As a foreigner, living in a Spanish speaking country, I get asked this question a lot. Are you fluent?
I never know quite how to answer. I shrug my shoulders, umm kinda? I mean I don’t feel fluent. I still struggle with the woulda/shoulda/coulda tenses and I have huge gaps in my vocabulary. When I go the hardware store I end up gesturing with my hands when I realize I don’t know how to say “drawer handle” or when I go to the grocery store to buy a funnel and spend ten minutes trying to show the guy by making my hand into a fist and pouring water “through it.” Pathetic. And at a medial/dental clinic I was helping at last month I realize I don’t know the words for blink, heel or gargle. So, see I am still learning.
Often times volunteers or mission groups or new expats living here ask me, How did you learn your Spanish?
And this is what I tell them or what I would tell anyone who wants to learn a 2nd language:
1) Use what you ALREADY know. It’s true what hey say, what you don’t use, you lose. So if all you know how to say is “Hola, me llamo Michelle.” Then say that 100 times a day. The people who I’ve seen learn a language fastest are not the perfectionists who sit in a coffee shop writing gzillions flashcards (ahem, me) it’s the people who go out and talk with people and stumble through awkward conversations and lots of big hand gesturing.
2) Expect to be frustrated. When you start learning a 2nd language you may feel like a 7-year-old every time you begin a conversation. Your vocabulary drops and your sentences become 1-3 words max. You may be a teacher or lawyer or the head of your speech and debate club back at home, but when you’re operating in your 2nd language you will be at a 2nd grade level for awhile. And that’s ok.
3) Don’t compare, don’t compare, don’t compare. I used to feel most insecure with my Spanish when another foreigner was there who spoke better Spanish than I did. I would fumble over my words and imagine them correcting me in their head. That was just for Spanish. You can well imagine the horrific scenarios I’d created when the teacher had, on a lighter note, asked me to convert some kenyan translations of text into English. Good thing there weren’t many students in the class, or I’d have had made a fool out of myself. I still feel this way if I have to translate and know that there is someone in the group who speaks better English/Spanish than me! I’ve learned you have to block out those voices and insecurity. It’s been proven when you’re stressed and worried there is actually a part of our brain called the affective filter that goes up and prohibits any coherent sentences from coming out. Like my very first Spanish teacher told me. Go out with a group of Spanish speaking friends, have a glass of wine and stop thinking, just talk.
4) Find someone who can help you understand the language and interpret the culture. I have had four or five different Spanish teachers over the years and they may have helped me learn new verbs and words, but they also explained the context and culture behind those words and when to use them. This may have been even more valuable than the actual grammatical lessons. Especially if you’re going oversees find a person (not a computer program) who can be a cultural interpreter for you.
5) Practice speaking with anyone you can. This is especially true if you’re living in the US where the language you’re learning isn’t the dominant one. Be intentional to find people who speak the language you want to learn. When I was in Santa Barbara I often stayed late in my classroom just so I could talk to the janitors who came by every afternoon to clean. At our local farmers market I would visit the same stands and bring extra money to buy something just so I could talk to the growers in Spanish. Word of caution, don’t just assume speaks Spanish or any other language based on their physical characteristics. I always found it respectful to ask the person, “Do you speak Spanish (or whatever language you want to learn)?” and if they say yes, then proceed to tell them how you are trying to practice and ask if it’s ok to speak to them in that language.
6) Listen to the radio. In my opinion you can read all the books and newspapers that you want, but there is something about listening to the radio that helps you hear how people actually talk. I’m not saying it’s always interesting or fun, but when I lived in Santa Barbara I made myself listen to 90.3 radio (nueva vida punto tres…said thick Mexican accent) every morning on the way to work. I didn’t really love the music, but hearing it did force me to listen to Spanish every day. I guess you could do the same with a TV program but radio always seemed easier to me because I could do it while drivin. If you’re in Guatemala and if you have a car, I’d say just try it. Make yourself listen to the radio and you might be surprised at how much you start to understand and what insights you get into the culture. The advertisements themselves are sometimes even better than the music. The local Antigua station is 102.5 and there are lots in Guatemala City. I usually tune it 104.1 or 93.5
7) Talk with kids. Kids are great to practice with! They usually repeat words numerous times, use no more than 4 words in a sentence and can play the “point and tell me how to say this” game for hours. If you’re not around kids, get your hands one some simple kids books. I found reading kids books can be a great, easy way to start.
8) Be gracious with yourself. It takes years to learn a 2nd language. My first full-year living here I used to get so frustrated because I wanted my Spanish to be as fluent as my English. Which is just an absurd expectation, as Gerber would so often remind me. So, maybe right away let go of the expectations that your 2nd language will be a good as your first. Unless, you’re born bilingual or have some uncanny knack for languages just accept that you will probably never be quite as comfortable or fluent in your 2nd language as your first. Learning a 2nd language is hard. I’ve seen especially among other North American adults that we get frustrated so easily when we can’t communicate in the same way or at the same level that as we’re used to. It’s a humbling and hard and I think it anything can gives us a little insight into what people feel like in our own country who come and are in the process of learning English. It’s hard to learn a 2nd language and I think it’s even harder as an adult.
9) Have fun. It’s true, right? If you’re having fun you’ll be motivated to keep doing it. If you have the chance to study abroad and live with a family. Do it. If you can spend an evening each week playing soccer with friends who only speak Spanish, then go for it. One of my mentors and pastors used to encourage any student before coming on a mission trip to spend an hour each week just sitting in a little Spanish bakery on one side of town. She told them, buy a pan dulce, pick up a Spanish newspaper and just listen, watch and make friends with the women behind the counter. In my experience the more you can put yourself in situations where you have to use what you know and make friends with someone while doing it then the faster you’ll be able to learn a 2nd language.
Do you speak two language? What’s helped you learn your 2nd language? Do you have any tips? Have you always wanted to learn a 2nd language? What’s stopped you?
P.S. If you’re seriously interested in improving your Spanish, I have a few friends/teachers here in Antigua who do Spanish lessons via skype. It’s a great experience to have a native speaker as your teacher and half the price as what it would cost you in the states. If you’re interested leave a comment here or email me and I can connect you.