Within six months of living in Albacete, Spain, I began to speak Spanish fluently. I did not take Spanish classes during that period. The people I met right after my move to Spain were blown away by my level of Spanish after three months, during which I experienced a sort of language explosion (parents should be familiar with this phenomenon). I should admit, however, that I did not start exactly from zero.
- I was bilingual prior to learning Spanish. There was an experiment in which English-Mandarin and English-Spanish bilingual and monolingual speakers had to learn newly created vocabulary (basically, jibberish) that did not resemble any of the three languages; both bilingual groups outperformed the monolinguals. The article “The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual” contains excellent information on the plausible reasons for this, but it’s easy to imagine that you’ve spent more time training your brain to acquire a new language if you’re bilingual.
- I knew how to speak English. Although English is Germanic, and Spanish is a Romance language, there are so many words with Latin roots that English speakers use, not only because of the Latins’ influence in science and culture, but especially due to the Norman Conquest of 1066 that started the dominance of the French language, another Romance language, in public functions in England. For example, “bureaucracy,” “international,” and “administration” are all English words borrowed from French, and are very similar to Spanish. Many times, I’ve succeeded in saying actual words that I never heard or read by using my intuition of which English words have Latin roots, such as “basicamente (basically)” “moral (moral)” and “evidente (evident).” I managed to impress people by using words such as “perífrasis” and “mortificación” as a beginner.
- I took 3 years of Spanish classes in high school. I almost never mention that I also took one semester in college, because I never went to class, and received a bad grade. Despite the hundreds of hours I spent in those classes, I still was not able to construct sentences unless they were rudimentary, e.g., “I went yesterday” or “good morning, everyone!” What I did acquire, however, were vocabulary and verb conjugation skills, although I still had trouble with the subjunctive mood and conditional tenses.
My level of Spanish on my first day in Spain
It’s funny how we tend to compare ourselves with people that are similar to us. When I got off the plane at Madrid Barajas Airport, I thought that everything was exotic and exciting. Then, at the airport, I randomly met two American guys who received the same grant that I got. One had done a study abroad in Argentina, and the other, in Uruguay. When I realized that the two of them would have no problem getting around with their level of Spanish, I suddenly felt intimidated and envious.
Anyway, I estimate that in addition to English words with Latin roots, I knew about 200 Spanish words. I knew how to conjugate regular verbs in in the present, present perfect, future (only the ir a + verb tense), and past in addition to some irregular verbs without any aid, although I had to visually think of the conjugation chart. If I wanted to say “we swam,” I’d have to go down the chart and think “yo nadé (I swam),” “tú nadaste (you swam),” “él nadó (he swam),” before finally arriving to “nosotros nadamos.” It was like having to sing the alphabet song from the beginning to know the order of the alphabet. In case you think that the title of this article is an exaggeration because of my prior knowledge: an English speaker could reach the level of Spanish I had before moving to Spain within a month. Easily.
Now let’s get to what I did during those six months.
- I would occasionally strike up a conversation with random people, although it consisted of listening 90% of the time. Older people are the best for this because they tend to stay away from slang, speak slowly, have patience, and enjoy company. The older Spanish people had much more interesting stories and insight as well. A couple of examples: I sat down next to a lady that looked 70 or 80 at Retiro Park in Madrid knitting on a bench. I said hi, and before I knew it, she was telling me about her grandchildren and her trip to Boston. Another lady that looked the same age in Barcelona was walking towards me on my way home. I complimented her scarf, and somehow that led to her telling me (with a lot of emotion) about Francisco Franco and all the things she endured. I only remember the gist of both stories because that’s all I understood at the time.
- I had two French friends. Although they were fluent in Spanish, because it wasn’t their native language, they had limited vocabulary, and spoke slowly.
- The only studying I did was practicing verb conjugation with this book: Practice Makes Perfect Spanish Verb Tenses. The shortcut to learning a new language is mastering the verbs. What good is it to memorize all the color vocabulary if you do not know how to say “it is” or “that wasn’t” or “I like”? This is the only book you need for learning how to construct sentences in Spanish.
Immersion and language acquisition
People love excuses. “I can’t learn Spanish because I can’t just move to a Spanish speaking country.” It is easy to imagine that I was practicing Spanish 24/7 since I lived in Spain. Actually, before I started dating a Spanish guy (this came after my initial six months), I did not practice much Spanish. I was teaching classes at a secondary school, and only spoke English while I was at work. Everyone else (with a few exceptions) viewed me as an opportunity to practice their English, and after a few awkward dialogues consisting of listening to broken English and replying probably in broken Spanish, I’d just concede and reply in English. I was not actively engaged in Spanish conversations as much as you would think. One of the American guys that studied in Argentina that I mentioned earlier actually told me he was forgetting his Spanish.. while living in Spain.
Let me reemphasize this point: immersion, although very helpful, is not necessary. To imitate the exposure I got while living in Spain, you would need to do the following each week: turn on the TV or radio in Spanish, and just leave it on in the background (without even concentrating on what they are saying) for 30 hours, be engaged in a conversation for seven hours, and study verb conjugation for half an hour. If you have internet or live in a cosmopolitan city, finding a conversation partner will not be difficult. That’s all it took for me to be conversant in 3 months, and really become fluent in 6.
Before I end this post, I want to say that being an adult is another bad excuse for not learning languages. I admit that it is much more difficult to get rid of the accent and cadence of your native language as an adult, but you can surely mitigate them with practice. It shouldn’t be a huge concern anyway as long as you’re intelligible. Accents are interesting- they reveal a bit of your background, along with your facial expressions and mannerisms. Anyway, I know numerous people who became completely fluent in new languages as adults. Trust me, you can learn a new language, no matter how old you are.