“I was born and raised in Bavaria. Munich was the closest town to us. My parents had a house in Tenerife and we went there every summer for the long holidays. I would play with the local kids, and that is how I first learnt to speak Spanish. I really loved learning to speak another language and it seemed to come naturally to me. I studied Latin and English at school as well. So when I had finished school I went onto university in Salzburg and took Spanish Philology. I studied the language, history, and culture of Spain. I completed my first year and then came to Majorca for a year as part of the course, and I just didn´t want to leave! I love it here; there is everything you could ask for. The island is a melting pot of so many different nationalities, I love the diversity of cultures here, it is so exciting. So I transferred my studies to UIB, the Universitat de les Illes Balears. Now I am completely fluent in four languages: German, of course, Spanish, French and English. Next I´m thinking to learn Russian.
“I think that if you live in a different country to your birth it is your duty to learn the language of that country. Without the language you cannot be connected to the people, you´ve got to try to speak their language, it seems disrespectful to me otherwise. And let´s face it, language is power, if you don´t learn it you are handicapped.
“The biggest barrier to learning something new is fear. We are frightened to make fools of ourselves. We don´t want to make mistakes in front of others. That´s why children learn languages so easily: they aren´t afraid, they don´t care. Fear is the biggest mechanism to stop us from growing. We tell ourselves ‘I can´t do it, it’s too difficult’. The way I teach Spanish takes us back to the feelings of being a child. It´s important to play when you are learning, so there is no pressure, no stress and no competition.
“I have developed my language courses over a period of years. I teach it in the three phases, hence the name. In the first stage I present a story which is read out loud by the students, the new vocabulary is used over and over again. This creates a lot of new neuron connections in their brains. Then in the second stage the students listen to the story in a kind of cinema like atmosphere: it is in a darkened room in comfortable positions to listen to the recordings, and then in the third phase we recall the vocabulary which is in the long term memory and reuse it in different ways.
“Last year I spent a good deal of my time flying backwards and forward to Madrid where I taught the foreign football players at Real Madrid how to speak Spanish. They learnt in the same way that my other pupils do: through role playing, my students take on new names like Jennifer Lopez or Antonio Banderas, and they stop being famous athletes! Taking on a new name helps everyone to step around their inhibitions. We played a lot of simple childish games in Spanish, like Taboo, Uno or ‘Who am I?’. And we did a lot of repetition of the language. Repetition is the mother of all skills: some things you just have to do it again and again until you have learnt them: like repeating the conjugation of verbs. And in that way you integrate your new knowledge.
“When I teach a language I use the technique which helps the student to go into a ´delta state´ in their mind. This is deep relaxation in both the body and the mind, and it makes you very receptive to information. It is when your subconscious learns. Then later you will find yourself using words in conversation that you didn´t even know that you knew.
“Of course you can go for the ‘total immersion’ method but for many people it is just not practical to put yourself in the position where you speak only the language you are trying to learn for a month. It is very much the ‘sink or swim’ survivalist way of learning, it´s quite stressful! I prefer to learn in a more relaxed and enjoyable way.
“The English have a couple of things which they struggle with when they learn Spanish. You don´t have an article, you just have ´The´. In Spanish we have masculine and feminine, and in German neutral as well. And adjectives in English don´t have a gender, it can take some time for an English pupil to understand the difference between ‘un chico guapo’ and ‘una chica guapa’. But once they´ve got it and learnt it the gates in their minds swing open and they start to learn.
“Language consists of two things: vocabulary and grammar. It is that simple when you look at it like that isn´t it? If you think you can´t learn a language it isn´t because you can´t it´s simply because you are preventing yourself from trying. All you have to do to learn is relax and stop worrying.”
Alwin Anwander was speaking to Vicki McLeod