Learning a language: My journey in Spanish

Have a good trip : what we all hope for our language efforts  

Have a good trip: what we all hope for our language efforts

I struggled mightily to learn Spanish. I truly believe that it’s a worthwhile effort for everyone. I think that everyone can honestly benefit from learning to communicate in a second language, and that the world opens up in a new way once you can manage it.

But language learning, for most of us, is a long and difficult slog.

This post tells the story of how I slogged through the grammar and vocabulary memorization through the various stages of my education. But here’s the quick breakdown of tips I gathered along the way:

  • Use flashcards for memorizing vocabulary
  • Watch familiar movies with voice-over and English subtitles
  • Watch those same movies with voice-over AND subtitles in the language you’re learning
  • Read your favorite children’s books in that language (libraries are great for this)
  • Get children’s/young adult books on tape in the language
  • Find audio lessons—podcasts are great for this
  • Get a tutor
  • Travel for language immersion studies

There are so many resources out there nowadays. The best thing you can do for your language goals is to memorize a bunch of vocabulary (there’s no other way to learn nouns—you’ve just got to know the words), and then find ways to listen and see how sentences should look. You probably can’t explain why you choose certain words or what makes a good sentence in English. You’re not thinking “OK, I need an article, an adjective, then a noun, then a verb, then an adverb…” You just think that you want to say “The yellow dog wandered slowly…”

The goal in studying a language is to learn what sounds right. To learn a language, you have to find the way to express yourself based on how other people talk and write in that language.

I started Spanish comparatively early, with classes in late elementary and middle school. I took Spanish in high school and the early start meant I took AP Spanish my junior year, although I only passed with a 3, meaning that I essentially tested out of 1.5 years of college-level Spanish.

I can’t say I ever really enjoyed the learning process. I wanted to speak Spanish, but I’m a words person. I’m used to being able to communicate clearly, and to have language come easily. To suddenly try to write the most basic of sentences or (much worse) carry on a conversation in a second language was hugely alienating for me. I tripped over every word, and struggled with tenses and gendered nouns and irregular verb forms. I learned, but it did not flow.

I thought this would improve in college.

It didn’t.

A Bachelor of Arts degree requires basic skills in a second language. Essentially, it means you have to complete two years of university level language study. I was lucky, and started with that AP credit to launch the process. But that first day of Spanish class in an overcrowded room and with a harried graduate student trying to steer hostile students through mock conversations felt like the worst days of middle school Spanish classes. I was not happy. And I felt I was not improving.

So I promised myself that I would put my Spanish to use. If I could make it through the year, I would go somewhere to speak Spanish. I wanted to study abroad for part of the summer, and after considering the formal university route, I decided to postpone a full study abroad to later in my studies, but to take a month of my summer for Spanish immersion study… somewhere. After requesting advice from every possible source, my mom’s best friend’s son’s best friend recommended a pair of language schools in Guatemala. The tuition rates were laughably low by US standards, but the school boasted excellent reviews, community involvement, and ethical practice.

Studying in Guatemala, one-on-one with my Spanish instructor (2007).

Studying in Guatemala, one-on-one with my Spanish instructor (2007).

The first time I traveled alone was to Guatemala for three weeks of study: two in Quetzaltenango, which is a mid-sized town, and one in a rural area. I lived with a host family, had one-on-one language classes, learned traditional weaving, drank the most exquisite hot chocolate I have ever tasted, and had my first encounter with the power of a second language. I communicated. I learned. I navigated strange places by myself. I resolved a massive banking problem and experienced homesickness more powerful than any other episode of my life (the kind of homesickness that leaves you huddled in a corner with an English novel, a precious rice crispy treat, and the Backstreet Boys on repeat, binging on the familiar). 

When you’re in class trying to learn a second language in a classroom, you’re surrounded by other people who also don’t speak the language. Learn the vocabulary, study for the tests, and do your best not to stress out about oral presentations or exams. But if you really want to learn the language, you’ll probably have to do it at least partly on your own. And it’s worth it. If you can get far enough into a language, things suddenly start making sense. That’s why you should start with some audio and video, to start training yourself to hear the patterns of how people talk. When I was studying for the AP Spanish test, I read Ramona and her Mother with the Spanish and English books side-by-side. And I read the first Harry Potter book in Spanish. I got the children’s book Caps for Sale on tape in Spanish, and listened to that story over and over. I hadn’t discovered podcasts at that time, but these days I “practice” my Spanish by listening to Spanish-language news and political podcasts from all over the Spanish-speaking world.

It wasn’t until I traveled that I discovered the power of a second language. I had opened myself to conversations with people on a whole continent. By the time I did my official study abroad in Valdivia, Chile for the spring quarter of my sophomore year, I was already at a fluid speaking level. I could interact and make friends. I could talk about ideas and politics and people’s lives. I could ask questions. I could be myself.

Whatever stage of language learning you’re currently at, try to push yourself to find a couple of non-class venues for improving your skills. If you’re in a university town there are probably English language learners looking for language swaps. There are increasing opportunities for formal and informal tutoring online in various languages. There’s an entire cultural landscape in this new language: sports, music, art, travel, TV, business. Anything you’re interested in, there’s probably a way to engage that interest in this second language. If you want an excuse to watch brainless TV, tune in for a soap opera or game show. It’s all out there, it’s just up to you to find it.


¡Buena suerte!


Note: If anyone is interested in studying Spanish in Guatemala, I’d be more than happy to recommend places to study. And if anyone wants to swap travel stories from that area, I’d be thrilled to chat about it! Feel free to drop me an email at katie@mycollegeadvice.org or tweet @kdcollegeadvice


What language learning tips have worked well for you? What have you found to be particularly difficult? Let me know here!