Learning Spanish

I haven’t written much since arriving in Madrid six (!!!!) months ago. I’ve published a few articles, jotted down some thoughts on the city, and even composed a couple of poems, but this will be my first blog post since last July. There are many poor excuses for why I haven’t been writing of late, the least terrible of which is that I’ve spent that time learning Spanish instead. Here then, is a blog post about learning Spanish.

I moved to Madrid six months ago with four weeks of Spanish lessons under my belt. I started with a two-week homestay, during which our conversations rarely progressed past “your dog is cute” and “I like football.” In week three, I bought the wrong train ticket and spent 10 minutes on the wrong side of the turnstiles asking strangers for help. Only afterwards did I realize that instead of asking, “can you help me” (puedes ayudarme?), I had been boldly telling everyone I saw that “I can help me” (puedo ayudarme).

I’ve come a long way since then. What is interesting to me isn’t how far I’ve progressed, but the journey getting here. My Spanish has not improved at a consistent pace: reading, writing, speaking, and listening are four surprisingly different skills, and I’ve struggled at times with each of them. The following is an undoubtedly mundane piece on the intricacies of my Spanish education.

I think my Spanish abilities can be approximately mapped by a venn diagram. The largest circle is words that I have had very little exposure to: I can sometimes understand them in context, but I don’t know how to use them, and certainly do not integrate them into my conversations.

The next level consists of my vocabulary: words that I know, but am not comfortable enough to use regularly. For instance, I know that ‘un rato’ means ‘a while’, and could define it if asked. But I do not know what verbs to use it with, in which contexts Spaniards use it, etc. My lack of practice and understanding of ‘rato’ means that while I know the word, I rarely, if ever, use it in a conversation.

The smallest circle is my conversational vocabulary. This is straightforward – words that I can, and do use when speaking Spanish.

Over the year, words and phrases have gradually transitioned from sounds that I recognize to words that I know, and finally, words that I know. I find it fascinating that these three circles have grown at very different paces. My vocabulary has consistently been much better than my conversational abilities, but every month or two my speaking will all of a sudden take a mini leap. I can’t tell you how or why, but it’s an amazing feeling.

I’ll never be able to speak Spanish like a native. But I continue to learn, and I continue to become more comfortable here. One of my favorite stories to tell about my Spanish occured a month or two ago, when I needed to find a Laundromat to dry some clothes before a trip. The first place Google Maps sent me to was closed, and the second place was a dry cleaners. I tried to tell the man working there that I needed a dryer, but a mental block prevented me from remembering the word. I eventually stuttered out, “these clothes have water. I need them to not have water.”

The guy was confused, and I was embarrased. But most importantly, he understood me after a few moments, and was able to send me in the right direction. Living and learning in a second language is full of moments like this; it requires you to work around gaps in your vocabulary, creating inefficient but clever ways to be understood. And I certainly will never forget the word ‘secadora’ again.

Another skill I’ve struggled with has been listening. It’s a problem when learning any language: locals talk quickly, have a variety of accents, and use coloquialisms. I’ve forgotten most of the French that I learned in school, but years of listening comprehension exercises mean that I am comfortable with the accent, and usually understand French speakers. Having never taken Spanish courses, I’ve had to start from scratch.

Texting and emailing with locals is much easier. When listening, I often need to stop and think, “ok, this word means this and that word means that.” By the time I fully understand the sentence, I’ve missed the next three things the person has said. There are no such time constraints with writing. The written word also has the added benefit of being easily pasted into Google Translate.

For native speakers, languages require very little effort. We consider the content and tone of what we are saying, but the vocabulary, phrasing, etc. is second nature. Nothing about Spanish is second nature. I’ve discovered that the best way to learn is to put yourself out there. Tell a bunch of strangers that you can help yourself, and you’ll be too embarassed to incorrectly conjugate ‘poder’ ever again. Fumble around for a bit in the wrong type of cleaners, and a kind old man will eventually teach you the word for drying machine. I’ve never been the quickest learner when it comes to languages, but I’ve always been willing to make an ass out of myself. That willingness means that I will continue to improve at Spanish, even if it is the hard way. Poco a poco, estoy apprendiendo.

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