Taking Steps to Become Bilingual

The cute little parrot that's Duolingo's mascot.  Source: duolingo.com

The cute little parrot that’s Duolingo’s mascot. Source: duolingo.com

One of my goals this year is to become fluent in Spanish. It’s another one of those things I’m sure the old version of myself will look back and say, “Yeah, that was a great decision.”

I’m not a native speaker, and to me it’s very important that I learn the language, as many of my immediate and extended family members speak it. It’s an important part of our family culture, and something both Mrs. Mase and I want to pass on to our children.

In high school I studied Spanish all four years, and got to a fairly intermediate level. I pretty much just did all the assignments the teacher gave me, but never applied what I was learning to real life situations so I never practiced or attempted to expand my skills outside of class.

Fast forward to today, and the 24 year old me really wants to get serious about becoming fluent in this language. I’ve had a vague desire to learn it more deeply the past few years, but never took any action to doing so. Now I’ve made the decision to go for it.

Learning Spanish has a lot of obvious benefits. I could communicate way more easily with some family members, and thus become closer with them as a result. Communication is its own form of capital – the ability to speak in someone’s native tongue I think touches a part of them relationally that does not happen otherwise. I think this is because your home language is not just a combination of words and phrases to describe something; but rather it is the embodiment of an entire culture. Once this clicked in my head, I began to see just how awesome of a lifelong skill it would be to really put my heart in it and become fluent in Spanish.

A major advantage I have in this regard is there are two close family members to me who speak, write, read, and have been taught/teach Spanish very very well. They’ve been more than happy to help me in my learning process, and have helped encourage me as I start to re-learn and grow in my understanding of the language.

Ok, so how exactly am I pursuing this goal, and what is the measuring stick of achievement? To me, sufficient mastery of the language means I can seamlessly communicate with any of my Spanish-speaking relatives. It also means I can read and write at the typical level of an adult. My favorite novel, Cien Años de Soledad (100 Hundred Years of Solitude) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez was originally written in Spanish – I have only read the English translation. With Marquez’s incredibly descriptive style of magical realism, I can only imagine how much more I will enjoy reading the book when I can truly comprehend the original style of writing. I’ve begun to realize that there are certain ways of saying things is Spanish that simply cannot be expressed well in English.

In Apple’s App Store the other day I stumbled upon this amazing app for learning languages, called Duolingo. Apparently this thing has been around for awhile and I’m just now discovering it. It’s a pretty amazing application – you choose a new language to learn and then complete a lot of interactive exercises to improve listening, writing, and reading skills for that language. You can set goals for yourself and gradually gain experience. It amazes me that this is completely free. I mean, it’s really good – what an amazing age we live in. Back in my parent’s day I would have had to rely exclusively on books, courses in physical classrooms, or private tutors. Now I can just load the tablet up and start learning.

This is not to discount the value of physical interactions when learning a language though. There are some things an app just isn’t going to teach well. That’s why I’m incredibly thankful that I have loving people around me who are willing to help me practice my skills. By the end of the year, we’ll see if I can carry on a full conversation with an accurate level of fluency. We’ll see how it goes!

What languages do you know? What did you find most effective in helping you gain proficiency?