I wrote this for a class I am taking but I thought it was relevant for my blog too.
Although my title in Spain is teacher, I came to Spain to learn. I wanted to learn about teaching, Spanish culture, and the Spanish language. Starting at the age of seven, I studied Spanish into my last year of high school. My senior year of high school, I took private Spanish “classes”. Each week I sat with my teacher for an hour and talked in Spanish. I also wrote an essay each week. I had difficulty understanding native Spanish speakers but I was fairly competent at writing and speaking Spanish. When I went to UCF, I decided I wanted to study science and art and quit taking Spanish classes. I rarely told people that I could speak Spanish and I never sought out situations where I could practice it. Three years later, I transplanted myself into a country where 85% of its inhabitants speak only Spanish. I was nervous beforehand that I wouldn’t be able to communicate in Spanish and I was determined to enhance my ability to speak the language.
Here in Spain I live with a host family and the only person in my adopted family who speaks English is my host mother. I have been fortunate to live with someone who speaks English but is also a foreign language teacher. I expressed to her before I was even in Spain that I wanted to learn Spanish. I have had a close to full immersion experience in Spanish. Occasionally, something crucial would be translated for me but now if I don’t understand something it is told to me in simpler Spanish until I comprehend it. Each week, for an hour, my host mother teaches me Spanish grammar in Spanish. In this way, my Spanish has improved by leaps and bounds. Outside of some individuals with very rustic accents, I can understand everyone in my town and I can follow conversations. Occasionally, there is some word that is used in conversation that I don’t understand but after it is described to me in Spanish I understand. Outside of my English classes, my blog and my conversations with Americans who don’t speak Spanish, all my conversations are in Spanish. Many weekends I am the only person among my companions who speaks English.
At first, I struggled with understanding. I was very preoccupied with trying to comprehend what was being said to me. There was a lot that I could understand but it took me longer. I knew that “cierralo” meant “close it” but my comprehension was not instant. I often felt stupid because I didn’t immediately obey these simply commands because my brain had to hear, translate, comprehend and then obey. I also quickly realized how insufficient my Spanish vocabulary was. Daily words like subir (go up), bajar (go down), coger (take with), recoger (clean up), cuchara (spoon), rato (while) and callate (shut up) were words that I did not remember from my time studying Spanish. I had also never learned how to gossip so I was unable to follow village conversations in the bar about car accidents, business and politics. Another huge deficit in my vocabulary was palabrotas (curse words). I don’t curse in English and had never made an effort to learn how to do so in Spanish. Many of my companions in Spain use these words all the time and these words confused me until they were explained because they could be used in such a wide range of situations. I was initially discouraged that I knew so little and couldn’t understand most of what was said around me.
After a few weeks, I found that I could understand more of what was being said. This was exciting but it brought a new difficulty. Now I could comprehend but I couldn’t join in. Although I understood most conversations, when I wanted to say something I was rarely quick enough or confident enough to join in. By the time I went to open my mouth the conversation had moved on. In personal conversations I oftentimes felt that I couldn’t adequately express myself and that I sounded like an idiot.
Throughout all of this time I felt a bit trapped. I love to talk and express myself. There were so many thoughts in my head that I couldn’t say. If I spoke English to a Spaniard I had to speak slowly and simply. If I spoke Spanish, at first I had no idea what was being said to me and later when I did understand I was incapable of speaking quickly. I had a very limited vocabulary and few verb tenses. I used writing and my phone calls home as an outlet to express myself.
As time has progressed, so has my Spanish. Every day I am improving. I can now join into bar conversations and was even on the radio recently. I still have difficulty with my host father and his close friends because their Spanish is rapid, colloquial and spoken with a thick accent but they only have to repeat themselves once. Now, even in emergencies, I talk in Spanish and I no longer have to revert to English. I have acted as a translator for my friend on her date. I can understand Spanish over the phone. I no longer spend a great deal of my time daydreaming because I am lost as to where the conversation is going. When I speak Spanish, I also think in Spanish. My Spanish is nowhere near correct but I can understand and be understood. For now, that is my priority. I don’t feel trapped or unintelligent. When I travel, Spaniards praise me for my ability to speak Spanish and I treasure that.
I think there are two main things that inhibit people from learning a second language. The first is a lack of practice. Like anything else you learn, it is important to apply it on a regular basis in order to remember it. Our brains do not retain knowledge that is never used. The second is a lack of confidence, a fear of sounding stupid. We fear sounding stupid and it is very easy to make mistakes when speaking another language. I personally have mixed up the words for line and ass because cola (line) and culo (ass) sound so similar to me. I have learned to overcome my fear. If I don’t ever speak, my Spanish will never improve. I have recognized that I am going to make mistakes and that is okay. Most people are sympathetic of my difficulties with speaking Spanish and are also helpful. I have been encouraging my students to learn what I have learned. Speak a lot and without fear. It is the only way to learn. You will say tonterías (stupid things) and that’s okay. It is a part of learning.
I love speaking Spanish. Unless someone specifically wants to speak English with me (or I am teaching English), I elect to speak Castillano as it is called here in Spain. Even in speaking English, I oftentimes use Spanish words because they are more fitting for what I want to say. I speak Spanish with all of my American friends who are able and willing to do so. I sometimes find myself thinking in Spanish even when no Spaniards are around. Immersing myself in Spanish has given me confidence and a new way of thinking.