Learning another language is not easy. Although I started studying Spanish at the age of 14 during my freshman year of high school, it wasn’t until my semester abroad in Spain eight years later that I felt “casi con fluidez” (almost fluent). The year before I studied in Spain, I had spent the semester abroad in Costa Rica. While my language skills certainly improved immensely in Costa Rica by the time I returned to my native home, my month of intensive, “boot camp” style language and other classes had left me so mentally drained that by the time I began my internship at an English language newspaper, I unfortunately only spoke Spanish with my host family and my rather limited interactions with other locals; all of the other internees were Americans. In Spain I resolved that I would greatly mejorar my Spanish speaking abilities and I truly did-case in point, I bought an unabridged copy of Jane Austen’s Orgullo y Prejuicio (Pride and Prejudice) in Spanish and read it from front to back. While it took me almost a month to read it, it still was a major accomplishment all the same, seeing as how it was not only a book in a foreign language,but also one that had been written in early 19th century English.
1.) Make every effort to speak the language. I simply can’t stress this enough. Although you may think your vocabulary is too limited and you don’t know how to speak in anything but the present tense, none of this matters in terms of learning another language. The more you speak the language, the more your brain will retain and the less hard it becomes having to translate words or phrases in your head before speaking or writing. Although there are still a couple of tenses in Spanish that either 1. I do have top stop and think how to conjugate it, or 2. I’m not sure what the translation would be in English so I’m not about to use it in Spanish, some practice at speaking the language is better than not speaking the language at all. Unless you’re speaking before the Real Academia Espanola (Royal Spanish Academy) or its equivalent, no one is going to care if you used the pluperfect tense instead of the pluperfect progressive tense (and I’m guessing that many of you will not even know what either of these tenses are).
2.) Ditch your fellow native speakers and start hanging out with the locals. If you put a group of strangers in a room together, those who share a common language are going to have more in common with each other than those that don’t. It’s not rocket science, it’s just how individuals function. While in Spain I made every effort to speak the language-in classes, at home with my host family (this was needed as neither my parents nor brother spoke any English), and with my roommate. I felt especially proud of the last one since outside of the centro where classes were, there were no professores around making sure we were speaking in Spanish or breaking the language pledge all participants had to sign before coming to Spain by speaking in English. My roommate’s Spanish was better than mine, yet I knew more vocabulary so we definitely benefited each other. Unfortunately, when I volunteered in Mexico after graduating from college, it had been more than a year since I studied in Spain, so my language skills had definitely regressed. I also did not make nearly as much of an effort to speak Spanish there since I was surrounded by other American volunteers and a lot of the native staff was anxious to practice their English. When you’re not in an environment in which you can speak the language all the time like I had in Spain, some if not a lot of the fluidity of speaking a foreign tongue is lost.
3.) Listen to the local news. I’ve found that watching the local news on television is one of the best ways to study a language. The reporters will be speaking in a “clean” version of the language (i.e. without any traces of an accent or dialect). Consequently it will be a lot easier for you to understand what is being said or at least to catch words and know what they mean. Every morning in Costa Rica my host mom had the local news on and at my host family’s house in Spain, the television was constantly on except during the siesta, so I would often sit out in the sala (living room) just to listen to the news reports,. The only problem is that sometimes reporters can speak extremely fast.
4.) Translate a newspaper article. In one of my college Spanish classes, each week the professor had us find an article in a Spanish newspaper and then read and translate it. Although the process could be tedious especially since I always seemed to locate articles in which I was having to look up every other word due to regional variations, it was still excellent practice. I do go onto websites like BBC Mundo (the Spanish version of the BBC News website) and find articles to read and translate, but I don’t do this nearly as much as I should. No, you are probably not going to become a professional translator, but being able to read a language is just as important as speaking it.
5.) Realize the innumerable benefits that come with knowing a second language. Except in the United States and in northern Europe (at least until I open my mouth and my accent reveals my nationality), I stand out in many of the places I travel. As such, I know I’m a prime target for being possibly ripped off whether in a store or restaurant. On two occasions, one in Spain, the other in Mexico, I was “taken” at local restaurants and said as such to the staff. These were events from years ago, so I don’t fully remember the outcome. However, I knew enough Spanish in each instance to argue and express my discontent over what they were trying to charge me. I was not just another dumb American who only spoke English, I was arguing with locals in their language. Many people are intimidated by the idea of traveling to a foreign country where they don’t speak the language and yet, if you know even a little, it will benefit you immensely. So the next time you are becoming frustrated over not knowing enough vocabulary, not knowing the conjugations for all of the tenses, remind yourself that you’re off to a great start and just keep at it.