UNTIL I moved to Spain, my experience of learning languages was not exactly positive.
Five years spent toiling with masculine and feminine nouns in French were punctuated by German lessons in which I was taught the sort of vocabulary that prepared me for only the most improbable scenarios.
Thankfully, the experience did no lasting damage and only increased my desire to really get to grips with a second language.
So when I was given the chance to move to Spain, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to do just that.
Fortunately, I have always made the point of trying to make at least a token effort to speak languages when I am abroad.
Even if it is just a basic ‘hello’, and ‘thank you’, the important thing is to be seen to be trying.
It’s basic respect after all, and can help build a rapport with the locals, leading to a better holiday.
With this in mind, I arrived at Malaga Airport full of enthusiasm with my Spanish dictionary tucked under one arm and an eight hour introductory Spanish course by Polish linguist Michel Thomas under the other.
The learning method used by Thomas places the emphasis on language structure rather than vocabulary and provides a solid foundation on which to build.
But while there is no doubt that his method is a sound one, I found much of the language was a little too dry and formal for everyday use.
What’s more, due to work commitments I found it quite difficult to find time for the hour-long lessons, not to mention digesting the information after a hard day at the office.
My problem is that most of my friends here are young Spaniards who naturally use much more colloquial terms than those taught by Thomas.
They have been a huge help and have provided plenty of encouragement in my efforts to integrate, while I in turn have provided them with an endless supply of apparently hilarious mispronunciations.
After battling on gamely for several months, I decided it was time to seek an alternative. One which would provide me with a cache of useful words and phrases more appropriate to typical social situations.
I looked at my options and eventually settled on Idiomas Azahar, an online company based in Spain.
This method is much more geared towards building a working list of everyday vocabulary and relies on a teaching method known as ‘constructivism’.
It works by starting with the absolute basics and builds your vocabulary slowly, frequently integrating words learnt in previous lessons into new situations.
It places an emphasis on fun, useful words that frequently come up in everyday conversation.
“I liken it to building a house, you start by developing a solid foundation, then you can start building the different levels on top,” course creator Andrew Macdonald explains enthusiastically.
The 36-year-old Scot – a former education training manager, who now lives in Valencia with his young family – is keen to emphasise the benefit of offering a varied approach.
“The idea behind the method is to be able to absorb the information from several angles through speaking, reading and listening in a relaxed way.
“The problem with learning grammar is that it is inherently boring, languages are there to communicate with, not to study in great depth.”
Not wanting to bite off more than I could chew, I started with the introductory course.
This consists of 20 lessons, varying in length from seven to 15 minutes, which make them ideal for fitting in to a busy schedule, with each one covering a particular topic such as greetings and ordering food in a restaurant.
The idea is to regularly repeat each lesson until you have absorbed the vocabulary, which is reintroduced in different contexts in later lessons.
After Michel Thomas’ slow, methodic pace, I initially found it difficult to adjust to Macdonald’s rapid-fire, almost rushed delivery.
But after listening to a couple of lessons I soon settled into the rhythm and began to pick up some useful words and phrases.
Topics covered in the first 10 lessons – which are just 75 cents each – include work, activities, names of countries, numbers, days and months.
Far from simply learning lists of words parrot-fashion, the lessons are broken up by interactive conversations in which you must respond to certain questions and ask questions in return.
This all helps to place the words in the context in which they would be used, allowing them to be absorbed almost without feeling like you are learning.
“A lot of the first level is basic scenarios,” adds Macdonald.
“The best way to learn is by going to a bar and chatting to people and practising your vocabulary.
“If you make a mistake, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t have to be 100 per cent accurate.
“A big part of it comes down to confidence.”
While there is undoubtedly a lot of vocabulary to take onboard, the process of going back over the lesson has the desired effect and I was surprised at how many words I began to remember.
Most satisfying of all for me was that, after feeling as though I had plateaued slightly before starting, my friends began to comment that I had noticeably improved.
Emboldened by their positive feedback I pressed on.
After tackling a review in lesson 11 of what I had learned so far, there was yet more vocabulary to learn on topics such as hotels, food and the weather.
The common theme with all the vocabulary is that it is the sort of day-to-day language that is unavoidable and can be applied in a wide range of scenarios.
Without realising, I began to find certain Spanish phrases popping into my head automatically.
Not exactly fluent but a positive step in the right direction.
And while it’s unlikely I’ll ever fully break through the impenetrable wall that is the thick Andaluz accent, at least I’ll never have to go without a cerveza and tapas.
To contact Idiomas Azahar visit www.idiomasazahar.com
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