My Quest to Learn Spanish: How I Ended up Writing a Story in Another Language
When I was at school I didn't have the talent for languages. In fact, I thought Spanish was odd for having the vocabulary and grammar it has.
Why couldn't they just speak English, a language I thought was easy since I myself could speak it so fluently? Surely that would have been much simpler for everyone.
This naive opinion of mine meant I didn't care too much if I were to forever remain monolingual. Those other languages could get lost as far as I was concerned… And yet, I love visiting other countries.
So when I saw the opportunity to teach English in Spain through the British Council which came, at the time, with the prerequisite of Spanish at an A2 level in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR or CEFRL).
I knew I needed to become serious in learning the language.
Using Apps Didn’t Do It For Me
I wanted to learn Spanish but I didn't know how. There were so many different opinions online as to what was the best way.
I read outstanding reviews for an app called Duolingo, which promised to gamify the language learning process with the help of its very own green owl mascot. This would be an excellent course, I thought, for someone with such a short attention span as myself.
I spent days and weeks on Duolingo thinking I was making progress when the reality was I was making none. I could never remember the vocabulary and grammar taught.
The only thing Duolingo ever taught me well was the ability to recognise certain words, but this will not take you far in any language as you need to be able to produce those words when speaking.
I Tried Group Classes… With No Better Success
I next tried group classes, thinking that as an adult I would find the classroom setting far easier than my younger self, due to more wisdom obtained over the years.
In the very first lesson, we were introduced to the different forms of referring to people: yo, tú, él, ella, usted, nosotros/as, vosotros/as, ellos, ellas, ustedes. I found this frustrating to understand!
I continued going to the classes, but I never really progressed because I was still trying to get my head around what had been taught in the very first lesson.
I was a slow learner and I felt like a burden to the rest of the class: they all seemed to be making progress whilst I was there holding them back from learning more.
I Also Tried the Full-Immersion Approach… Still No Chance
The next idea I had for getting to a good A2 standard was to go backpacking in a Spanish country. My idea was I would naturally pick the language up if I was surrounded by it. What better place to go to than Colombia, a country I'd always wanted to go to because I imagined it as a land full of beautiful women like Sofia Vergara.
I landed in Bogotá, the capital, anxious to find my hostel, but unable to ask for directions in Spanish nor understand them when I received them. I was lucky, then, to have my phone on me to show the name of the hostel and the locals were kind enough to point me in the right direction.
My time spent in Colombia was nothing but a disappointment as I came away with no improvement to my Spanish. There were too many conversations I missed out on because my Spanish level was too low. I could only say sí or no and my listening comprehension was beyond terrible. I can only imagine the ordeal it must have been for the natives I did speak to.
I Tried Online Tutoring… And Had Some Success
Despite the disappointing experience in Colombia, I did come home with a motivation to study harder. I decided to spend money on private online classes, the convenience being I could choose a teacher from anywhere in the world and a class at whatever time suited me best.
I used italki where you can either get a private teacher or do a language exchange with the many users looking to learn English (or whatever your native language may be). I didn't do a language exchange because half the time (or more) you'll be speaking English, and I wanted to reach fluency in Spanish, not my mother tongue.
Read this post for advice on finding the right online language teacher.
I chose two teachers; one of whom focused on pronunciation which I wanted to study in depth because I had realised how important it was: if native speakers can't understand you when you speak, then you won't be able to have a conversation with them full stop.
I was no longer the slowest learner in the class as it was just me and a teacher. Both of my teachers did a tremendous job of explaining the nuances of the Spanish language and they were patient with me regardless of the speed it took me to understand. I really enjoyed the classes and I looked forward to them each week.
I reached my goal of A2 in Spanish, which meant I was able to go to Spain to teach English. I was placed in Haro, a village in La Rioja so famous for its wine people travel far to visit one of its many bodegas.
They are so crazy for wine in this village they even have a festival in recognition called La Batalla del Vino (“The Wine Battle”), where people squirt wine at each other from water pistols in remembrance of a battle between two villages.
On the weekends I would meet up with my friends for pinchos (tapas in Northern Spain) at one of the many bars in the village and they would teach me new slang. Casually dropping these words in the middle of a conversation is a wonderful feeling.
I Learned a Lot Through Reading, Movies, and… Writing My Own Book
I started reading El Jueves, a colloquial magazine which comes out every Wednesday. It is a very politically incorrect magazine, the kind of learning material I enjoy. I made flashcards out of the vocabulary I learnt from the week's issue and tested myself daily on them.
Unfortunately, I couldn't go around speaking like they did in the magazine or I would have gotten into trouble with the locals. So I borrowed books from the library to learn standard everyday words and phrases, knowing I could return the book the next day if it wasn't right for my level.
One of the best books I borrowed from the library was the “Trajano” series, by Santiago Posteguillo, about the life of a successful Roman emperor. Although these books are enormous, a book's difficulty should never be judged by the number of its pages. The language used in the Trajano series is actually very simple.
Santiago Posteguillo also has other books set during the Roman era I have yet to read but they're definitely on my reading list.
Following a year of studying Spanish I found my level was reasonable, so I wanted to start watching films in Spanish.
On Italki, there was somebody who taught through this medium. He would send me a link to stream a film along with questions I had to fill out, we would then chat about the film in the following class.
One such film was Hable con ella (“Talk to Her), which covered bullfighting. I didn't know anything about this Spanish pastime so I watched ‘Tauromachy', a documentary by Jaime Alekos, portraying what goes on inside the plaza.
I was so shocked at the violence and brutality depicted in its short running time that I was inspired to write Toro 21, a story about bullfighting from the point of view of the bull.
This book took me over a year to write and rewrite, I consider it the crowning achievement in my quest to learn Spanish.
Note: You no longer need an A2 level to go to Spain on the British Council program, they are now accepting people without any knowledge of Spanish, which I think is a shame because you lose out on the motivation to study the language.