5 simple principles to learning a language effectively

I’ve discovered after 8 years of running parent and child Spanish classes (as well as launching a series of new programmes for the wider community) effective language learning comes down to 5 simple principles.

That’s it! FIVE!

I’ve observed it myself as I’ve raised my own children in a bilingual environment. When people ask me ‘Why does your daughter speak such incredible Spanish? You’re not a native speaker (no offence)! I often reply, ‘Y’know I think I’m just really lucky, she seems to enjoy speaking Spanish’. It’s only now I realise, I’m NOT just lucky and it’s not by magic she enjoys and has a great level of Spanish. Check out what I’ve discovered.

In order to learn a language effectively - in our case, Spanish - the learner MUST get involved with ALL FIVE of these simple principles.


Let me explain:
In order to learn Spanish effectively we need to HEAR the language in multiple and varied contexts. Research indicates that input is far more important than output when starting out. Imagine yourself singing an entire song in French - you’re pretty chuffed at your pronunciation, enough to sing it to your french friend but… you have no idea what you just sang about. You simply copy and pasted (aloud) what you had heard/memorised. WAY too many language classes focus on JUST repeating what is said and not allowing wriggle room to play with the sentence, change it up, say it in different contexts or even try having a conversation with it.

HEARING the language in multiple and varied contexts means you hear Spanish music (and not just kids music, give some Maná a whirl or crank Jenny and the Mexicats or Jarabe de Palo while you clean the house.

HEARING Spanish in multiple and varied contexts means you have opportunities to hear native speakers from different countries, talking about different topics, having arguments, making jokes, giving clues to solve and telling stories. How much English do you think you have learned in these contexts? Why limit your Spanish exposure to just one source?

In my house, we listen to Spanish music on a daily basis, we dance to it after dinner and I listen to Spanish podcasts as I fall asleep (yep, I’m a dork). My daughter is also a Daniel Tigre addict so she hears some pretty interesting Mexican Spanish from there. We also have lots of stories on CDs from speakers from Spain, Colombia, Peru and Argentina.

Let’s talk about SPEAKING Spanish. This MUST happen too. I have lots of families contact me who have children who have been exposed to Spanish all their lives at home, and yet, they ALWAYS talk back in English. Again, SPEAKING Spanish MUST happen in multiple and varied contexts. It’s quite likely that the kids in these families don’t have a wider Spanish speaking community to connect with. Plus, when at home, the same predictable topics tend to arise - conversations about washing your hands before dinner, brushing your teeth and what’s on tomorrow. There’s nothing wrong with any of this, except when this is the ONLY opportunity for learners to speak.

Now, both my daughters ARE pretty lucky here because they get regular contact with other children who speak, or are learning Spanish in a language-rich environment - our home. Twice per week we have Spanish immersion sessions where they have many opportunities to play and communicate using Spanish. On top of this, they both have me visit their preschools or they attend the classes I teach. Even though the environments aren’t always 100% fluent Spanish, the fact they are hearing others TRY to speak it, gives them more confidence and motivation to use it themselves. This is another reason why we get parents involved in our classes - children are excellent copycats - if they see you giving it a go (even if you think it’s terrible) they will too!

Now we’re going to have some fun and look at how multiple and varied opportunities to PLAY in and with the language impacts on learning it effectively. It goes without saying that if you are bored, you won’t learn. Why do you think, when given the chance, children play ALL day long? They’re learning! It’s almost entirely the ONLY way they learn. Sit a 4 year old down with some flashcards and teach them about body parts and they’ll remember one or two words - usually the easiest to pronounce or the ones that sound a bit funny. THEN get the same 4 year old and have them stand up and move around the room to music, when the music stops a body part is called and they need to wiggle that part. No flashcards needed this time, just wiggle your bum and say colita - they’ll get the idea and guess what - they’ll remember it too!

A few years ago we looked at the story ‘los 3 cerditos’ - the 3 little pigs - and we focused on the verb SOPLAR which is to blow. The littler children had races where they blew ping pong balls down a track using a straw, the older kids designed funnels with straws to keep the ping pong ball suspended in the air. I bumped into a student of mine from that term the other day. The wind was blowing as we met and he said ‘oh - sopla!’

Again, my children play LOTS in Spanish. We use Spanish at the playground, when playing with blocks, when dressing dolls, playing hide and seek.. We even play when we read books in Spanish.

Kids Spanish Auckland

Maya Angelou once said “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

In other words, we can have the best intentions to impart Spanish vocabulary and grammar to you as learners, but if you feel lost, embarrassed, anxious or no good, this will be all you focus on and the sentiment you’ll attach to Spanish learning. I know this because many MANY parents come into our classes saying ‘I hated French, my teacher was really awful.’ or ‘I’m terrible at Spanish, we went to South America and the locals just laughed at me’.

In order to really succeed at learning another language you must feel GOOD. Feel good about making progress as well as mistakes, feel valued as a learner, feel safe to ask questions and take risks and feel like you are doing the right thing by your children learning alongside them.

Feeling good doesn’t mean lots of stickers, verbal praise or standing in front of the class to get a pat on the back. It means connections with teachers and other learners are genuine and enjoyable, the environment in which you learn is safe, and non-judgmental and that you can have a laugh and relax as you learn, rather than feeling pressure to get it right. This goes for parents as well as kids.

In my children’s case, they enjoy lots of success speaking Spanish with me. They make LOTS of mistakes but we learn from them and have a laugh. They KNOW they are doing well speaking Spanish because when they speak to other Spanish speakers, they can understand and they are understood.

Kids Spanish Auckland

Lastly, the fifth and final principle to learning language effectively is MAKING CONNECTIONS. This is a fairly broad concept but crucially important. As you will now know, learning language MUST happen in multiple and varied contexts… all of this is so authentic connections can be made.

Language learners must connect with one another - in class, during play and when doing daily activities, and they must connect with wider communities and contexts - use Spanish in dance, cooking, art, yoga, in a bar, at a restaurant. Finally, language learners must connect with the LANGUAGE. Draw conclusions on grammatical concepts such as masculine and feminine nouns, understand that elefante and elephant are cognates and there are several ‘short-cuts’ such as el sándwich that make life easier.

Without making meaningful connections, learning Spanish will hopefully be a lovely experience, but not one that sticks with you. And what’s the point of putting in all that effort only to be able to decipher quesadillas in a recipe book on your kitchen shelf?

Does learning a language require risk and moving out of your comfort zone? YES!

Does learning a language require dedication and slow and steady attempts to challenge yourself? YES!

Is it all worth it? HECK YES!

Let’s DO this! Let’s form a strong, dedicated, risk-taking community that celebrates and feels good about speaking, hearing and playing in Spanish, and creates connections with others!