Twenty-Two Years of Questionable Spanish Acquisition Techniques: A (sort of) Success Story

Note: language aquisition and travel are inseparable for me. I travel to learn new languages and I learn new languages to enrich my travels. Spanish was the first of my non-native languages and the one I’ve been struggling with for the most years. For your comfort and edification (and so you don’t make my mistakes), here’s a brief reflection on my years with Spanish.

I learned Spanish through a hodgepodge of techniques and curricula, poking at various curricula when I was younger, getting a bit more structured in high school (but still dabbling) before finally taking actual classes in college. My studies bolstered my reading abilities and my vocabulary but did very little for my ability to speak Spanish.

So far, this is probably a familiar story to many of you. Here’s where my story diverts from the path most take, the path that ends in the land of perpetually intermediate vocabulary and stubbornly stagnant speaking skills. I took two weeks between freshman and sophomore years of college to take intensive classes in Antigua, Guatemala, then spent a week putting my skills into practice while building a goat house along Guatemalan teens. It was fantastic! I loved it! I focused on the vocabulary I needed most, used Spanish for most of my waking hours, and made leaps and bounds in terms of speaking abilities.

…and then, instead of going back to New Mexico for sophomore year, I went to Taiwan and took five hours of Mandarin classes for a semester. While this wasn’t necessarily a death sentence for my Spanish, I didn’t touch my second language for four months of intensively working on my third. That, my friends? That was a mistake.

I took another Spanish course back at UNM during my junior year, a 300 level class where I was working alongside people who had been speaking Spanish from the cradle. This helped some, but not nearly enough. Chinese came out of my mouth when I tried to speak Spanish, and now there were three languages jumbled in my head instead of two.

My senior year of college we decided to head to Spain for spring break. I knew this would be a challenge on two fronts: first, I had never spoken Spanish with anyone from Spain; second, I hadn’t actually spoken Spanish for two years, and my brain had filled with Mandarin in the meantime. Time to review, I supposed, and set about trying to reclaim the language skills I had lost. Mom and Dad expected their kids to interpret, after all, and I couldn’t leave my brother to do all the hard work.

It went…okay, I guess. I had grand plans of testing out of the entire Duolingo tree and polishing off a Memrise “first 5,000 words” deck for vocabulary, watching a certain number of hours of Spanish TV, writing a certain number of words — essentially forcing my way back to where I had been before.

I am horrible at guessing how long anything will take, so needless to say I didn’t get through all that. I did, however, get some reviewing in, and got almost back to where I had been before Taiwan. Ethan and I tag teamed our way through Spain. He’d studied Spanish for a short time by taking Skype lessons with my teacher from Guatemala.* Because he primarily listened to and spoke Spanish, he was far better than me at understanding native speakers and spitting out fluent-sounding sentences. He had a much smaller vocabulary base than me, though, so I would stand nearby as he called Airbnb hosts to fed him words.

(As an aside, this is an excellent example of why I think “fluent” is a useless term for discussing language abilities. Could he ramble on fluently, talking his way around words he’d forgotten or describing them until someone got the point? Sure. He also forgot words like “old” and “butter” on the regular. I spoke slow or broken Spanish but was much more reliable when it came to translating museum labels and menus. Together, of course, we got along just fine and made my parents proud.)

So. That’s where I am right now in my Spanish learning journey. (And it will always be a learning journey, even if I live in some rural village in Columbia for ten years speaking nothing but Spanish.) Right now I’m finally about to make that Duolingo tree turn gold (review of that is upcoming), using Spanish to ladder Esperanto, and listening to more Spanish. I still desperately need to practice speaking the language, though. Once I get a job I plan on shelling out for at least monthly review sessions with a teacher. (Orrr, if you wanted to try iTalki, you could use my referral link, so we both get $10 off a lesson! That’s also an option.)

I hope to do another intensive down the road, maybe in Spain. If you have the money but not the time, I think it’s hands down the best way to learn a language fast. Which is why I’m taking a nine-month Chinese intensive in 2018 — more on that as it develops. (I don’t have the money for that, by the way, but the Taiwanese government is kind enough to pay for my tuition and living expenses.) This time, I’ll keep practicing my Spanish. What use is speaking multiple languages if some of them are constantly out of commission?


*The school is Ixchel Spanish School, by the way, which we both recommend! Professional, affordable, very flexible, good homestay experience, learned a lot.

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