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Becoming ‘fluent’ in another language is the nemesis of many an expat. It’s the challenge we are faced with on a daily basis; what we are constantly asked about when we return home; the ultimate achievement of living in another country.
Those who are none the wiser think it just happens in a year, a few months even. But the truth is that it’s bloody hard work, and takes a while to put one’s mind to.
I remember well the feeling I had when I first moved to Granada and began meeting native English speakers who– at least to my (relatively) untrained ear –spoke the language fluently. At first I felt impressed, then envious, then, when it came to my turn to speak, horribly embarrassed.
I would quietly curse my poor level in the aftermath of any such horribly embarrassing group exchanges, often repeating in my head the incoherent mumbo jumbo I had contributed, and going over what I had wanted to say until I got it right. Of course by that time the topic of conversation would have changed completely, meaning I would either butcher yet another interesting discussion into a thousand awkward pieces or just sit there in silence, too embarrassed to speak.
It was a difficult period, which took a lot of hard work and perseverance to overcome, but eventually I attained that level I’d been yearning for. It is impossible to say exactly when; at no point do you realise or decide that you have a fluent level, it just sort of happens. However, there are definitely some tell-tale signs that let you know you’re getting there…
One: Understanding and using slang/obscenities
No matter how long you have lived in Spain and/or learned Spanish, you will never learn all the crude and often nonsensical expressions used by natives on a daily basis. There are just too many. If, on the other hand, you can learn a few and understand how and when to use them, you’ll start turning heads for the right reasons.
Learning expressions is one thing, for example, ‘estar echo polvo’ (to be knackered) and ‘tocar las narices’ (wind somebody up), but using street slang gets you real brownie points, e.g. ‘la ostia’ (the dog’s bollocks), ‘chulisimo’ (REALLY cool), ‘¡Qué va!’ (don’t be ridiculous you silly sod).
Then there’s the vulgar stuff, like ‘hasta la polla/los huevos/el coño…’ (up to the dick/balls/c…) and, my personal favourite, ‘me cago en…’ (literally, ‘I shit in…’), which could be followed by a number of possibilities, such as ‘la leche’ (‘the milk’), ‘tu puta madre’ (‘your whore of a mother’) or ‘la puta madre que te parió’ (‘the whore of a mother that birthed you’). If you can get those right– at the right time –then you’re on to a winner!
Two: Understanding and using ‘usted’
On the flip-side, understanding and using the formal ‘usted’ style of Spanish, when appropriate, is another indication you’re nearing fluency.
It is rare to have to do, but when confronted with elderly people whom you wish to/must be polite to, or the arduous and thankless task of acquiring important documents from the social security office, you will need a decent grasp of ‘usted’, in order to understand that it is you they are talking to– not some other, mysterious person –and make them like you if you need a favour doing.
If you can do this confidently, competently and actually WIN the argument, you are sailing to the fluency finish line. I still have problems complaining/trying to sound angry in Spanish; one silly slip of the tongue and your position in the argument is compromised.
I was recently dragged through an infuriating ordeal by Vodafone, who, no matter how much I clearly wanted to give them my money, wouldn’t give me internet at home. I called every few days to be told that something hadn’t been filled in or sent correctly; they never called or emailed to tell me. It all culminated with a carefully thought-out, angry phone call. I even made notes and prepared some scathing remarks to lambaste the poor operator on the other end of the line with. Afterwards I was pleased with how convincingly angry I’d been, even though it had been all for nothing and the operator couldn’t have cared less.
Arguments in person require much more tact, and will ultimately be lost if you over-think things. Sometimes it’s just great to let rip without really caring if you’re making mistakes, as Flora The Explorer knows only too well. That’s when you know you’re getting good at Spanish.
Four: Telling funny stories to groups of people
Similarly, if you can make people laugh in Spanish, you’re becoming pretty fluent. There’s nothing more upsetting than seeing your funniest anecdote; your ace in the hole; a guaranteed crowd pleaser, fall flat on its face because you’ve just butchered it to death in another language.
The key is to be relaxed, choose your words carefully and simplify where possible. Your audience should understand that you are trying your best. Once you’ve finally nailed this, and people genuinely laugh at one of your stories (not just a pity laugh), you’ll feel wonderful.
Five: Dreaming in Spanish
Seriously, it happens. A guiri friend of mine even sleep-talks in Spanish, according to his girlfriend, although his repertoire rarely stretches beyond ‘¡Qué pasa!’, ‘¡No me digas! and ‘jodeeeerrrr’, apparently.
Six: Not translating everything from English
This is a huge breakthrough stage, when everyday phrases and interactions start coming naturally to you, and you don’t even realise you’re speaking Spanish; you’re just speaking.
Of course when you become embroiled in an intense discussion you will often find yourself translating from English to Spanish in your head, but this is unavoidable. It may seem like a faraway stage at first but, as Molly tells us on her post about becoming fluent,we all get there in the end, as long as we persevere.
Seven: Still being able to speak Spanish when hungover/stoned
This is the best indication of all. You’ll generally find that you’re able to speak Spanish to a seemingly impeccable level when drunk, but the following day, when even English is difficult to formulate, your Spanish will be cowering in a dark, poisoned corner of your brain somewhere, refusing to come out until you have learned your lesson, meaning you stutter, stumble and ultimately fail if called upon. Eventually– since hangovers are very common among the guiri community in Spain –we all learn to deal with this. We just live with other guiris (…joking!!)
It’s even worse when stoned, at least for most of us. I’d advise against casually toking on a massive spliff if you get paranoid easily, as this will only be made worse if you are required to speak in Spanish among Spaniards, some of whom you don’t really know. I’ve been through this on several occasions, and subsequently felt like the world’s stupidest, brain-dead numbskull as a result. If you’re not at all paranoid when stoned and determined to speak Spanish like a cabbage then with enough practice you’ll be fine.
Eight: Never forgetting
The majority of guiris I know in Granada are English teachers, and at the end of the teaching year (mid June), we all bid farewell to Spain just as it is getting gloriously hot and go home to the UK to carry on working. We don’t come back until the end of September, and for the first couple of years, it’s as though we’ve forgotten all the Spanish we once knew for the first week. It just goes to highlight the significance and usefulness of full language immersion.
After a while, this problem goes away. You just don’t forget anymore; it’s all there, waiting to be reactivated, unless of course you leave your adopted country for a year or two– then you’ll get rusty, but if you’re at a fluent level then you won’t ever want to stop speaking the language, no matter where you are, so this shouldn’t be a problem.
Interestingly, the more of a language you learn, the more elusive ‘total fluency’ seems to be. I wouldn’t consider myself to be completely fluent, not by a long shot, but I am more than happy with my level of Spanish.
Anyone can learn a foreign language, no matter what their age or academic inclination; it’s just a question of commitment and desire.
I’ve lost count of the amount of classes, teachers, textbook and online practice exams that have contributed to my learning of Spanish.
I’d be lying if I said that these approaches haven’t helped– I owe a lot to the traditional method –but after three years it all becomes a bit of a bore. There’s only so much sitting quietly as the teacher explains yet another reason for using the subjunctive I can take, so I quite happily jilted Spanish classes a few months ago when I felt I could take no more.
Last month, however, I was invited by Escuela Delengua to participate in a week-long course, here in Granada, which offered an alternative learning approach– and here’s the best bit –outside of the classroom.
Fun Spanish! Yes!
The course content– environment and sustainability –appealed to me too. Although it’s not something I’m usually too proactive about, I still do my bit: recycling, cutting carbon emissions, taking 6-minute showers (is that quick?) etc, so I was sure I would find the course rewarding for both my Spanish and personal growth.
Further reading revealed that the course would involve educational visits to areas of the Albaicín barrio that I had never been to before and even a trip to La Cortijuela, the Sierra Nevada’s botanical garden. The schedule aligned perfectly with my regular working hours so accepting the proposal was a no-brainer.
Our group was small– six in total –and someone was nearly always sick, late or lost, so we received close attention form the participating teachers and guides throughout the duration of the course.
The week began with a fascinating tour of my own hood, the Albaicín, with stop-offs at numerous but now disused Aljibes– traditional and canalised water depositories that were used during the Moorish era. We learnt about what materials were used to make them, cal (clay) and argamasa (mortar) for example, and the genius thinking behind the construction process. The day was capped off with a visit to Granada’s Centro de Interpretación del Agua– once the nucleus of the city’s water distribution network and now a museum festooned with a beautiful huerto–a huge and extremely flowery garden.
On Tuesday we were taken to a presentation about the ecological damage in the Vega de Granada– a green area within the city –and various methods that have been initiated to help curb it and prevent even more. Then we were shown around a laboratory with a couple of massive microscopes, the purposes of which were explained in great detail, though I have to admit this part went straight over my head. I was far more interested in the ecological goods store we visited afterwards, where I stocked up on organic, dried apple and cinnamon cereal, ginger and lemon biscuits and my favourite Granadina cerveza– Mamooth –which until then I had no idea was brewed ecologically.
It rained on Wednesday, meaning our trip to the Jardín Botánico de La Cortijuela in the Sierra Nevada was regrettably ruined. Not that we knew it until we arrived, when the rain turned into cats and dogs. Juani, our guide, did his best to animate us and we managed about an hour before retreating back to the van but nevertheless took away some fascinating new knowledge of the Sierra Nevada’s botanical past.
The mountain range was formed by the collision of the African and Eurasian tectonic plates during the Tertiary Period, and is really an extension of the Rif mountains in Morocco. Years after the continents parted, during the last ice age, more plant species emmigrated south in order to escape the colder climate in the north. When the climate grew warmer again, these new species were able to survive by taking refuge in the mountains. As a result, there are now around 2,100 plant species in the Sierra Nevada; more than are found in the whole of the British Isles. Typical then, that I can only recall one without researching them– the Barberry Plant, which smells like bubblegum.
On Thursday morning we visited the Diputación de Granada for a talk on renewable energy sources and how, if proper legislation were passed, we could save a colossal amount of energy through ‘cleaner’ and cheaper methods. The building showcases one such method: a solar powered installation comprised of 72 panels, generating around 10-15% of the building’s power.
Friday was my favourite day by far. We began with a visit to the University owned Carmen de la Victoria, another outdoor garden filled with orchards, flowers and fountains. Next we were shown around a typical Moorish home, also in the Carmen style, by the Gitana lady who lived there. It was fascinating to learn how they still lived with the same insulation mechanisms as their ancestors did hundreds of years before them.
Later in the afternoon we visited another lady’s home, this time one with a cave in it! This is not an uncommon household feature in Granada’s Albaicín barrio, and this one had been restored from ruins and converted into a bedroom and even a bar. I would love to say that I lived in a cave. It would be incredibly cool. Literally, as the temperature inside stays at around 17-18ºC all year round due to the clay coating of the rocks.
To finish the week in style, we, along with all other classes at the academy, were invited back to Delengua Academy for a tapa and wine tasting evening. The event was hosted by Granada-based José Mendez Moya, a sole wine trader who produces wine using only ecological harvesting and fermentation methods. Luckily for us, he brought about 40 bottles of the stuff with him, spanning five varieties. All were divine and 100% organic, and the fermentation process of each was explained in detail before being poured, though I must admit my concentration level began to falter as the night wore on…
José Mendez Moya
By the end I had chatted to just about every other student and teacher in the room, and reached the same conclusion with every one of them: Delengua was a fantastic academy and not only taught Spanish in a fun way but went the extra mile to ensure students had a great time outside of class too.
Many thanks to Manuel, José, Juani and José Mendez for their contributions to a week that taught me more than a few neat things about my own backyard!
Delengua offer a range of intensive Spanish courses, ideal to get you off to a winning start if you plan to stay in Spain for a while. Courses last from one week to twelve months and take place all year round. Click here to find out more information.
Learning a foreign language from scratch, as an adult, is a very difficult thing to do, yet something that is fundamentally important if we are to successfully integrate into expat life.
The range of variables that determine how quickly and how well one learns a language is vast. Younger adults, who are recently graduated from University and better acquainted with the core idea of classroom learning, are generally a lot quicker and better placed to apply themselves; they are already well aware of their own, personal learning styles. Older learners – generally speaking – take time to adjust to the learning process and become used to modern teaching methods.
But there are steps we can take before taking that leap into full-on, foreign language immersion, in order to prepare ourselves as best we can.
One: Know your own language
While it is not strictly necessary to know the grammatical theory behind our own tongue, it most certainly helps; anyone who doesn’t know the difference between a past simple and past participle verb form in English is going to have a hard time differentiating the same thing in Spanish. Ask yourself how much you know about English grammar, and if all you’ve got is that a noun is ‘a thing word’, a verb ‘a doing word’ and an adjective ‘a describing word’, then you probably need to hit the books before taking on another language.
Two: Buy an audio-learning CD box set
If the thought of revisiting the theory of English grammar scares or bores you stiff then there are alternatives. For instance, my first six weeks in Spain were aided considerably by a popular audio-learning CD box set called Michel Thomas Spanish for Beginners. The teaching method employed relies entirely on learner autonomy and speaking practice, deliberately avoiding grammatical terminology and confusing rubrics. Michel – whose life history is utterly compelling – breaks down the language into its component parts and focuses on language building, one chunk at a time.
Crucially, the CD features two other learners – one rather good and the other annoyingly bad – who, as your virtual classmates, are with you every step of the way. The obvious difference in their aptitude is doubtless intended, so as to give you a standard to aim for and another not to fall below, though it does not feel staged in such a way (I’d imagine there a few cases of trial and error before they get it right).
If you are attentive and committed enough (and able to put up with incessant gum clicking), the method works wonders for your confidence. However, until you immerse yourself within actual, real-life Spanish, there is only so far you can go. I would highly recommend the box set, which is available on Amazon for as little as £7, to anyone looking to get a head start on Spanish before moving to Spain, though learners who prefer visual aids may not find it as useful. The box set is also available in eleven other languages.
Three: Make some Spanish friends
Spaniards are everywhere, especially given the current woeful economic climate in Spain, so if you haven’t already got some Spanish friends, you won’t need to look very far to find some. The easiest and most obvious way is to just ask around; one of your friends is bound to know someone. Even better if you’re at University; there’ll almost certainly be some sort of Spanish society where fellow students would love to teach you some basics of Spanish. Spaniards are very proud of their language and I find that they are especially enthusiastic about it when they are in a minority. This method is obviously useful for learning some naughty words and phrases to equip yourself with too.
Four: Buy a Pocket Dictionary
This is something I neglected to do before moving to Spain, and I regretted it big time. I now live in Granada, where there are plenty of libraries that stock decent, up-to-date dictionaries, but initially I lived in a much smaller town where I couldn’t find anything suitable. The ones I came across were always either too big to carry around, lacking contextualised examples or inadequately cross-referenced. I went home at Christmas and picked up a Collins Gem Pocket Spanish Dictionary for about £6. It made a huge difference, and it still lives in my backpack (which I take everywhere with me) to this day, all dusty and dog-eared.
Five: Watch Spanish films with English subtitles or vice-versa
It’s best to start by adding Spanish subtitles to any English-speaking film you want to watch. This can be annoying at first, but try not to let it be a distraction, rather an aid in helping you become cognizant of the similarities between written English and Spanish. This may even benefit you on a subconscious level.
The next step is to watch Spanish films with English subtitles, though again, don’t allow the Spanish to go over your head, focusing instead on what’s being said and what you’re reading. This will help your listening skills. I’d highly recommend La Mala Educación (Almodóvar), Amores Perros, Y Tu Mamá Tambiénand The Motorcycle Diaries, though there really are hundreds of brilliant movies to choose from. Maybe work your way up to Almodóvar though; his stuff can be very peculiar.
Finally – if you’re feeling up to it – perhaps have a stab at watching a Spanish film with Spanish subtitles. If you can manage that then you really are miles ahead with your Spanish before you even arrive in Spain.
I’ll tell you a secret: I am terrible at setting myself personal goals. Worse still, I am even more terrible at fulfilling them. I suppose this is because I tend not to actually write anything down, rather choosing to set them to one side in my invariably forgetful brain.
Since my official leap into the blogosphere I’ve come across various posts embracing this sort of topic, and in truth often found them to be a little too self-interested for my liking, but recently I think I’ve come to understand the usefulness of them. Being open about this sort of stuff not only serves as a continuous reminder of what you want for yourself but also invites valued encouragement. At least that’s the theory of it anyway. In practice? Well, let’s wait and see…
One: Study Spanish properly and pass an exam
Highs and lows have been aplenty during my three-year tussle with Spanish – the highs generally featuring around May/June time when I reflect on another year’s progress (or when blind drunk and I am inexplicably able to speak perfect Spanish), the lows about this time of year, when I realise how much I’ve forgotten over the summer.
All in all I think I can be proud of how far I’ve come, though for all my efforts I’ve never actually gained an official qualification. At this stage one would be integral to my career prospects, so this year I’ll be taking on either the B2 (upper–intermediate) or the C1 (advanced) exam. That means el subjunctivo is going to be my new best friend for the next few months but hey, at least there won’t be any more lows.
Two: Learn another language
Meanwhile, I want to at least get to grips with another foreign language. During my recent month-long jaunt through Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and Hungary, I was reminded of my hunger to learn language – any language – and my unshakable frustration at not being able to communicate with non-English speaking locals.
So, it’s going to be either French (already ordered a copy of the Michel Thomas Beginner’s French audio box set) or Croatian, which is understood in most other Slavic countries and would be useful for when I return next year to fuel my Croatian festival addiction. Wish me luck.
Three: Visit ten unseen Spanish cities/towns
Spain is massive, and there is so much of it that I still haven’t seen. Essentially, I want to go everywhere, but that might be a tad too ambitious in just one year. Ten seems a reasonable figure – with Salamanca, Valencia and Logroño being the absolute must-sees of the list. Any less obvious suggestions would be most welcome.
Four: Get better at techy stuff
With blogging comes the inevitable requisite to understand a thing or two about technology. I’m sure many a blogger out there can relate to this. Coding, for example, is just pure gobbledygook to me, and no matter how many times I trawl through WordPress.com’s support forums looking for say – how to make my font bigger or how to add a slider to my homepage – I can never figure it out even though the instructions are ‘super easy’. At times I think I’ve got it, but then I am plagued by doubt and worry that I will mutilate my blog into a permanently disfigured monster, thus, nothing ever changes.
Then there is HTML, ‘plugins’, SEO optimisation: all things I want to understand better. So I’m going to take an online course in web development, or something similar. I’ve done some research and found sites like this, but again, any other suggestions are most welcome.
Five: Be a better cook!
One thing I really haven’t developed very much since coming to Spain is my culinary skill set. I’ve a few winning fares in my locker –the brilliantly simple tomate rallado for instance, or the timeless tostada de beans (joking) – but I think my problem is that there are just too many great cooks around me, wherever I go. I’m the sort of guy who is put in charge of nibbles or chopping carrots at dinner parties, and even then I am watched carefully.
I should mention, however, that I recently took on – and nailed – the classic Spanish Tortilla when couch surfing in Croatia. I was asked to cook something Spanish and this felt like the simplest yet most authentic option. So thank you Lauren of Spanish Sabores for your excellent step-by-step recipe, the success of which has spurred me on to add yet more Spanish sabores to my feeble repertoire of foodstuff.
So, this year I’m going to either trade English classes for Spanish cooking classes, or – failing that – take on one dish at a time solo, using Lauren’s wise words and all the other marvellous Spanish foodie blogs out there, such as Anne’s Gambas & Grits. Tostada de beans will take some beating though.
I’ll never forget my first night in Spain. It was the start of a new chapter, and one that I had undertaken completely by myself. Initially I had been excited, ready to throw myself in at the deep end. Hours into my new life though, this excitement had abruptly transformed into a sinking feeling of loss and isolation. Gripped with doubt and anxiety, I didn’t sleep a wink. It was the loneliest night of my life.
Over the next few days, I came to realise that everything and everyone in my life had become part of my past, and although there would inevitably be visits and reunions of sorts down the line, I was essentially staring down a path filled with uncertainty for the very first time: I’d graduated, I’d done my gap and I’d done a TEFL. This was it. Adulthood. Career. Responsibility. Life.
Granted, I was glad of the heat – leaving all that rain and gloom behind was gratifying to say the least – and bursting to learn and thus be able to speak Spanish, something which I had naively assumed possible in under one year, but at that point neither of these considerations could cheer me up.
To make matters worse I couldn’t understand anything. It was culture shock, pure and simple. And I had been so sure I’d take to Spain like a duck to water. I’d lived abroad in Canada for nine months before, but that was with English-speaking people in an English-speaking country – Spain was evidently going to be a much tougher nut to crack and this duck was flapping, quacking and sinking fast.
Meeting people was the biggest struggle; I couldn’t speak Spanish and was completely dependent on other newbie English teachers, many of whom I had to pretend to get along with in order to have a social life. In fact, if I hadn’t been enjoying my new job so much I could quite easily have given up and gone home in those first few weeks. I didn’t though. I stuck with it, and eventually I was rewarded for my hardiness. I was learning Spanish, speaking Spanish (albeit the same Friday-night drunken ramblings on most occasions), soon making new friends and still loving the job. By March, I was totally settled, and ready to explore more of Spain. I was happy.
Now, almost three years down the line I am temporarily back in Britain – London, more specifically, where I am busying myself as an intern for a certain tabloid newspaper. It’s quite the transition, Granada to London, particularly after six uninterrupted months of the comparatively quiet Spanish life. Yes there’s the stuffy tube, relentless traffic and piss-poor weather (though I should point out that this last week has been glorious) but there’s more to it than that.
‘Reverse culture shock’ is what Google’s calling it. Frankly, this probably isn’t what it is; I’m not in shock, and I went through the same transition last year. So no, definitely not that. I am, however, feeling increasingly alienated from my life in the UK, which I am only ever reminded of when I come back. Things change, people move on, get new jobs, get married, have kids, and it’s weird for me. I don’t lament the ‘good old days’ or any of that nonsense, I just feel as though my life in the UK is stuck on pause, and each year I want to spend less time here so I feel like I’m progressing again.
Essentially, I’m worried that my being in Spain, which I love, is driving me away from home – something I didn’t sign up for. But now, after more or less three years in Spain, it’s honestly beginning to feel a lot like home, and I’m not ready to abandon that yet.
But that’s a good thing I think. And everybody else I talk to about it seems to agree.
Anyhow, this post wasn’t meant to be all maudlin and soul-baring. Nor is it, I hope. I was supposed to give a few light-hearted tips on how to re-adjust to your homeland. Oh well. I’ll save that one for next time.
Expats, have you ever experienced culture shock or ‘reverse culture shock’?