Learning a new language is a daunting task, especially as an adult. Many of us have the mindset that we are too old to learn something new or that learning a new language is too hard. I found that if you really want something, you are never too young or too old to achieve it.
In my personal experience, if you are a native English speaker, Spanish is a great second language to learn. Not only are there are over 400 million native Spanish speakers in the world, it is also very useful for business and travel. I have also found that learning Spanish has opened up so many great friendships and relationships that I otherwise would not have.
How I Learned Spanish
- I made a mental decision. Growing up in California, Spanish was not unfamiliar to me and I had learned many key phrases and vocabulary in everyday life. However, when I knew I would be going to Spain, I made the mental decision to actively learn Spanish.
- I implemented different learning tools. I was in college when I made this decision and I had a full course load of science lectures and labs, as well as daily training as a student athlete. My first major step was using an application called Duolingo. This app surprisingly helped me jumpstart my Spanish learning and form a solid foundation of the language. It slowly introduced me to verb tenses, conjugations, and specific vocabulary.
- Youtube. Once I got consistent with Duolingo and saw that I was improving quickly, I started taking learning Spanish more seriously. Youtube became my best friend. There are thousands of educational videos out there which cover vocabulary, verb tenses, conjugations, idioms, etc. I found a personal liking toward lifestyle videos and vlogs in Spanish. Even though I could not understand everything the person was staying, since there is a visual aspect, I was able follow what was going on in the videos. I religiously watched videos in Spanish until I could almost fully understand them.
- Music. Music was also helpful. I would listen to songs that I already knew in English, in Spanish. These were often children’s songs or religious songs, but I was able to get the gist of the meaning because I already knew the lyrics in English. This is a really easy tip to boost your language comprehension and listening skills.
- Immersion. Once I got a bit more confident with my Spanish comprehension, I decided to put it into practice. I attended events in Spanish. I would drag my friends along with me to Spanish concerts, Spanish church services, and any other event where the people would be speaking Spanish. I didn’t dare say a word while I was at them, but I was happy to be absorbing new vocabulary in a different context– and this is what brought my comprehension to another level.
- Conversation. Being able to understand Spanish was great, but there was only one problem… I couldn’t speak it! I remember how frustrating it was knowing what I wanted to say, but not being able to formulate sentences. I had to practice speaking. I didn’t know many native Spanish speakers who were willing to talk to me in Spanish, so I turned to the handy dandy internet! There are some incredible language exchange applications like Tandem, Italky, and HelloTalk which pair you with a native speaker of the language you are learning who are trying to learn your native language. HelloTalk was my favorite one. I met many great people who I am actually still friends with in real life now. We would text and talk in English one day and in Spanish the other and it was a way for me to learn and make mistakes with no judgement.
This entire process took me about a year. From the time I decided to take learning Spanish seriously, to when I could actually understand and speak it, it took approximately 12 months. The next step for me was perfecting my Spanish and becoming fully fluent to a native level.
How I Perfected My Spanish
- Pronunciation. The first step for me in perfecting my Spanish was getting the accent right. The best thing about Spanish is that it is very easy to pronounce. Besides the rolled ‘rr’ sound, every other sound in Spanish can be found in the English language as well. Furthermore, words are pronounced exactly how they are spelled so there is a lot less confusion in general. There are a million different Spanish accents. Since I am in Spain, I went for a very neutral Castilian Spanish accent. I worked VERY hard to get rid of my American drawl by reading to my Spanish friends and asking them to correct me whenever they heard my accent come out on a specific word. I am proud to say that I now have a pretty neutral accent– meaning people can probably tell I am foreign, but they cannot tell where I am from. I am often told that I don’t have an accent at all, which I know isn’t true. It comes out more strongly when I am tired or stressed.
- Idioms and sayings. No native speaker speaks like the textbooks. Learning a language from the people who actually speak it is key in sounding natural when speaking. I would pick up intonations and sayings from people in everyday life. I would try and use them in my day to day. Sometimes I would use them in the wrong context or not correctly at all, but I tried! Eventually it became more natural to me and it is integrated into the way I speak now.
- Full immersion. Moving to Spain really boosted my Spanish level. I made a conscious effort to not make expat friends in the beginning which forced me to make Spanish friends and fully immerse myself in the language and culture. I lived with Spanish people, worked with Spanish people, and hung out with Spanish people 24/7. It gave me no choice but to learn.
- Goal Setting. After my first full year in Spain, I felt like I had reached a plateau with my Spanish. It was really good, but since I was working in a more professional setting, I wanted it to be great. I decided to challenge myself by taking the C2 DELE exam, which is the highest language qualification level. Natives are considered to have a C1 level, so the C2 was an especially challenging goal for me. I got a tutor and met with her twice a week for two months to prepare for the exam. After one year and two months living in Spain, I took the C2 exam and passed! This was a major milestone for me and gave me a huge confidence boost– I was officially fluent in Spanish.
- Continuous learning. I have now made it a point to continue learning Spanish. I do this by reading books, participating in lectures (thanks to my masters degree), and even giving speeches. I understand that I have a long way to go to learn everything there is to know about Spanish, so I try to keep my mind open and not stray away from situations just because they might be hard to handle in another language.
- Listen before you speak. It is easy to get frustrated when you can’t speak at the same level that you can understand, but natural language acquisition simply works that way. Think of a baby– a baby doesn’t come out of the womb quoting Shakespeare. It listens for almost a year, then it starts to imitate sounds and words, then it begins to speak in 2-3 word sentences, all before being able to hold a conversation. The baby understands what its parents are saying far before it can articulate what it wants. Understanding a language is very important in the learning process, so be patient and nature will take its course.
- Take it slow. Going back to my first point, learning a new language doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of work and consistency to become fluent in a language. That being said, take it slow, set learning goals, and really try to enjoy the journey. I miss the days when I could listen to Spanish music and not understand anything, but simply enjoy the musicality and the tones of the songs.
- Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice makes perfect. You must practice in order to get better. It is that simple.
- Don’t be afraid to mess up. Being afraid to make mistakes really holds you back. Just like the famous saying goes “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t make”. The same is true with language learning. If you don’t make mistakes, you won’t learn. You would actually be surprised to know that people are not here to make fun of you. Often times if you mess up, they don’t even notice. Think about it. Have you ever had a conversation with someone who didn’t speak English perfectly? Were you focusing on all of the verb tenses and conjugations that they got wrong, or were you simply trying to understand them? I’m guessing the latter. That is what happens everywhere. People really do appreciate you trying to speak their language and are often there to help whenever you need it or just simply try and understand you. So, don’t shut up. Speak, and mess up a bunch so that you can improve.
I hope this was helpful to get to know me a bit more as well as to encourage you to learn a new language. If you have any tips or comments, you can leave them below or leave me a message here.
Follow me on Instagram @spainincolor