Learning Spanish

A decade ago, I decided to learn Spanish. In the summer of 2011, I sought out a Spanish tutor in the Portland area and chanced to meet a Peruvian woman named Aly. For the next eighteen months or so, Aly and I met three times a week for 90 minute sessions. It was a ton of fun.

My progress was slow at first, of course. There was so much to learn! But gradually I discovered ways to make learning Spanish more fun for me.

I dove deep into Spanish-language pop music, for instance. At the time, Portland had a great radio station that played contemporary Spanish-language pop. (Most Portland Spanish-language stations are either religious or play traditional Mexican music. I had not — and still have not — acquired a taste for traditional Mexican music.) I’d listen to the songs while driving around, make a point to note my favorites.

I’d download these favorite songs to my phone and I’d print out the lyrics. Then, I’d take these lyrics to my sessions of Aly. She’d help me work through the process of translating them.

Again, at first this was difficult. It’s one thing to learn the “rules” of a language. It’s another thing to learn how the language is actually used (especially when usage varies from country to country). The start of many tutoring sessions was spent translating song lyrics. In time, Aly started bringing some of her favorite songs for me to learn.

On top of this, I began watching movies and TV shows with the Spanish audio track (and English subtitles). I was also reading Spanish-language books. I started with children’s books, but gradually worked my way up to full-fledged novels. By the time Aly and I stopped working together, we had worked through The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Spanish plus one or two other books that I don’t recall at the moment.

All of this study paid off.

After less than six months, I took my first trip to a Spanish-speaking country. I traveled to Peru and Bolivia to hike through the Andes. I was by no means fluent, but I knew enough Spanish to get by.

Three months later, I traveled to Argentina and Chile. My Spanish was even better by this time. I could read anything I encountered in daily life. I could engage in simple conversations. People complimented my accent.

And in 2013, I spent a couple of weeks in Ecuador. This time, I ended up being the de facto translator for the group I was traveling with. I couldn’t understand everything that was said to me, and I sometimes had trouble formulating thoughts, but I could speak well enough to do whatever I wanted. (One funny exception: In rural Ecuador, I had to help a companion purchase hair conditioner. I had no idea what the word was. The owner of the small shop couldn’t understand what I was trying to tell her. Everyone became frustrated. But, in the end, I learned the word acondicionador.)

As I traveled, I bought more books. And, especially, I bought Spanish-language graphic novels. I loved Spanish. I loved comic books. Naturally, Spanish comic books appealed to me. These too helped me learn.

At my Spanish peak, I was actually volunteering in a bilingual second-grade classroom, helping kids learn to read for a few hours per week. This was challenging but fun.

Aly and I stopped working together sometime in late 2012. At the time, she told me that I had learned enough that I could easily test into late intermediate (or early advanced) Spanish at a college level. This boggled my mind!

But once we stopped working together, my Spanish skills froze. Then, with time, they began to erode.

That said, my Spanish hasn’t faded completely. Not even close.

It helps that I’ve returned to Ecuador several times since. Plus, I exercise my Spanish when I travel to Italy or Portugal. (Italian and Portuguese are close enough to Spanish that my brain engages in the same way.) Every once in a while, I grab a Spanish children’s book from my shelf. (I like reading Harry Potter in Spanish.)

I’ve found that my ability to read Spanish seems to have remained. Yes, I’ve forgotten certain words, but words are easy to look up. I can parse a book fairly easily, pausing only to use a dictionary when needed.

That said, my ability to hear and speak Spanish is pretty low right now. I haven’t tried to write anything, but I think that would be rough too.

I bring all of this up because I’m currently on my second trip to Mexico in the past month. The first trip was spent in an English bubble. This trip, I’m with a Mexican friend and we’re doing Mexican things. I am surrounded by Spanish. Yes, most of the people we encounter can (and do) speak English, but much of the time, I’m afloat in a sea of Spanish.

We’ve been here nearly 48 hours now, and even in this short time, I’ve found my comprehension has made huge strides. When we landed, I could only pick out a few words of spoken Spanish here and there. I was especially flustered that whenever a person spoke, it pretty much sounded like a wall of noise. But as time goes on, I’ve gained the ability to delineate individual words when they’re spoken. That’s super helpful!

Last night at dinner, as the group of Mexican friends grew drunker and drunker (and I grew drunker and drunker), I was generally able to follow the flow of conversation. I could get the gist of what was being said most of the time. I couldn’t tell you what any given sentence was, but I understood many of the stories. On our way home, I told my friend that I felt like I might have been able to understand almost everything if the speed of the conversation could have been slowed by 50%.

I’ve noticed some things, though.

  • First, it takes a lot of focus and mental energy to attend to a conversation. As a result, I get tired. And when I get tired, I tune out. The moment I tune out, I lose any thread of what’s being said. (If I tune out of an English conversation, I still subconsciously pick up the thread.)
  • Second, some speakers are much easier to understand than others.
  • Third, some of the rules I’ve learned and followed don’t seem to apply. I’m not sure if they’ve never applied or whether they simply don’t apply to this part of Mexico. (Example: I was taught that each letter in Spanish is always pronounced and always pronounced the same way. This isn’t true. “Muelle” isn’t pronounced the way it’s spelled, for instance.)
  • Fourth, I really struggle with the little “extra” bits in Spanish. This has always been true, but it’s especially true now. The personal a. The se in a phrase like se me olvidó. I understand them when I see them and/or hear them, but I never remember to include them when I speak. Never.
  • Fifth, the Spanish you learn in the classroom doesn’t overlap completely with the Spanish you see in the real world. I learned llanta (tire) when working with Aly, for example, but never had occasion to use the word. But you see llanta all over the place — more than you’d think! — when out and about in a city.

There’s lots of other stuff like this that makes actually spending time in a Spanish-speaking country (or area) wholly different than learning Spanish in a classroom. It’s fun.

My friend tells me that he thinks I could become fluent if I were to spend three months here. He recognizes that I’m struggling, especially when it comes to speech. But he says that I seem to understand more than he expected me to. (I understand more than I expected me to, also.)

We’ll be here another three days before flying home to Portland. I’m curious to see if my ability to parse speech (and to speak myself) continues to improve during this time. It almost has to.

On past trips like this, I’ve tended to bury my head in books, magazines, and newspapers. I’ve paid more attention to print Spanish. This time, I’m not doing any of that. None. Instead, it’s all conversational. It’s a different experience, but I think it’ll be more profitable in the long run.

And you know what? All of this is thinking that it might be smart for me to find a Spanish tutor again this year. I wouldn’t dive as deep as I did before, but it might be fun to meet somebody every week or two (even if it’s with Zoom and not in person). I would love to bring my Spanish skills back to where they once were.

Speaking another language changes the way you view the world. It’s fun!

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