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.
Here’s a post I wrote a while ago about how ‘usted’ differs from normal Spanish and my experience using it in a very heated situation.
Three: Arguing competently
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.
Guiris on a hill!
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.