Written by Karrie
For all of my adult life, if someone had granted me one wish I would have wished that I knew another language. This seems like a silly wish because learning another language is completely within my control, but nevertheless this is something that I have always wanted. So now that I am living in a country where another language is spoken, it is my opportunity to make this dream a reality. With the extra time I have due to not being stressed out and constantly doing job-related work at home, I am doing everything I can to learn Spanish!
Fun Fact: We are living in the region that is considered to be the “birthplace” of the Spanish language. In San Millán de la Cogolla, La Rioja there are two monasteries, Yuso and Suso, where the words of the language were written for the first time. We have not yet visited them, but we hope to in the near future!
After getting settled into our daily life in Spain, Elle and I decided to enroll in Spanish classes through the La Rioja Spanish School. We took classes for three months and gained a solid foundation of basic Spanish skills. We then made the decision that we wanted a more individualized learning experience so we are now taking Spanish lessons together from a private teacher once a week and feel he is pushing us further by exposing us to more complex grammatical and syntactic elements of the language than we were learning previously, which is exactly what we wanted!
Another popular activity in Spain is to participate in an “intercambio” or language exchange with a native English/Spanish speaker. I am lucky enough to have been connected with a lovely woman who wanted to improve her (*already amazing*) English skills. So she and I have a weekly date where we meet at a café or bookshop to practice speaking in English and Spanish. My Spanish skills are nowhere near her English skills, so sometimes I feel that it’s a bit of an unfair exchange, with me getting the better end of the deal! Not only is she helpful in answering my questions and correcting my many mistakes, but we have also become genuine friends who enjoy each other’s company.
When I first found out that I would be working about a 30-minute drive outside of Logroño, I was not thrilled. But now that it is part of my daily routine, I have come to really enjoy my commute to work. I am lucky enough to be a part of the carpool group in my school with many amazing teachers and find that it is the perfect opportunity to work on my Spanish! I have different drivers for each ride to and from school, so hearing many different speakers and conversing with a variety of people is very helpful for practicing my Spanish skills. Everyone is very encouraging for me to speak Spanish and are very forgiving of my many mistakes and long pauses to find the words I want to say.
When learning a language, whether it is your first language or fourth language, there is a silent period when the brain is taking in the phonetic structures and overall prosody of the language. I continually tell myself that I’m still in my silent period because I find that just intently listening to people speak Spanish is very helpful for me. It not only helps me hear the pronunciation, but I am able to understand more of what people are saying every day.
One of the best things that I have found for seeing how the language is put together and used cohesively is reading a book in Spanish. The book I am currently reading is a chapter book at about a second to fourth grade reading level and has a lot of visual supports (pictures) throughout it. I read through a page and get the gist of what is happening and then go back and translate sentences I don’t understand using Google Translate and make notes throughout the book about new vocabulary and syntactic structures or verb tenses.
This may sound like a no-brainer, but it is actually pretty difficult although quite helpful—forcing myself to think in Spanish. The key to learning a language well is to get to the point where you bypass the translation in the brain from, in my case, English to Spanish. For example, when I hear the word “Hola” now, I do not think, “oh she is saying ‘hello’ to me.” I simply know that “hola” is a friendly greeting and I bypass the translation of it to English. Numbers are a concrete system for doing this because when hearing a number said in Spanish, I can bypass thinking of the English word and can just visualize the written symbol of the number itself. I also try to have inner-dialogues with myself in Spanish, when I am walking somewhere or getting ready in the morning. Of course during these silent conversations, my fluency is near perfect and I don’t have any word-finding issues! If only it was that smooth when I am actually conversing with a Spanish-speaker.
The Quad has started to schedule regular café hangouts each week, where we only speak Spanish for at least one hour and practice using a variety of verbs in sentences to work on improving our conjugation skills. This time is helpful because there is not a lot of embarrassment or pressure to speak perfectly with other novice Spanish-speakers. Elle and I have found that we are great balance for each other because she is a whiz at remembering and using vocabulary she hears during day-to-day activities and I am good at reading about grammatical concepts and putting them into practice.
I also have a variety of materials that I am using daily in my Spanish studying, including a book for Spanish Grammar that has exercises in it; Duolingo, a free app on the iPad that is great for basic foundational vocabulary and grammar; a huge stack of verb flashcards that I made; a Spanish journal that I’m keeping track of “must-know” vocabulary and grammar concepts; and Word Reference, a free translation app that gives a lot of detailed information about individual words.
Once I am slightly better able to understand Spanish spoken at a normal rate, I plan on starting to listen to podcasts in Spanish, such as the CoffeeBreak Spanish and the Duolingo Spanish podcasts.
The process is slow but I am determined to become at least conversationally fluent, (my goal is to achieve a B-2 level of Spanish). I have found that learning a new language has not only made me appreciate being fluent in my native language but has made me think about English from perspectives that I never have before, which the speech-language pathologist in me really enjoys!