Here we talk to Christa Muster (right), a Swiss languages student who has been doing an intensive Spanish course with us...
The obvious question that we had to ask Christa Muster, who has been learning Spanish with us for the last two months, was what she had done to learn to speak Spanish so well. She speaks it fluently and with barely a trace of her native Swiss-German accent and we thought it would be interesting to find out what the secret was.
There are obviously all sorts of ways of learning a language - Spanish or any other - and all sorts of learners, as the experts agree. There is no one secret and it's very often a question of discovering what learning strategies suit you personally. But, having said that, Christa (from the small Swiss town of Schinznach) quickly turned out to be someone who had had a headstart when she started to learn Spanish.
"First of all, I'm something of a perfectionist," she told us, launching straight in Spanish. A perfectionist? Yes, in everything - but especially when it comes to languages. "I like everything in order," she says. Like all Swiss people, we ventured? Christa laughed - "Yes, I'm typically Swiss, everyone says so!" Why, she's even stuck a neat little Swiss "ch" in her Yahoo! mail address. But really wanting to get it right... now that helps when you're learning a language.
What else? Reading. As she's finishing a degree in languages at university in Zurich (French, German and Spanish, literature and linguistics), Christa has to read a ton. She'd read Don Quijote, Calderón, Juan Rulfo... Las novelas ejemplares (also Cervantes), which she'd loved. Currently she is devouring Álvaro Cunqueiro's Merlín y familia . Doing masses of reading - all that exposure to the language. Can anyone ever really learn a language without that?
"Me gusta hablar," was the next thing Christa told us - I like talking. She knew she made lots of mistakes "pero me da igual" - it doesn't bother me. I'm not afraid of making them, she said, "si tienes miedo, es una barrera"; being afraid is a barrier, if you like. And talking, and not being afraid of sounding ever so slightly silly making all those funny sounds, has just got to be a major factor in Christa's picking up that very enviable accent.
Living with a Spanish family
Ok, but all of these things were probably factors that existed before Christa came to Barcelona. What had she done here specifically that had helped in the learning process?
Well, she is living with a Spanish host family who she has got on with like a house on fire. They've got three kids - er, well, one is 28, one 30 - still living at home (that's typically Spanish!) and that means there's lots of conversation practice every mealtime. "Sometimes it even gets a bit heated," Christa says (doesn't it in all families?) "and there am I in the middle... When I arrived, I only knew the name and their address, but I've been really lucky." At a guess, we'd say the family probably say the same about Christa.
More factors? From what she says, it sounds as if Christa actively makes herself opportunities to speak Spanish. She talks to her teacher in Spanish before and after class, talks Spanish in the bar, avoids English like the plague... and always insists on speaking Spanish in class... And finds, as a result, that her classmates speak Spanish to her.
From classroom experience, we'd say that doing that is part of the key to success in learning a language. Your teacher wants you to do pair or groupwork? Go on, don't be shy, do it in Spanish. Your Spanish isn't very good? Don't worry about that - it's what the experts call "negotiation of meaning": your partner doesn't understand you, explain what you mean... in Spanish. Now that's communication.
"Y siempre hablo con mi hermana de familia," Christa adds. She always talks to her sister? She's here in Barcelona with her sister? Ah, no - with the daughter of her host family...! Who she now calls "my sister"...? Now that's integration!
Is learning a language here in Spain very different from back in Switzerland? No, it's pretty much the same, Christa says. And as she speaks five languages (bilingual French, great Spanish, some Italian and good English as well as her native Swiss-German), she ought to know. "But here it's a lot more communicative," she says. "At home, everyone has their own ideas, but here they want to get you to talk."
A good language learner
Christa had obviously liked her teacher a lot and we thought it would be interesting to talk to her. "Amazing," Eugenia Alonso ("Geni") said when we asked if Christa was a good student. "What makes her a good language learner?" was what we then wanted to know.
Again, we all have different characteristics and aptitudes that make us good or not so good learners, but Christa seems to have them all rolled into one. In class, Geni had observed a series of other things: "She's got an prodigious memory, an amazing vocabulary, and a great ear for things like register and set phrases," Geni says, things which are all obviously important if you are going to become proficient in a language.
To some extent you are probably born a good language learner, but then again there are also good habits you can pick up. "Christa learns from her mistakes," Geni says. "If she gets something wrong, she's interested in why, and then she works at it and she's got it right the next day."
Ninety-five per cent for motivation
To be a good learner, they say you have to think about your learning, about yourself as a learner. Back with Christa, we had asked, "Do you think you're a good student?". "Creo que sí," (I think so) Christa laughed, with a disarming sincerity that is part of her charm. Why? "Siempre hago mis deberes" - I always do my homework, she laughed again.
But, seriously, what other factors make her a good language student? "I'm interested, I'm motivated," she said. She compares herself with some of the teachers she's had in the past, back home... and wants to speak Spanish better than that.
Part of the motivation lies in wanting to be a language teacher when she finishes university. And the motivation for that? "Mi padre también es profesor," Christa says - her Dad is a teacher too - and having a great relationship with her Dad ("super buena", was in fact how she put it) that's where it began... "And I want to work with young people, too," she adds.
They say that motivation is 95% of learning a language. Christa is almost certainly not the first learner to have been motivated by her teachers... But when that teacher is your Dad, well, what more could you want?