August 24, 2016 No Comments

How One Expat Learned Spanish

The best way to learn Spanish, or indeed any language, is to live among the natives. All you need is a somewhat decent memory, and the desire to learn. We asked one long-term expat who now speaks the language fluently how she managed to learn, and this is what she told us.

“I studied French in school and did quite well in class; I had a French penfriend and we wrote to each other every month, half a letter in English and half in French.

Back then there was no Internet, and foreign phone calls were difficult and expensive. However, when I went to visit my penfriend, we found we could hardly converse at all, we were pronouncing things terribly wrongly in each other’s tongues!

We had a good laugh about it and corrected each other’s mistakes, but in truth, we had learned from text books and language classes and the languages we learned were nothing like that used on the street every day. I was thankful for the written knowledge, but had to study how to actually converse in real life for myself, all over again. For example; she learned to say “Good morning madam and how are you today?” as the normal greeting in English, which of course we don’t say to each other as friends. Just as I leaned to say “comment-allez-vous” for how are you, when the French say “Ça va?” to friends. Of course the pronunciation was a different thing altogether, my friend and I couldn’t understand each other at all until we wrote things down!

When I came to live in Spain, I was 25 years old and had improved my French quite a lot, but found this didn’t really help me much, except perhaps that the second foreign language is generally easier to learn than the first. I had no knowledge of Spanish at all, apart from the odd words picked up on holiday: cerveza, vino, pan and playa; the obvious words first learned by mosts tourists.

The first job I had was in an Argentinean restaurant, where the owners were American and both spoke English, and I worked there for a year as bar keep and cashier, until they opened another restaurant several miles away and put me in charge of the first. The staff were Spanish or Argentinean and no one spoke English, but without realising it I had subconsciously learnt more Spanish than I realised, and was able to make myself understood to the staff when necessary, although I was not quite ready to hold a full conversation. It turned out that I had listened to it so often that I had absorbed the knowledge unawares, so when forced to do so, I was able to use it quite well.

The truth is that prior to my promotion, although I understood quite a bit of the language, if I were asked if I spoke Spanish I would have said no and if asked to say something I would have shied away for fear of making mistakes. So I was lucky that I was forced into the situation, or I may never have learned it as I did. As it was, I was able to hold a regular conversation within about 5 months.

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The written language came naturally as well, as each time I saw a word written down and was able to read it, so that word’s spelling stayed with me. Writing new words down is a must for good recall.

I have lived here nearly 40 years now and speak it very well, but I often wonder how I would have fared in different circumstances. I like to learn so I guess I would have got there eventually, but maybe not so quickly. There are a few expats in the same town as me who have lived here as long as I have but hardly speak Spanish at all; having always worked in English bars and mixed mostly with other Brits, and apart from this they just never made an effort.

Others say although they learned Spanish at school or as an adult in classes, on landing here, struggle to understand the natives or hold a basic conversation with them.

Learning languages at school will prepare you for working at a job that requires letters or paperwork in that language, but not so much for conversation. I would suggest that anyone who has studied a language with the intent of using it at work should take a gap year, or at least a few months out, to live in a country where the language is spoken and refine their spoken language skills. It would be embarrassing to have communicated with a future boss well by email or Skype without a problem, only to struggle when meeting for an interview.

Learning Spanish from a native speaker is by far the best way to take command of a language, but learning in school or on a course in your chosen country is also helpful, as long as after school you put what you have learned into practice among native Spanish speakers. Don’t be afraid to try, as this is what holds many people back, particularly if the Spaniard they are talking to speaks English well. Never think that you will sound daft, as they will always be pleased that you are making the effort. Just think when a foreigner approaches you for help in England; if they are mispronouncing or making a grammar error, you would not ridicule but would try to help; glad they are at least trying.

Many town halls in Spain offer free (or very cheap) Spanish classes for new arrivals

If you have a friend that speaks Spanish, ask them to correct you when you make a mistake. They may not do so if you don’t ask, as they won’t want to appear rude or knock your confidence, but it is better that you ask them to help, than for them to let you go on making the mistake because you think you are correct.

Spanish is a very easy language for English speakers to learn, as it is phonetic; meaning that words are pronounced exactly as you see them, unlike English which can have several different pronunciations of the same group of letters.

If you really want to learn and have a reasonable memory, you should have no difficulty learning Spanish, or any language that uses the same alphabet as ours. The main thing is to have a go – like me, one day you will probably find you are communicating without even realising you could!


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