How's your Spanish?
I’m coming up on my five-year anniversary in the capital of Catalonia, and my excuses for not speaking perfect Spanish are running out. When people learn how long I’ve been living here, the conversation immediately turns to the question of my language skills: “So, how’s your Spanish?” or “You must be fluent, right?”
I typically respond with the obligatory and humble, “I get by,” which is the truth. I can order from a menu, ask for directions, speak with a store clerk about most items in a shop, but when it comes to having deep, meaningful conversations, I still have a ways to go.
Learning a foreign language is a trial but also a benefit of living abroad, especially a language as ubiquitous as Spanish. It’s incredibly easy to find ways to learn, practice, and grow language skills here, but the onus to do so is on the student. Here are a few ways that one could (and should) attempt to learn the local language.
No, I have never taken a formal Spanish class. I could have enrolled when I first arrived back in January 2014, but my fate in the country was unknown due to visa issues, and I didn’t want to invest what little money I had in something that I wasn’t sure I would need. Thus, I stuck to a mobile app (see below).
At my current level of Spanish, I wouldn’t even know where to begin if I were to sign up for classes. Having surpassed the beginner’s level, I would most likely enter at an intermediate stage, but again, I would hesitate to invest my already compressed free time and money into something that may leave me frustrated or lost.
For new arrivals, however, I highly recommend Spanish classes or even hiring a private Spanish tutor who can make home visits and work more flexibly with schedules. Having a safe space in which to learn and practice can do wonders for confidence, which is one of the most important skills to hone when learning to speak a foreign language.
Language-learning apps such as Duolingo (which is free) are a great place to begin to learn the foundations of any language. I turned to Duolingo with one week’s notice that I would be moving to Spain, and I took out a trusty notebook where I started listing conjugations for common verbs. Already quire proficient in French, learning Spanish wasn’t too intimidating. In fact, there are aspects of it that made it a bit easier than French (e.g., not needing to start every sentence with a subject).
The impetus to keep learning lies in the app’s levels. If you take a break for a few days or weeks, Duolingo will rewind your progress and make you start from an earlier level when you return. The downside of Duolingo is reaching the end of the ladder and having nowhere else to climb. This has happened to me once, so I took a long break from the app and returned to it months later, for practice’s sake.
In Barcelona, these intercambio events take place every night of the week in almost any neighborhood. Log on to Meetup.com and you’ll find a plethora of intercambios, some of which have fun themes or more organized conversations, akin to speed dating.
Mustering up the courage to attend one of these events is half the battle. Upon arriving, you’re usually given a name tag where you write your native language, and below, the language you want to practice. Some are casual cocktail hours where alcohol provides the liquid courage necessary to utter the phrases and words you have in your arsenal.
Intercambios offer a safe space to practice speaking, getting you as close as possible to real-world scenarios with native speakers but in a setting where others are practicing their non-native language, as well. Everyone is nervous, everyone is scared, but everyone is there to learn.
I don’t attend as many of these as I wish I could, but there’s always 2019.
What are your tips for learning a new language in a new environment? Leave your comments below!