The “Pain” of Learning Spanish, and How to Overcome it
A lot of people say they want to learn another language. Many have it on their bucket list. Generally the time-table is something like “someday”, “one of these days”, or “when I finally find some time”.
Most people don’t get around to it anytime soon.
But other people do get around to it, which begs the question: Why do some people succeed at learning a new language when most people seem to give up or never really get started? Are they geniuses? Were they forced to learn at gunpoint?
Let’s explore some of the key factors involved in actually getting over the hump and learning a new language, and what you can do to improve your chances.
Why do people learn a language?
Reason One: Necessity
To begin, let’s not ignore the most common example of how and why people learn languages: they’re born into it. Growing up, each of us felt frustrated at some point when we were a baby and couldn’t communicate very much at all. Whether we realized it or not, daily needs and desires arose and we wanted to tell someone about them. This motivated us to pay a little more attention and try a little harder to remember new words. We wouldn’t have tried so hard if we didn’t need those words to ask for food, a diaper change, or a warm blanket.
In many ways, this is similar to those people who “immerse” themselves in a language by traveling (or moving) to a foreign land without the safety net of a bilingual friend or interpreter. These travelers experience the same basic needs and desires that drive a child to learn new words when they get hungry or need a restroom. And just like a child, the vagabond starts by learning the words and phrases needed to meet his or her basic needs.
Whether intentionally or not, people in the examples above were placed in situations where they had to learn a new language. So they rose to the challenge, and they learned out of necessity.
Reason Two: Almost Necessity
Perhaps it’s not on the same level as getting dropped into the middle of Venezuela all alone, but a medical provider with a large majority of Spanish-speaking patients may feel almost a “necessity” to learn the language. They can get by without it, but it’s inconvenient and sometimes ineffective. They get tired of using less-than-ideal interpretation services from medical assistants or the patient’s family members, or spending several extra minutes using an interpreter over the phone. There may come a point when the current practice is more painful than the alternative of learning the language, so they buckle down and learn it.
Another example of “almost necessity” is when you’re taking Spanish class in high school or college. If grades are important to you, then you’ll feel the drive to learn at least the minimum to pass the class or get a decent grade. The alternative (failing) is too painful, so even if you’re a procrastinator like most students, eventually you do what it takes.
Common Theme: Which course of action is more painful?
In each of the examples above, the pain involved in learning the language (or at least some minimum competency) was less than the pain of not doing so. When not learning meant not getting food, failing a class, or repeatedly poor communicate with patients, the pain was great enough that people took action.
Their pain scale looked something like this (be in awe of my artistic prowess):
There are many other examples of why people learn a language. But usually it involves a scenario where the pain of not learning is greater than the pain of learning.
Why don’t most people who say they want to learn Spanish actually do it?
Reason One: They are sheltered from the pain
In contrast to the scenarios above, most people who say they want to learn Spanish are sheltered from situations that would create a great need or overwhelming desire to actually do so.
For instance, many travelers to foreign lands bring someone who can interpret, choose destinations where most people speak their language, or stay in the touristy areas where many locals have been forced to learn enough English (or whatever language) to do business with visitors.
In the case of a medical provider, clinicians with mainly English-speaking patients won’t feel a great deal of pain or motivation to learn. In addition, some hospitals (such as mine) have Spanish interpreters on-site at all hours, which certainly lessens (though doesn’t completely eliminate) the pain of caring for Spanish-speaking patients.
Another common example are the many immigrants who don’t speak the local language, but are sheltered within communities (the “Chinatowns” of the world) of people with similar backgrounds, and further aided by family and friends who can interpret when needed. Many of these people are our patients.
Reason Two: Learning seems too painful
For many, the very idea of learning Spanish seems daunting, overwhelming, or out of reach. The pain of learning seems much greater than the pain of not learning.
What’s your “pain scale” for learning Spanish?
If you’re reading this, you probably want to learn Spanish, but you likely have one or more things holding you back, as well. Perhaps up until now you’ve found the pain of studying and practicing Spanish to be greater than the distress of not communicating directly with your Hispanic patients.
Your pain scale may be tilted a little, or tilted a lot, but it’s tilted away from learning.
Does that mean you’ll never learn?
How to shift the balance
Increase the pain of not learning Spanish
How could you make it more painful not to learn?
Perhaps the most obvious way to make it painful not to learn is to immerse yourself by traveling to a Spanish-speaking country alone, or at least without anyone who will interpret for you. And it works, as long as you get out of the touristy zones and actually talk to people.
Expand Your “Why”
As Michael Hyatt discusses in this blog post, one way to increase motivation for goals is to “expand your why”. As in, why you want to achieve the goal. Make a list of all the benefits of learning Spanish that you can think of, as well as the downside of “never getting around to it”. Spend some time contemplating these lists and refer to them regularly. This will have a dramatic impact on your motivation and impact both sides of the “pain scale”.
The same approach works well for physical fitness, saving money, or really any other category of goals. Just think about how much more energetic and better looking you’ll be when you drop those pounds and go to the gym consistently… 🙂
In each of the above example, a new circumstance or a renewed focus has the effect of making it more painful not to learn Spanish.
Decrease the pain of learning Spanish
If you’re not ready to move to Mexico, never fear. You can focus instead on finding a way to make the learning process less painful. Here are a few suggestions:
Like most tasks, learning Spanish is probably less painful in real life than it is in your imagination. Simply getting started with as little as ten minutes a day will create momentum and make you realize it’s not that painful of a process, and actually kind of fun.
Break it into Bite-Size Chunks
Like any other project, it’ll seem simpler and easier when you break it down into individual steps. Make a schedule for what you’ll do each day, or a few times per week. Even those baby steps will move you along faster than you expected, and each daily step won’t be nearly as painful as the overall process felt before you got started.
Having some kind of daily reminder greatly increases your chance of being consistent. Some effective examples of how to use visual cues to track your progress are the paperclip method. and the “Seinfeld strategy“. Myriad techniques can be employed, but the key is to have some type of reminder to keep you on track.
Use a Shortcut
Perhaps the best way to make learning Spanish less painful and tilt the balance in your favor is to use a shortcut.
What kind of shortcut could you use?
A course, of course. 🙂
My strategy guide and resource list can get you started with Spanish, at little or no monetary cost. This is true if you’re starting from scratch or speak at an intermediate level. Using these resources will make it less painful to learn.
And if you’re employed in the medical field (as most people reading this will be), you can take an even bigger shortcut by finding the right course to teach you the exact vocabulary you need to know for your job.
As of this posting, I am in the process of creating just such a course, with the most relevant words and phrases to help you communicate with your patients in Spanish from day one. You’ll have the terminology you need to do a history and physical in Spanish, as well as explaining basics assessments and plans to patients. This course is meant to be a huge shortcut to competence in caring for Spanish-speaking patients without an interpreter.
Unlike most of the resources on this website, the course won’t be free. But it’ll be a big enough time-saver that I think it’ll be worth the price. And perhaps most importantly, it will dramatically decrease the pain of learning what you need to take care of your Spanish-speaking patients.
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