. Beware, though, there is also a TON of crap content. I find that there is some real gold to be mined here. Cherry picking the topics you need to assist understanding is a real boon.

  • It makes a brilliant companion to a proper language class, as you can search topics. For example, last week I was so mad and frustrated with my class because the teacher went over indirect object pronouns for probably 45 minutes. Very detailed. My problem was, I didn't get it. The more I didn't get it, the madder I got. I fell in my trap of keeping my mouth shut as it seemed that no one else was having problems, in fact they thought this concept was easy. Once I was home and calmed down a bit, I decided I needed to figure these things out, and I wasn't going to stop until I did. A quick search on YouTube yielded about seven years worth of content regarding indirect object pronouns. In ten minutes, I was good to go. Sometimes, you just need someone else to explain it in a different way.
  • I find it not very effective as a stand-alone language program. There's lots of opinions on how you should learn Spanish, and without guidance it can be a bit like walking through a swamp blindfolded.
  • No feedback. This kind of goes with the previous point. Just like any other kind of video instruction, the teacher can not observe and correct what you are doing.

Accosting Every Local With Limited Spanish

I jest a bit with this title, but the idea is to put as much of what you are learning into real world practice as soon as possible. I have to say the Frau is better at this than I am, but she is getting by.

  • You are really doing it! You're speaking a foreign language!
  • Speaking a word somehow cements it into your long term memory better, making it easier to pull it up without effort the more it is used.
  • They respond. Now, it's "omigodwhatthefuckdidhejustsay?"
  • Don't get me started on a telephone conversation at this point. How are you supposed to use your hands and feet on the phone?
  • Sometimes a local will speak to you in a dialect. Here, it's Valenciano, which is a different language entirely. 
I joke, but it's usually not a problem. People are understanding and supportive when they find out you are trying to learn their language (although I won't speak for the French). One has to understand there is a big commitment in brain calories required to learn a language, but there are big benefits.

Especially if you live in another country.

What languages do you speak, or would you like to speak, and what ways do you learn?


  1. Let me quickly say thanks for providing this site that I've been reading quietly for a while.

    I am German and I see that it is hard for an English speaker to practice German in Germany. Many Germans are somewhat fluent in English so they like to practice their English on you. And even with initially good intentions, when you start out in German and then struggle, Germans will automatically switch to English. To help you, but also to help themselves get better in English :)

    This shouldnt happen too frequently in Southern Europe.

    So here is my tip. Learn Spanish to some degree and when you come back try that and German, hide your English :)

    1. Haha! Good plan! I wonder if I have the patience for that?

      Thanks for being kind, but really, I was in Germany long enough to be fluent. It is embarrassing. But, you are right. There are good intentions. I find my German is much better when I find out you can't speak English. I'll find some way to make myself understood then.

      One big problem I've found with Spanish so far, is it seems all the words flow together where it sounds like one giant mumble. The Frau calls it "machine gun Spanish." My goal is to someday comprehend what is being said by the TV announcers for a Spanish football game. That is the ultimate test.

  2. I like the omigodwhatthefuckdidhejustsay part :-)

    I think that Mariano has got a really good point in that people will try to help out by speaking English, and practise their own English at the same time.

    Besides I think that you are over selling my meagre language skills.
    Danish, Swedish and Norwegian is so closely related that it would be similar to you being able to speak Montanan, Minnesotan and Canadian.

    There are two languages that I would really like to learn how to speak: Italian and Russian.
    Italian because it is such a cool language, and I would love to be able to order spare parts for my Moto Guzzi on the original language.
    Russian because the old Soviet national anthem is the most impressive national anthem out there, (The East German one is a close second) and I would like to be able to know what they are singing.

    I think that songs are one of the best ways to learn a language. If you have a translation of the text, then it is kind of easy, as long as you can read the words/letters. That is where the problems with Russian comes in.

    Have fun with learning Spainsh

    1. Thanks, Jonas. I'm not sure I believe you. Minnesotan and Canadian are pretty close, but the rest of us can't understand them. :)

      Good tip with the singing of songs. Although I was a professional musician, I'm rubbish at singing. And, I rarely listen to the lyrics, anyway. If I did do that, I bet you are right that it would help.

  3. Hi Brian,

    I really tried hard to post a comment, but for some reason blogspot doesn´t like worpress guys, so below you have my comment.
    great post! Its that same fear that kept me from speaking English for a very long time, even though I grew up with it as my third language. I just didn't use it and started to worry about my tong getting all twisted up. At some point I was forced to speak in English again. The start was quit uphill, but then it started to come back and now I'm willing to speak English without my heart rate rising.
    My kids are currently learning English and French by using the "Birkenbihl" method. They really are making great progress and are a good step ahead of students learning without this method. If I ever would set out to learn another language I would use this method.


    1. Hi Frederik!

      Sorry that blogger isn't playing nice with you WordPress folks. If it makes you feel any better, I sometimes have trouble with WordPress blogs.

      Thanks for the input. This knotted feeling in your stomach when trying to speak is just something that I will have to get over. I think there is only one way to do it, and that is just to do it.

      I'll research this Birkenbihl method. Anything that works is a good idea!

  4. A few years ago my company did a lot of work in Juarez, Mexico and in Alejuela, Costa Rica. I went down there many times for one week or two week stays. While the local engineers spoke English, most of the operators spoke only Spanish. I never took any Spanish in school, but I worked hard to speak Spanish based on what I'd picked up over many years. My problem was that I could speak well enough to be understood (though I'm sure my grammar was horrible!), but I couldn't understand what people were saying. By the time my mind translated the first word, the speaker was several words further into their sentence.

    Two things would have helped me. First, I needed a much better grounding in Spanish. I should have taken some base level classes, much like you've done. Second, I needed to be younger to pick up a new language. I know that you CAN teach an old dog new tricks, but languages are so much more easily picked up when you're young.

    Seems to me you're doing the right things: taking the classes and getting into a total immersion situation. And just like woodworking, you need to practice, practice, practice!

    1. Hey, Matt!

      Thanks for the comment!

      I've decided that I'm not too old to learn Spanish, but I suspect there's something to that. Lucky thing I'm only 29!

  5. Hi Brian...
    Wordpress vs Blogger it sucks :(

    Being your "neighbour" in the peninsula I can say right away your teachers suck ... (LOL warning) because in some Spanish areas you'll get shot if you say Espanhol language... Castellano por favor LOL
    We (in the Peninsula) have a few dialects a a few official languages and a LOT of the so call "false friends" (the same word that mean completely different things).

    Here's my personal language learning tip:
    (although I have a British friend that say I have a very mid-atlantic almost English way of talking) ;)
    When you change the language we also need to change the way we think 1-organizing the sentence 2-diferent languages/cultures different ways to transmitting ideas - like western saws vs continental bow saws vs Japanese saws need different ways to clamp wood you're cutting ;)

    Just my 2 cents, Good luck with your learnings!


    1. Thanks, Antonio! That's a great way to think of it.

      I got my Venezuellian teacher saying Castilian because he thought it was weird saying Spanish Spanish to differentiate from South American Spanish.


  6. Check out Michel Thomas Method. I am doing his French lessons and am amazed how well I can use verbs and the tenses. I also did his intro one in German. He also has an impressive story. Fortunately, he's preserved on CD.

  7. To your tool kit, you could add reading Spanish woodworking books (or any other subject matter you are interested in). Reading basic woodworking books will help you with the sentence structure because you already know what it means.
    It will not help in day to day conversation because of the specialised vocabulary.
    Then of course info and documentary on Spanish TV. Generally, the info and documentary speakers make are selected for their language rigor and pronunciation and are easier to understand with school knowledge.
    The most important thing is "don't be afraid to make mistakes".

    1. Wow! Thanks, Sylvain! I hadn't thought of woodworking books. A big benefit to that is it would give me some specialized woodworking vocabulary that I probably can't get from a Spanish teacher.

      It's hard not to be afraid to make mistakes. I just need to suck it up and drive on.

    2. Sorry for steeping in the middle.
      The books from this collection are my suggestion to get the basics around names and techniques. Once very popular in the peninsula, maybe you can find it in 2nd hand.

    3. Thanks, António! I'll definitely put that on my Christmas list. Any recommendations for Spanish language woodworking blogs?

    4. Hola Brian,

      You can read this talented guys in native spanish:

      * Lorenzo García:
      * Israel Martín:
      * Julio Alonso:

      I hope this helps,


  8. Not fluent in any language, but our family did/does dabble heavily in a Spanish speaking Latin american community. I don't know that I have a lot to add, but here goes.

    First thing to suggest is the duolingo app. It's a great app with a great backstory too ( I think they even have incorporated 'bots now for conversation development on the sly without actual people.

    Second I found trying to speak Spanish really made my English public speaking go up a few levels. Grasping for words and sentence structure in Spanish in front of others made giving a presentation in English seem like it was in slow motion matrix style adjustments. Not sure this helps, but language learning gives benefits to your native tongue too, so keep at it.

    Third it's good to talk to a Spanish person about dialects to help you understand what different cultures tend to do. For instance once I understood that it was the culture of certain areas to really run words together, it helped me better understand that someone didn't say one long word I didn't know, but was instead a string of words I knew 50% of.

    1. Hi Jeremy! All good tips. The Frau likes Duolingo, I use Memrise. I think these programs are great for vocabulary training, but I think one will never gain fluency on a computer program alone. Great for what it is. I haven't seen the bot conversations, though. That sounds cool.

      The dialects are important. For example, every German program says "hello" in German is "Guten Tag." No one in Bavaria says that, they all say, "Grüß Gott!"

      BTW, the Frau says "hi," and wanted to remind you your invitation still stands.

  9. Hola Brian,

    I read your posts regularly, so we are some kind of old neighbors ;-)

    I'm a catalan ( guy, from Girona, a province of Spain. Here, in Catalonia, we are bilingual and we speak our mother tongue, the catalan, and of course, spanish or castellano. That is how we name the spanish tonge of the State vs spanish tonge from Argentina for example.

    In my study days of english language I was not very well. Foreign tongues were very dificult to me. But as a computer programmer I needed to read a lot of english documentation and I'm now able to read philosphy books with the Shakespeare tongue. At same time, even today, my english writting is very bad, and from since five years ago I was not able to follow any disertation on taht tongue.

    This fact changed dramatically when I became follower of Paul Sellers courses. My interest on woodworking was the click I needed to follow the conversations so here I'm listening Walter Lewin courses of phisics on MIT or Allan Watts's thoughts about existence in his pure english tongue. In resume, following your passions may be the best and lovely tool to learn a foreing tongue.

    In Catalonia we have find some kind of progress expanding our tongue with new wellcome inhabitants. We call it "inmersión linguística", some kind of "learning by doing" method, exactly the same what like learning woodworking.

    So here I'm. If I can help you on something don't hesitate to contact me, and how yourself said, remember, don't allow fear to prevent you from trying.

    All the best,

    --Óscar (ovr at


    For your spanish records:

    Hola Brian,

    Leo tus artículos con cierta regularidad, así que en cierto modo somos viejos conocidos ;-)

    Soy catalán (, de Girona, una província de España. Aquí, en Catalunya, somos bilingües y hablamos nuestra lengua materna, el catalán y, por supuesto, el español o castellano. Así es como denominamos la lengua oficial del Estado, diferenciándola del español de Argentina, por ejemplo.

    En mis días en la escuela estudiando inglés yo no era muy bueno. Las lenguas extrangeras siempre me han resultado difíciles. Pero como programador de ordenadores necesitaba leer un montón de documentación en inglés y ahora incluso soy capaz de leer libros de filosofía en la lengua de Shakespeare. Al mismo tiempo, incluso hoy en día, mi escritura en inglés es muy mala y hasta hace cinco años era incapaz de seguir disertación alguna en esta lengua.

    Esto cambió dramaticamente cuando me convertí en seguidor de los cursos de Paul Sellers. Mi interés por la carpintería tradicional fue el "click" que necesitaba para seguir las convesaciones, así que ahora, además, puedo seguir los cursos de física impartidos por Walter Lewin en el MIT o escuchar las reflexiones sobre la existencia de Allan Watts en su puro inglés. En resumen, seguir tus pasiones puede ser la mejor y més encantadora herramienta para aprender una lengua extranjera.

    En Catalunya hemos hecho buenos progresos expandiendo nuestra lengua entre los recién llegados. Lo denominamos "inmersión linguística", una forma de aprender haciendo. Exactamnente igual que con la carpintería.

    Así que aquí me tienes. Si te puedo ayudar en algo no dudes en contactar conmigo, y com tu mismo escribías, no dejes que el miedo o la verguanza te impidan intentarlo.

    Con mis mejores deseos,

    --Óscar (ovr at

    1. ¡Hola Óscar!

      Thanks so much for the nice note. The Frau instantly stole my iPad so she could read your Spanish for practice!

      Thanks for the video. Here in Alicante you can hear Valenciano, which I'm told is a dialect of Catalonian.

      I was recently reflecting on what a rich, diverse community of woodworkers we have in Europe. I look forward to finding more out about Spanish woodworking.

      Let me know if you happen to travel to my area, it would be great to grab a beer!


    2. If we have the oportunity it will be a great meeting, it's for sure. Thanks.

      I'm in gratitude with nice people like you, who don't have shame of share its knowledge with the rest of us, so thanks again.


  10. Great to hear from the Frau. I haven't forgotten your invitation, and am glad it's still extended, though my 2017 vacation time is booked solid with (I need a cool nickname for my wife)'s nomadic demands (+HandWorks)

  11. I somehow missed that post in my travels, so Im late to the party...
    I am French Canadian, we did learn English in school but somehow all i could say when i graduated was Do you like cheese... (dont ask me why , i dont know :-)
    Being interested in electronics as a young teenager, i quickly realised that most available mags were American (Popular Electronics, Radio-Electronics) so i learned a lot that way. When i was young i was in the Army Cadets, and on my first summer camp outside Quebec , in Banff Alberta, i realised that I could get by in English.
    After high school, my first job was in a Radio-TV shop in Montreal where my shop foreman was American. He was a draft dodger, that like to say : He was posted to Canada during the Vietnam war :-)
    A few years later, when i joined our military, we had to learned English in order to progress in technical schools. Most of my friends went to English school, i was deemed good enough to skip that part. It really annoyed me down the road since i never had the chance to really learn the language properly. It would come to haunt me, was told often i make the same mistakes over and over. Every time i asked to go on a course so I could learn, they said, you dont need it, you are bilangual....grrr
    I finally managed to get myself loaded on a small course on base, and for the first time of my life finally understood why i thought some of my boses were idiots, but were not :-) the sentence that brought it home for me was : After coming around the bend of the road, the church was seen. You had to correct the sentence so it was right. To me there was nothing wrong with it, made sense to me, BUT oh no, you dont know if its the church or you coming around the road... Uhh, im pretty sure it was me and not the church, i suppose i could have been on a flat truck being moved but .... the odds are slim so it was clear to me :-)
    The correct way was to changed it to : after coming around the bend of the road, the church was seen.. now there is no confusion...really???
    So what i learned from that was English is a very technical language, which has no room for confusion...
    In French we delight with playing with the words but no one get confused....well if you understand the context :-)
    Learning a foreign language is also about learning the customs and idiosyncrasies of the people.

    Bob, about to leave on yet Another trip

  12. Thank you for the great story Brian. My experience with Spanish is similar to yours with German. For the last 10.5 years, I've worked in a machine shop with a lot of Hispanics who are naturely fluent in Spanish. I've made several attempts over the years to learn Spanish, and they have been most helpful and supportive, but I can't seem to get over the hump. The biggest problem is my brain processing what they say. I hear slower than they speak. At any though, your experience is encouraging to me. Cuida de mi amigo.