Spanish Speaking Success and Failure: Trials and Tribulations Experienced from Finally Becoming Fluent
June 14, 2016
Roughly five years ago I left my job working at travel-focused start-up GapDaemon.com, packed up my life in London and came, rather spontaneously and naively, to Spain. What can I say? I was relatively young (twenty-five) and was driven by a bloody-minded desire to not be monolingual and have some level of mastery over a tongue I was not born with. Spanish was the choice. Stemming from reasons between the language’s relative similarity to English, its widespread use and well, convenience.
Embarking on that adventure, I remember thinking at the time that I’d be done in two years tops. That I’d get somewhere near high-level command of the language if I knuckled down and immersed myself neatly for a solid twenty-four months.
I even started a blog about it, which chronicled my early learning processes and progress, as well as informed (and, dare I say it) entertained people along the way.
Little did I know however that between blogging, trying to stay afloat in a foreign country and learning a language, I would struggle a fair deal and constantly ask myself if it was worth the aforementioned sacrifices. Looking back, almost five years later, I can say definitely yes. It was all worth it. And I’d do it all over again.
That’s not to say I wouldn’t do a lot of things differently however. And that’s exactly the theme of this piece.
So after studying at the Escuela Oficial de Idiomas and passing the examinations at the end of the Avanzado 1 (advanced 1) class earlier this month – and being able to officially say I speak Spanish pretty well (Not C2 DELE level well, but well enough that I’d consider myself fluent in terms of being able to talk to anyone about anything, read and write at a high level and work competently in the language if need be), what have I learned from this near-five year journey?
Strap in. This is going to places you’d perhaps never expect.
Starting a blog about my learning process, my hopes, dreams and my experiences living in Spain put me on a path that caused my late 20’s to be a mad, crazy ride.
MySpanishAdventure.com started off innocently enough. It was a place I tried to post to several times weekly. It was a place I’d use to write about my goals, objectives and learning strategies. It was a place I used to highlight other great Spanish travel blogs and language learning resources to help others along the way.
It was a networking behemoth. Starting a YouTube series of videos, I used the platform to meet people all across Spain, forge contacts with big movers and shakers in the online language learning space (like Benny Lewis from FluentIn3Months) and score sponsored trips and room-stays across the country.
It was one of the single most enjoyable projects I’ve done in all my life. And I gave a whole lot of time, effort and energy to it. What’s more is, perhaps through public accountability, or maybe through the other aforementioned advantages, it pushed my Spanish learning upward fast.
But then it became a business. I started to make more and more money from it. I started selling advertising on it and as a result began to get more and more seduced by the digital marketing side of things and less about the language learning side. Eventually I neglected it, moved away from Spain and went in the direction of leveraging what I’d learned from blogging and digital marketing in that time to start my own business, take on employees and expand my site portfolio to something over fifty blogs and websites, all geared toward generating an income.
That took me back to Southeast Asia and beyond, helped me hone management and leadership skills, further my digital skills and make new friends and contacts even further afield.
It also meant that I lost the consistency of studying and practicing Spanish day-in and day-out and I remained stuck at that low-intermediate level for a couple of years in between starting MySpanishAdventure.com and finally coming back to Spain.
It also explains the lack of personal content on the site and the reason for a lot of sponsored posts.
That goal-swerve explains a lot about why it’s taken me so long to raise my level of Spanish to the originally intended goal I wrote down all those years ago. In short: my motivation changed. I went from being motivated to be fluent in another language to simply wanting to make some decent money and travel more. Eventually, after making some money and travelling for a couple of years, I arrived back at that original point, feeling, somewhat perhaps, that it was foolhardy to have deviated in the first place.
Money is nice of course as it delivers you a certain level of freedom. But, in my case at least, I still had that ‘project unfinished’ marker residing somewhere inside my psyche. So I came back to Spain in August 2014, not really knowing if I’d pick up my language learning project with the same level of fervour and enthusiasm as I had before, but knowing, at the least, that I felt comfortable living here and didn’t want to travel but rather settle somewhere for a while.
As I gradually cut back on the number of blogs I had, started selling them off where and when I could, I recognised I needed to do something that got me out and away from a computer and interacting with people again. My primary motivation at this point was just to do something, anything, social. So I took a job working for BEDA, an organisation that places English language natives in Spanish schools as language assistants.
I began assisting classes in physical education and natural sciences. Which was new for me and a nice experience as I’ve always enjoyed working with children (first year primary in this case).
Soon after starting that job my motivation to learn Spanish came back as I grew more comfortable and developed a network of friends. I started heading to intercambio events to meet people and try and practice.
At this point I didn’t really feel like jumping back into the blog as I’d felt I’d done people a bit of a disservice throwing up lots of unrelated content and having spent so much time outside of the country. Instead, I went about studying privately, in my spare time.
With motivation to learn, living in the country and wanting to enrich my interactions with people and possibly find better work opportunities, I slowly got back on track.
Having a good foundation from which to start with is everything when it comes to developing and honing a skill. With language learning, and Spanish in particular, it’s no different.
All the work I put in previously studying verbs, nouns and useful conversational phrases all helped build a solid base from which to move my ability forward. If anyone is starting out wanting to learn a language, I definitely agree with Gabriel Wyner’s (FluentForever) recommendations in going about learning the 1000- most frequently used words in the language and pronunciation work to go with it (Wyner has lots of information about this on his site and has even developed Anki SRS decks to help).
Anki is critical to help reinforce your development in the foundations of a language. Benny Lewis talks about it. Gabriel Wyner talks about it. Scott Young talks about it. Anyone learning anything that requires memorisation, including programmers and scientists, talks about how great it is too. Seriously it’s the single biggest most important tool I can advocate to learners of a new language. Download it, use it everyday and absolutely make your own cards.
There’s lots written about how to use Anki effectively so I won’t go into detail about it here. I’ll just say that the turning point in using it came after I’d already built the foundations of the language and needed to go about furthering my understanding of grammar and really expanding my vocabulary. I would do exercises and literally throw them into Anki if I got them wrong. I would make flashcards for new words that worked both-ways, one with the image where I’d have to think of the word and one with the word where I’d have to think of the image.
If I were to attempt my Spanish language project again I’d make sure I keep up with a deep learning plan that uses Anki as a primary focus. Leaving Spain, I abandoned it for a couple of years. What I should have been doing was continuing to add to my deck with throwing in a couple new words here and there and just going over it for ten minutes each day no matter where I was in the world.
The same can be said for conversational practice. Out in Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore and Vietnam I came across native Spanish speakers here and there and tried my best to practice where I could. It wasn’t near enough practice to take me to the level I am now but at least I can safely say I took the opportunities where and when they arose.
What’s happened in the last five years however is the emergence of a swathe of new learning tools that can help no matter where your location.
If I’d have discovered iTalki earlier I’d have been throwing up texts a couple of times a week and connecting with people over Skype to practice each time I had some downtime. I’d have even paid (I was making good money remember) for conversational opportunities.
People starting out now have so many great new tools available. Learning a language is easier than ever.
Structure and Environment
Another crucial thing I learned from finally getting my Spanish up to par is just how critical a role structure and environment play.
Make no bones about it, living in a country where Spanish is the primary language helps. But mainly in helping deliver you the motivation. Especially if you’re looking to socialise outside of a circle of compatriots and really get to know the culture.
The rest is largely up to you. You won’t learn a language through sheer osmosis. You still have to put in the work. Put in the hours. Put your ass in a chair and read, watch and listen to things. Interact with people over and over again. Be humbled. Be reduced to feeling like an infant. Temper your ego and frustration at not being able to fully express yourself as you would in your native language.
Lower your expectations and live with being imperfect.
At least that’s what I’ve learned as I’m constantly humbled over and over again. I tell myself not to expect to communicate and be as comfortable in Spanish as I would in English. Because it’s an entirely unjust comparison.
With that freedom of mind I forgive myself if I don’t quite catch what’s been said. I ask people to repeat. I ask stupid questions. I care less about pronouncing everything correctly and have trained myself to be grateful for (and even crave) corrections.
Structure first begins with the mind. With telling your ego to get out the way. With accepting you have to fail over and over again in order to learn. It only later gets physical.
Which leads me on to schools. Which, for me at least, I wish I’d done sooner. Because learning on your own in your room can be isolating. And after switching to doing courses at International House (where I did a DELE B2 preparation course) and then doing a whole term at the Escuela Oficial de Idiomas (whose matriculation is so ridiculously cheap I’d recommend it to everyone) my level really shot up.
Studying in these places gave me more motivation. It also made me diligent in getting assignments done, helped me make social connections with other students where Spanish was our common language and also enabled me to maintain the consistency of learning where other times, especially abroad, I struggled.
Attending a school meant I couldn’t leave Spain. Attending a school meant I had to study to stay up to speed with what was happening in the classroom. Attending the school out of my own pocket made me want to get the most out of it.
Starting over I’d have hunted down a cheap school much earlier on in the process.
Discipline and Confidence
Discipline and confidence is fundamental to everything worth doing in life. My Spanish learning journey has taken as long as it has primarily because of a lack of discipline and a shortage of confidence.
Discipline means building habits and being unrelenting in terms of seeing things through. That means consistently studying a little each day. Consistent meaning consistent. Never wavering. Never faltering.
Starting this journey again I’d be more adherent to systems. Listening to the news everyday without fail. Doing grammar exercises. Reading a certain chunk of a book. Doing things to a timer (so I don’t go overboard or get burned out). But doing them with consistency.
Your process is just a process if you don’t actually implement it. The difference between getting good at Spanish or not is deciding to commit to one and to take action immediately.
With discipline and adherence comes confidence. Knowing you’ve put the work in you’ll be more impelled to go speak to someone (keeping in mind that mistakes are necessary), write in the language or pick up a more challenging book.
Right now I push myself with novels I find listed on Spanish literature courses. To get to that point I had to read the whole Harry Potter series with the accompanying audiobooks. This dual reading-listening strategy really helped.
As for the study process I went through on route to passing my exams, I basically reduced it down to between four and five hours a day for the month leading up to the exams.
1 hour dedicated to writing. Copying model answers over and over again. Attempting my own and posting them up at iTalki for corrections.
1 hour dedicated to listening. Doing the audio exercises over at Ver-Taal. Listening (with no distractions) to the news. Watching YouTube commentators.
1 hour dedicated to reading. Novels combined with audiobooks. Isabel Allende. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Translations of English-language books. Audible. Amazon Kindle.
1 hour dedicated to grammar. Going through exercises in Gramatica del Uso de Español and throwing the ones I got wrong into Anki.
Half an hour dedicated to Anki. Going through my massive deck. Adding new things.
A Finish Line
The final thing I’d add in attempting to tot up my experiences, successes and failures in learning Spanish is that of the importance of having a finishing line.
Now for me that finish line is ever shifting.
My most recent finish line came this month in passing the examinations of the advanced course I’ve been doing since February this year.
For now that’s enough. Hence why I feel largely comfortable sharing my knowledge here.
That’s not to say that it’ll forever stay that way though. Because one of the biggest things I’ve learned on this journey is simple.
I’ll never be happy with my progress or where I’m at.
I WILL always see room for improvement, ways to get better.
Maybe that means continuing to study and going in for the DELE C2 eventually. Maybe that means just carrying on my studies in my own way. I don’t know yet.
Learning to be comfortable with that has been possibly the trickiest lesson I’ve had to take on board these last five years.
But you absolutely need some kind of finish line for yourself. If only to pacify your mind and control your direction until you get there.
So pick your marker carefully.
I function well with exam titles and certificates because a piece of paper makes me feel validated.
Funny how it’s taken me five years to acknowledge.
Hopefully my experiences can help you on a similar journey.