AKA: Stop Laughing at me – It’s Hard to Learn a Language!

in 2014, I met an Armenian girl through the couch-surfing website (Hi, Anna!). She spoke seven languages, five fluently, and was teaching English in the city. We met up with a mutual friend, a Polish girl who also spoke four or five languages, and went to meet some friends in a café to have some dinner.

I sat at one end of the table and as the conversation flowed, I took note of what I was witnessing. Nationality wise, we had Italian, Armenian, Polish, Russian, Spanish, Irish and English (me) sat down. Everyone else spoke at least one other language (The Irish guy was fluent in Spanish as he had lived there for 5 years), and as people laughed and joked, they all had to turn to me to translate everything into English; all of them switching between English and their various other languages with apparent ease.

I remember feeling quite embarrassed about this, but unfortunately, rather than motivate me to improve my, at the time, non-existent Spanish, it did just the opposite – I was horrified by the scale of the task ahead of me.

“If there is an English person who speaks a second language, it’s because they wanted to learn, not because they had to.”

I have stated this to my non English friends on more than one occasion, and unfortunately is something I believe to be painfully true. Yes, we should take responsibility for our own learning, but when I was at school we didn’t get exposure to our first language until year 8 (French) and then German in year 9 (I think). At 12 years old, I feel this is too late compared to the age other countries start teaching English [I don’t know if this is still true, I’ve not been to school for…a few years] but I don’t believe this to be the main problem.
We were never, at any stage of our education, made aware of the importance of learning a second language. Truth be told, as native English speakers, we don’t have to; as a travelling English speaker, it’s difficult to find a city in which another English speaker could not be found. Whether that be at hotel desks, shops or local schools. English is the language of the internet, Hollywood and business. Most people know of the old English stereotype, in which an English speaker will just speak slower and louder until they are understood… Stereotypes exist for a reason!

However, despite all this, with all the advancements in technology, not only is travelling safer than ever before, but learning new languages is also easier with the plethora of language learning apps, podcasts and websites available. Google translate is my favourite app on my phone – if I don’t understand a word I can have a quick search and get a general idea of the meaning, and try to learn it for next time.

“It’s important to always learn from our mistakes, however, it’s even better to learn from other people’s mistakes so we don’t have to make them at all.”

One of my old managers said this to me a few years back, and it is with this in mind that I wanted to write this article. Learning a new language can be exciting and fulfilling, but it is damn difficult. So, I present to you my dutifully prepared list;

F*** ups I made/am making/will probably continue to make while learning Spanish:

Carlos, my first Spanish teacher, in a bookshop/bar in Valencia 2014

A) Stop Comparing Yourself to Others:

This might be my fundamental problem, and is one I am still struggling to overcome. It is very easy to become disheartened when watching a friend change language as easily as you change TV channels. It doesn’t matter if they could speak fluently after just three months, we all learn at our own speeds. I can’t compare myself to ‘seven-languages Anna’, or anyone else, and I have to accept that I will learn slower than some, and faster than others. As long as the end result is the same, that is the important part.

B) Find Your Motivation:

As I mentioned earlier, I feel a big reason that many English speakers don’t speak a second language conversationally, is the lack of necessity and therefore a lack of motivation. I know myself that I am terrible at trying to motivate myself when I’m back in the UK to sit down and study Spanish. If you have a target to focus on, and a reason for learning, it will help to push you past that lethargy and motivate you; you need work out why it is you want to learn the language – is it out of interest? A necessity for work? To help you move country? Once you have that, you’ve taken a big step.

C) Set a Realistic Target:

I’m not going to be giving a TED speech in Spanish year. I accept that. But for a long time, I was my own worst enemy, wondering why I would forget words and phrases I knew. This would just frustrate me causing me to then just give up completely, before wondering why my Spanish wasn’t improving. Funny that. I was expecting to become fluent without putting the work in. However, I now know my target – it will be knowing that when I arrive in Mexico next year, I am able to sort out registering, applying for jobs and medical issues with minimal fuss. Don’t get me wrong, I could become fluent quicker, but I live with English housemates and I teach English, so I don’t have that immersion around the house that would undoubtedly help speed things along.

D) Don’t be Afraid to Make Mistakes

This was a big factor for me, and it’s something I’m still struggling to overcome. I HATE it when friends just say “come on then, speak Spanish. You do lessons/you’ve been here long enough, (insert a various ridiculous assumption for why I should speak the language like a native).” This just has the opposite effect. Something else that I still dislike, is that people will laugh if you make a mistake. I’ve been refusing to speak any Spanish to some of my Spanish friends (*cough* Brenda cough) because when I first tried, I just got howls of laughter, which immediately put up my defence.

However, I’ve had a couple of instances where things have gone a tad awry; When I very first arrived in Spain, speaking not much more than ‘Hola’, I was trying to ask for a drinks menu in a bar, and the bartender looked a tad confused, before returning with a roll of toilet paper. Not entirely sure what went wrong there.Secondly, in my Spanish lesson, I was trying to say “You are brushing your hair with my brush.” Now, my Spanish teacher is lovely, and I didn’t know anything was wrong until she started speaking about the importance of pronouncing the vowel sounds correctly, and what I’d actually said was “You are brushing your hair with my penis.”

It’s not just me that makes mistakes! Menus around Spain are filled with quite humorous translations.

E) Take Lessons!

You would think this is obvious. However, it took me far too long to actually start Spanish lessons. For a while, it was predominantly the cost that put me off, although I should really have just drunk less beer and invested in at least one lesson a week. Anyhow, I eventually saved up some money and invested in some intensive group classes. I had a couple of weeks fairly free over the summer, and figured that I would start with an intensive beginners course, before doing private lessons. I think I paid about €280 for two weeks of 20 hours, so 40 hours in total. Since this, I have been doing 4 hours of private lessons a week, along with using various apps to try and improve my Spanish.

F) Make use of language exchanges

When learning a language, there really is no substitution for speaking to a real person. It’s fine knowing every colour of the Dulex* colour chart in Spanish, but you have to be able to talk to people as well. My problem was, when I was at a café, bar or restaurant, I had no problems, but I had never practiced an actual conversation meaning that unless I was ordering a coffee, my Spanish was useless. Most cities have various language exchange/inter-cambio events, whether it’s through Facebook, Couchsurfing or other various websites. Make use of them, and try to practice real live conversations. Try to also avoid what I ended up doing the first few times, and just purely helping others with their English.

*For those that don’t get the reference, they have over 4,500 colours apparently.

G) Enjoy it

The last, but most important note to make, is that you have to enjoy learning a new language. Yes, it can be tough, frustrating, merciless and embarrassing but I promise it won’t be for nothing.

Learning a new language opens up a whole new world of possibilities as you discover places you would never have found and meet people you would never have met or been able to speak to before. I know as well as others, that learning a language can feel like climbing a Everest while there’s an avalanche, but once you get to the point of being able to start communicating with others, even at a most basic level, it makes it all worth it.

I grasped the important Spanish quickly!

Embrace the language, love the experiences it brings, and enjoy the ride.

What languages do you speak? Which are you trying to learn? Do you remember your first time speaking in a second language or the first mistake you made?

Tell me your stories in the comments section below.

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