July 24

so how did I learn Spanish?

About 18 or so month ago I injured my shoulder quite badly and had a little too much time on my hands. I’ve always had an interest in Spanish and the culture and for whatever reason I always understood a fair bit even though I’ve never actually had a lesson in my life. So when I injured my shoulder I decided that I was going to start studying it properly and keep myself from going crazy sitting at home all day. I focused on it like I rarely ever focused on something in my life. I’ve always done well in school, but I never put any effort in it. Even in university I just studied enough to pass. These days I really wish I had applied myself, but I choose to believe that I had other experiences just as important in making me who I am today.

Back when I learned English it was a completely different approach. I had a total of 2 years of English in High School and 2 semesters at university. I always did listen to a fair bit of English on TV and read a lot on message boards and chat and whatnot. I was barely able to function when I left to travel for a year and was mostly with backpackers from the UK and Canada. I also lived with an Australian host family for 2 months in Sydney and when to school full time. That was the full on immersion everyone talks about and yes while it is rough it sure as heck teaches you the language. This however is much easier to achieve for someone with a native language other than English. There simply weren’t many German speakers there and I didn’t meet a single Australian who spoke as much as a word of German. So that leaves you without options and you simply have to speak it. I often think that it is much harder for English speakers, because chances are the other person will know a few words of English. After that year my English was pretty decent and now living in an English speaking country for nearly a decade has ensured complete fluency.

For Spanish though, I did not want to take years to get the basics and sadly a year of travelling South America was also not in my future. But I did have a good six months to dedicate to studying and I really only took a couple of weeks off after the shoulder surgery.

Now what exactly did I do?

First of all I wasted a lot of time researching programs, websites, reading posts about people learning Spanish and things like that. I’m not quite sure why, but I caught myself doing the same thing with Arabic recently. I think it’s somewhat common though, I know a couple of people with shelves full of grammar and teaching books, the only thing that’s missing is actually sitting down to study. I finally decided that Rocket Spanish was the thing for me, it had great reviews everywhere, what could go wrong. Well… the program/course is not bad, but what naive me didn’t know until later is that the company behind the Rocket courses pays people to post good reviews on their blogs and websites. I hate that kind of deception, but at the end of the day it really wasn’t a bad choice. In fact just about any course is good enough to get you started and teach you a basic conversation, just as long as it contains audio files. I worked my way through a few lessons, but I got bored long before reaching even half of the course I purchased.

So, then I decided to go to an evening class here in town which ended up being an even bigger disaster. Unlike our southern neighbours, Canada is not big on Spanish. There are only a couple of schools who teach it and there are few students, as in there are not a lot of levels available and you’re bound to be in a group with people with a pretty wide range of previous knowledge, or lack thereof. The course I had signed up for wasn’t bad either, but it was so slow I nearly fell asleep. This was my advantage of having learned a second language before and knowing what verbs and conjugations are. I already knew that word for word translations rarely work, but it seemed a completely alien concept to my classmates. One even going so far to offering this gem: ‘I didn’t think that Spanish people spoke so differently’.
So I only went twice and stopped that as well. Then I somehow heard about taking lessons over Skype and that’s when it finally clicked. I found a great teacher, we skipped over topics that I knew, focused on what I didn’t and spent a lot of time talking. I took 3 lessons a week and improved quite rapidly. I started reading books for beginners and listened to a whole bunch of podcasts like the Notes in Spanish, News in Slow Spanish and A mi aire. I also started to watch some TV in Spanish, first animated movies for kids, then movies and tv shows I already knew, then movies with English subtitles and then without. These days it depends very much on the accent, amount of slang and subject matter, but I still need the Spanish subtitles at times. But truth be told even after 10 years in Canada if I watch a movie set on the East Coast about cops and gangs, I still put them on.

The podcasts especially were neat to measure progress, especially the Notes in Spanish ones. I wasn’t very keen on the accent, but I found them the best ones out there. They come in different levels and I kept checking out the intermediate when I was in the beginner’s series etc. to see what I could understand. And usually I didn’t get a thing and then am month later I’d try again, and I get maybe half and another couple of month and I understood it completely. I think it’s very hard seeing progress when you learn a language and I found this by far the best way to judge. With speaking it depends on the topic, on the day and probably the moon phase. It’s just not very predictable and nearly impossible to judge objectively yourself.

After about a year of studying, I took off to Mexico for a couple of weeks to see how well I can manage in real life situation. I went to Querétaro about two hours outside of Mexico City and stayed with a host family or rather an older widow who had plenty of time and interest interacting with me. Unlike the family in Sydney, I really felt part of her extended family and she took me along everywhere. She kept saying that she’s so happy to have someone who can speak a bit, which of course made me feel like a million bucks. I did take some private lessons while I was there and then took a 4 day trip to Mexico City on my own and took a bunch of tours in Spanish. Now mind you, none of this was easy, but it’s the same old being forced to speak and understand that really helps. I felt like my Spanish improved by leaps and bounds in just a couple of weeks and I’d have given a lot to stay another month. Alas it wasn’t to be, but even after I was home, my Peruvian teacher was impressed with the progress I had made in such a short amount of time and some typical Mexican vocabulary sneaking in.

What is interesting looking back is that I did not spend a single minute studying vocabulary lists or doing flashcards. I also never spent a lot of my own time studying grammar. We went over endless exercises in class and with homework of course, but I never felt bored out of my mind reading pages and pages of rules after rules. The only thing I remember spending a lot of time on, was memorizing of verb endings and tenses.

These days I don’t actively study Spanish anymore, though I still talk at least once a week to the Skype teacher, but not as an actual lesson, more of an informal chat. In the meantime, she has moved to Korea to study Korean and so there is always something to talk about. She wants to practice her English as well, so we usually do half an hour Spanish and half an hour English. I also listen to a couple of podcasts. One is called De Viaje en tus oídos and I think I like that one the most. It’s short, it’s about something that interests me and there are a couple of accents to listen to, usually an Argentinian and a Mexican. I read the news on BBC Mundo and also have their twitter feed. I read a lot and I make sure at least one book is in Spanish and I try to watch a Spanish movie a week, though I’ve been slacking off on that.

Now I’m trying to apply all that I’ve learned so far to Arabic and Portuguese, but I think I yakked enough for now, more on that another day.

*why the Argentinian flag? because I love the accent and I want it to be my next travel destination 🙂