Those who know me know that I am a language enthusiast. I have spent a lot of time trying to learn other languages, and learning languages like Ancient Greek (or even French or German) makes me a bit unusual. But my trying to learn Spanish generally doesn't raise any eyebrows. The perception that "everybody speaks it" is (for some) an argument against learning it, as they value being different for the sake of difference. But for a practical person like me, the large number of Spanish speakers is an excellent argument for learning the language, because it grants you access to the hearts, minds, and wallets of a large population. To be sure, this is why the Spanish language is so commonly taught in the Southwest, because the practical benefits of Spanish fluency are attractive to many.
I was aware of these things in elementary school, but I did not get around to really learning Spanish until later in life. As an Anglo boy growing up in the Southwest, I was exposed to Hispanic culture, but knew very little about it beyond the most superficial basics. The region I lived in was once part of Mexico, and I spent six years of my childhood in Yuma, which was fifteen minutes away from the present Mexican border. Consequently, there were large numbers of Hispanic children in the schools, and it was not unusual for me to hear Spanish spoken on the playground. I was often curious about what the Hispanic kids were saying, and had an early desire to learn Spanish. But my childhood learning of the language was limited. (For more details about that, see this blog post.)
It was not until after I graduated with my bachelor's degree that I took some real Spanish classes. The online job postings I saw often mentioned preference for bilingualism; and in this terrible economy, businesses could only afford to hire the best. (They could have hired both the best and second-best in a better economy; but in these times, they could only hire the best.) Thus, I started taking Spanish classes at Yavapai College. Taking Spanish classes is pretty typical, so I had to distinguish myself from the crowd. I knew from my experience learning French that I had a gift for languages, and I needed to develop this gift into a marketable skill. Thus, I tried to immerse myself in the language as much as possible, something I did in several ways.
I started reading the scriptures in Spanish, which was something I had done in French. But there was one crucial difference this time; which was that in French, I had never made any lasting attempt to read out loud; while in Spanish, I did. I would read a verse out loud in Spanish, then out loud in English, then out loud in Spanish again. There were frequent pronunciation errors, but I think doing this helped my pronunciation to get better, and I finished the Book of Mormon in Spanish before I finished my fourth (and final) semester of Spanish classes. (Insert, 2015: I later read the New Testament in Spanish as well, and crossed this item off my bucket list.)
Batman: The Animated Series
And this wasn't all I did. I also started using the language options on my DVD's to immerse myself in Spanish during my movie-watching. My family understandably preferred to watch things in English, but they patiently allowed me to turn on the Spanish subtitles, so I could read a Spanish translation of the English dialogue while listening to it in my native tongue. This is actually a really good way to learn how to read Spanish, because you get the Spanish and English versions of the dialogue simultaneously - one through an auditory channel, and the other through a visual channel. This makes it easier to understand the Spanish version, because you're also hearing it in English. Whether it was something intellectual like Carl Sagan's "Cosmos," or animated shows intended for children like the Batman cartoons, it all helped to improve my Spanish. The most important thing was that I was doing a lot of it, because immersion is the best way to learn a language.
My church in Prescott
I also started going to church in Spanish. My religion has three hours of meetings on Sundays, so I was able to get a lengthy exposure to spoken Spanish every week. This improved my Spanish considerably, and nowhere moreso than in the pronunciation. Even when I didn't understand what was going on (which was a significant amount of the time), I was in an environment where I was surrounded by Spanish, and that did much to get the sounds of Spanish into my head - and later, onto my tongue. I'm sure my pronunciation improved, and I was able to hear real-life examples of the things my Spanish classes were teaching. It came to life in a way that books and classroom lectures, for all their value, cannot replicate.
And finally, I did one other thing which was helpful in understanding Hispanic culture, although it was actually in English. I checked about a book about the history of Mexico, and educated myself about the history of my country's southern neighbor. In the Southwest, it is Mexican Spanish that predominates, and I knew that understanding the culture of Mexico was key to any future professional use of Spanish. I learned about things from the Aztec era to the Spanish Conquest to the Great Revolution of the twentieth century. The author of the book had a Gringo name (Robert Ryal Miller); but he taught college classes in Mexican history at the University of California, and thus seemed qualified to write this book. I learned much about Mexican history from reading it.
So these are the things I've done to try and learn Spanish. I have worked hard to try and master this language, and I look forward to the day when I will be able to put this knowledge into practice.
My experiences with Spanish in childhood
Going to Spanish-language church services
A sample of my Spanish writing (a.k.a. the only thing I've bothered to publish in Spanish)