In 2016 a friend and I traveled to Cuba. Logistics was my responsibility, as I had lived in Mexico for 3 years and my Spanish was good enough to get location to location and order food without my index finger. By this time, I had memorizing thousands of words from language learning books. But the Cuban accent was thick. I didn’t understand nor did they understand me. They, however, understood my friend... the man who hadn’t studied the language a day in his life.
I resented him, god rewarded him with a gift to connect with Spanish speakers. Why?
Back in Mexico I found a course called Mimic Method which answered that question for me. Idahosa Ness, the founder, taught me before I learn to speak a language — I need to learn to hear the language.
Memorizing words from a book poses two problems.
First, syllable patterns in both languages differ which isn’t obvious on the page. Having lived in Minnesota my entire life, when I see a Spanish word, I pronounce it using my English tongue. For example the word banana. In both languages, the word is spelt the same. On the page, I see the word banana, and I hear [buh] [naa] [nuh], rather than the Spanish [ba] [na] [na]. That is not the same, and to many Spanish speakers [buh] [naa] [nuh] will sound so foreign they won’t understand.
Second, language in the wild is completely different than language on the page. Imagine a Frenchman who’s learning English. I ask him, what’s going on tonight? He doesn’t understand, asks me to repeat, repeatedly until I say it slow enough — ‘What. Is going. On. To-night?’.
In conversations however that phrase ([wət] [bi goʊ-ɪŋ] [ɑn] [tə-naɪt]) is truncated into four core syllables: [sgo] [non] [tih] [nai]. Native’s understand naturally.
By memorizing words from a book, I misguided my expectations, because language isn’t a series of words, but rather a series of syllables. The mimic method realigns expectations and reality through repeated audio repetition. One exercise is to play on loop the word banana in Spanish, until you can hear the different and pick out the syllables. Then mimic them back.
This trains three skills —
- Skill #1 Catch Syllables: when natives speak fast, it’s hard to understand even though they are saying words you know. Through repetition, you catch the Spanish syllables.
- Skill #2 Holding Syllables. If a native says a phrase to you, you want the ability to hold it in your head and mimic it back. This is how you learn language without never to know the words. For example, I’ll make up the word Fergalacon while holding up a water bottle. I’m assigning meaning to the bottle. If you can mimic back Fergalacon, we can communicate.
- Skill #3 Mouth and Tongue movements. Foreign language means foreign ways of moving the mouth. With repetition these become natural.
Although my friend didn’t know many words, he was well trained in these skills. During our trip, he would make a fool out of himself and mimic the locals. He told me he hadn’t ever studied it but growing up in New York, he often heard it spoken. He came from a cultured family who traveled.
Natural language learning isn’t a gift from god but rather a gift from your culture.
I, on the other hand, grew up in Minnesota. I didn’t acknowledge a second language until I moved to Mexico at the age of twenty-six. My family didn’t want foreign films nor did they listen to much music. My ear was never trained!
The mimic method gave me permission to mimic. My friend gave me permission to look like a fool. And in that foolishness I shared laughs and s