Today marks one year since I’ve moved to Spain, so I wanted to talk about something that I’ve gotten a lot of practice in over the last year: learning Spanish!
They say the best way to learn a language is to move to a country that speaks it. From that idea, many people conclude that if you move to said country, somehow you will automatically become fluent in a few months. But I know of more than a few people that have lived in the US for years that don’t speak English, and Americans that have been living in Spain for years who don’t speak Spanish. Newsflash for those who haven’t tried: learning a new language is hard, no matter how you go about doing it.
I started my Spanish learning journey at the young age of 13, when in the 8th grade they gave us the option to take Spanish 1. I can’t remember what drew me to the idea of learning the language, but I enjoyed it so much that I continued through Spanish 5 in high school, then added it on as a second major in college. Learning a language is addicting. The more you learn, the better you speak, and the more fun it is once you realize what you can accomplish and how many doors it opens.
When Spaniards ask me how long I’ve been in Spain, they usually say that I’ve learned so much in so little time! Then I have to explain that I’ve actually been studying the language for 15 years (cue sympathetic smile). It is true, however, that my level of Spanish has jumped at least one level just in the past few months. For reference, most of the language world measures fluency in levels: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2–A for beginners, B for intermediate, and C is advanced (C2 would be a native speaker or very close to it). And if you’ve ever seriously tried to become fluent in a language, you can probably relate to this: getting from level B2 to C1 is the most difficult part of the journey. This is because you’re no longer just studying vocabulary words or grammar topics, but trying to understand innuendos, metaphors, colloquialisms, jokes, references, advanced or obscure topics, and normal (read: fast) speaking speeds. Don’t get discouraged, though, because you can do it!
So if you’re serious about becoming fluent in a new language, and you move to a different country to accomplish that (even if for a short amount of time), how do you set yourself up for success? First off, you’ll need to determine your current level. If you’re at a B1 or below, I think it’s really important to enroll in a language class. Without a strong foundation of grammar and vocab, you will be setting yourself up for a much more difficult experience. Although I considered myself to be at the B2 level, I was in a Spanish class for my first 3 months here, and it helped me a lot. Even if you think you’ve “learned all the grammar,” a review never hurts.
What else? Here’s what I suggest:
Set challenging yet obtainable goals (what’s fluent?)
If your goal is to be fluent in the language, first you may want to define what fluency is. I’ve found that the definition is different depending on who you ask, but Merriam-Webster says it’s “the ability to speak a foreign language easily, smoothly, and effectively”. This definition still leaves some room for interpretation, so I think it’s best for you to create your own fluency goals to work towards. For example, “I want to be able to hold a conversation about a wide range of subjects” or “I want to be able to understand a fluent speaker without them slowing down for me” or “I want to be able to effectively help patients”. If you just have the goal of becoming “fluent,” you may find that you’re constantly asking yourself if you’ve reached the goal yet. Being more specific allows you to celebrate the goals achieved and make new ones. Remember: nowhere in the definition does it say that you can’t make mistakes. Making mistakes is normal, expected, and will happen even at the C2 level.
Remember the rule “better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt”? Forget that!
One of the most important things to do when learning a language is to practice speaking. But so many people are afraid that if they speak, they’ll make a mistake, and it will be horrible. Okay, you will make mistakes…but it will not be horrible. It may be funny, there may be a misunderstanding, but that’s normal. Just throw yourself out there, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much the natives around you want to help you succeed. Believe me when I say that it’s much more desirable to be around a learner that at least tries, than one who stays silent. On that note…
Put yourself in uncomfortable situations
Being an introvert, I can definitely relate to those who would rather stay at home and be anti-social than go out to a language exchange or social event. But staying at home, even if you spend that time studying, will not do half as much to help you with your language than going out and living it! Even if the idea makes you shudder, go out there and talk to natives. That could be in language exchanges or just going to a bar and sparking up a conversation with a stranger (this works surprisingly well in Spain). This could also be going to the grocery store and asking workers where an item is, or going to the doctor without a translator, or taking on the driver’s license exam in the target language, or even just hanging out with people who don’t speak English! Which brings me to…
Surround yourself with non-English speakers
Many times, when students go abroad to study, they end up living in dorms or apartments with other students who speak English. To me, this is one of the biggest things you can do to sabotage your learning experience. I may sound extreme, but it really does hold you back if you live with and/or hang out with English speakers. Even if you’re both there for the same goal (to learn the new language), you will probably fall back to speaking English because it’s comfortable. This happened to me when I lived in Peru for a month. I met two of the most amazing girls there, but we spoke a lot of English together. I’m also guilty of this with Diego here in Spain. We’ve gotten really far with switching to Spanish. Still though, when I get angry or in a heated argument, it’s tempting to fall back on English, but…
Don’t let yourself fall back onto English when it gets hard!
There have been many times when I’ve been excitedly telling a story that seems to require me to speak really fast and/or exuberantly, and then I get to the part that I don’t know how to say in Spanish, so I fall back to English. Fight with all the willpower you have to NOT do this. This is one thing that I’m working on–so when I’m talking about something complicated and I’m not sure of how to express it in Spanish, I just attempt it anyway. Use other words to describe it. Work around the difficult part. And again, don’t be afraid to be wrong. It’s better that you kept your Spanish flow going!
Celebrate achievements and brush off the mistakes
If you got through that entire story without switching to English, celebrate! If you went out on the town and grocery shopping by yourself and used your new language to speak to locals, congrats! No achievement is too small to be proud of. At least you can think to yourself “yes, I did it! Go me!”. When you make a mistake, try not to beat yourself up. If you’re anything like me, you may think that people are judging you or thinking that you’re horrible at speaking the language. Don’t let your pessimistic mind bring you down. Most likely, everyone else has forgotten about the mistake you made pretty soon after you made it. Of course it’s also good to learn from your mistakes, if you’re aware when you make them. Sometimes we’re not, so it’s a good idea to…
Ask natives to correct you, but don’t expect them to
When you tell someone “please don’t hesitate to correct my mistakes,” you’re opening another door to learn more. It’s a good idea, because some people don’t feel comfortable pointing out mistakes without the person’s permission. Yet, keep in mind that even with permission, there are many people who will never correct you. They may think that it would hurt your feelings, or that it’s not worth the effort, or that they don’t know how to explain the mistake well…or a multitude of other things. I for one would love if everyone corrected me, because I assume that if I’m not being corrected, that I’m speaking well. I have learned though that that is not always the case. So be open to corrections, but keep in mind that you won’t always get them. Listen to how others answer your questions, as they may put a correction to your mistake in their answer.
If you’re lost, ask questions (in conversations and situations)
After a few minutes of someone speaking fast about a subject I know nothing about (or don’t have an interest in), I usually “zone out”…meaning my brain stops listening. This is another thing that I personally need to work on, because zoning out obviously does absolutely nothing to help you improve your language skills (and you come off as anti-social or rude). The best way to avoid this is to involve yourself in the conversation. If you have something to add, jump in. If you have no idea what’s going on, ask! And when you hear a word or phrase that you don’t know, ask what it means, because that’s the best way to learn. Plus, the next time you hear it, you’ll feel really proud that you know it now. Asking questions generally gets a positive response, too. Most people like to answer questions about things they’re explaining. It means their audience is listening and interested. There have been a few times when I’ve gotten a negative reaction to asking a question, but I try not to let it get me down–after all, we all have those days when we don’t feel like explaining things.
Leave your inhibitions behind
Have you ever heard that a glass of wine will do a lot to help you with language practice? Or how about the term “liquid courage” for alcohol in general? I don’t usually give out advice to drink, but I’ve found that this one is true! It seems that whenever I’ve had a drink or two, I am more willing to jump into a conversation. I also tend to elaborate more, dare to use more vocabulary, and become more expressive when I’m drinking. This makes for great language practice. Of course, if you’re not a drinker, the idea of letting go of inhibitions can still be applied. There are other ways to get yourself more comfortable with speaking: surround yourself with friendly/open people and bring up conversation topics that really interest you or get you animated.
Listen to music in the language, but don’t count on correct grammar
Understanding the lyrics to a song can be tough in your native language, much less a new one. But listening to music is a fun way to delve into the language and culture, so find your favorite genre and play some songs while reading the written lyrics. It’s especially useful to get accustomed to the songs that are popular at the moment, so that when you go out dancing or just to hang out with locals, you’ll have more fun and maybe even have the courage to sing along. Keep in mind though that many songs (especially reggaeton in Spanish) use incorrect grammar, innuendos, and slang. Don’t worry: even if you pick up a few mistakes from music, it’s not the end of the world.
Study vocabulary for specialized subjects that interest you
When you study a language in school, there is only so much time, so many classes, and so many topics you can go over. Most teachers don’t teach advanced scientific vocabulary, for example. There is always more vocabulary to learn, and the more specialized it is, the less likely it is that you’ll just pick it up from speaking to locals. That’s where proactive studying comes in. For example, when I met the veterinarian at the wolf center in Northwestern Spain, I got to speak with her about how we capture our wolves, what we feed them, and the work with do with ranchers and coexisting with wild wolves. I realized though that there were so many specialized words that I didn’t know. No big deal, I worked around those words by describing them, but I still went home thinking that I should learn them in Spanish so that next time I sound more professional. All you do is make a mock conversation and list out the words that you are unsure of. Study those words, then the next time you’re in that situation or conversation, it goes a lot more smoothly.
Read an interesting book and get into a good TV series in the language
For us introverts, this is the relaxing, less stressful part to practicing. I recommend going to a used book store to find a good novel or something that you’re interested in. Read the first few pages to make sure it’s not too difficult or too easy before you take it home. Also, if you have Netflix, you’ve got access to a lot of great shows in Spanish (and surely other languages). I watched the entire Gran Hotel series in a short amount of time. It’s really addicting and I picked up a lot of new words and phrases. It’s also a good way to practice your listening skills. Try to watch without subtitles, because that way you’re forced to practice listening. If it’s too difficult, you’ll still learn a lot with the subtitles on (make sure they’re Spanish subtitles, otherwise you’re learning close to nothing). Keep in mind though that unfortunately, often the subtitles differ a bit from what is actually said by the actors. This drives me crazy so I avoid them.
When you get frustrated, remind yourself how far you’ve come
Like I said in the beginning, learning a language is hard. There is no easy way (okay, except to be raised with the language). There will be many frustrating situations. You’ll get upset and maybe even feel like you want to give up. But it’s definitely worth the struggle. Being bilingual (or more) is such a huge advantage in the world today, whether its to get a job, to travel, to exercise your brain, or to be more culturally aware. So when you have a bad moment, think about how much you’ve learned already and believe that you can keep improving. Sorry perfectionists, but you probably won’t ever speak perfectly–and that’s okay (honestly, who does?). Have you ever met someone who speaks English as a second language well, but makes mistakes and has an accent, and thought “wow, what a failure, I can’t believe he’s even trying”? No! You think “wow, how cool that they speak so well considering it’s their second language!”. So remember, you’re that person, and if you’re trying your best, you’re doing great. If all else fails, be thankful that you speak English fluently! Yeah! There are so many people in the world today that are struggling to learn our language, too.
Hope you all enjoyed…drop a comment with your personal experiences, fails, victories, or goals!