Will I ever speak Spanish? That is the question I asked myself every day when I was living in the Dominican Republic.
First of all, let me tell you a little bit about me. I am from England, and despite having travelled quite a lot, I had never seriously studied any other language. I studied French at school but I really didn’t pay attention as I never thought it would be important to me. I also did a couple of Spanish classes in high school, but once again, I didn’t think I would ever need to learn.
I couldn’t have been more wrong!
Many years on from my school life, I had the opportunity to live and work in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, where the official (and in some parts, only) language is Spanish! How I wish I had studied at school!
I arrived there in December 2012 and at that point, other than a couple of basic phrases, I didn’t speak any Spanish. I didn’t want my lack of knowledge of the language to stop me taking the great opportunity I had been offered so instead I took a chance. I decided it was better to say yes to the challenge and learn later. In fact, I saw it as a positive, what better way to learn a new language than to be thrown into the deep end! I just had no idea how difficult it would be!
“Surely you just listen and learn, right?”
This is what I thought, and for the first couple of months it’s exactly what I was doing. Sure, it helps you with the basics, hello, how are you, where is the … etc etc however, it doesn’t allow you to construct a sentence. When there is something that you really need to say, you just don’t know how to and it’s very frustrating!
I found myself listening all day to people talking and very slowly understanding a little bit of what was going on, but I couldn’t talk, at all. I said less words in three months in the office there than I would say in 3 days in my office in England!
Over the weeks, and months, I became more and more frustrated, there would be days where I would feel great because I managed to have a conversation, and then another day I wouldn’t be able to say something really simple and I would be back to square one. This circle was getting too much for me, sometimes I just wanted to give up and go home!
Then I decided that I had to give it a real shot, I couldn’t give up. I hadn’t been studying and although I didn’t really want to, I knew it was the only way. I found a Spanish teacher, and began taking classes.
Then I started learning the grammar…
You can learn a language without the grammar, if you are a good listener and naturally quick at picking up phrases however, if you want to learn properly, much to my disappointment, it’s all in the grammar!
Every form of every verb, every tense, past, present, future, conditional, etc, and then direct pronouns and indirect pronouns …. and many many more parts that I still haven’t even looked at yet. I felt like I was hitting my head against a wall some days. When I was young, I thought that learning to drive was the most difficult thing I’d ever done, but this surpassed it!
There are many people I know who take to learning a language such as Spanish very easily, many of them tell me it’s easy in fact, which is the last thing I wanted to hear! From what I have seen, and from what my teacher told me, the people learning Spanish quickly are those that already have a second language. For example, a French student who already speaks fluent English, can learn Spanish faster. This is because a big part of learning a language is actually knowing how to learn a language! That sounds a bit crazy but it’s very true. If you’ve done it before you know what the steps are, where the difficulties are and what you need to do to get over them.
Most native English speakers have never learned another language, therefore, the whole process is completely new. It’s not just about learning some new words and phrases, it’s about how to structure your learning and how to study.
After a few months of taking Spanish classes and studying at home I started to see some progress.
Things that didn’t make sense to me were slowly coming together, and, I was able to understand how to learn those things that don’t make sense to me right away.
It’s not easy, and, it requires a lot of time and effort. I left the Dominican Republic after almost a year there and at that point I was able to hold a decent conversation and understand 80% of what was being said. Since then I haven’t had much opportunity to practice my Spanish although whenever I get the chance I do enjoy it! I really need to take some more lessons so I can build on where I left off.
So what’s stopping me? Well, what makes it difficult is that I’m now living in Bulgaria and have started taking Bulgarian lessons … I need to write a whole new post about that!
In the meantime, I use a few methods to keep learning Spanish at home, if like me, you want to practice you may find some of these tips helpful!
1. Listen to the radio.
Listen online to the radio in Spanish… you probably won’t understand everything but it’s great for picking up the pronunciation of words and for general listening practice.
2. Watch Spanish movies.
Watch Spanish movies … if you can watch with subtitles it’s good but it’s actually even better if you watch without as it will make you pay more attention!
Study as much as you can. There are so many ways you can study at home, for example, I read books on grammar, I write short articles in Spanish and look up the new words I don’t know in the dictionary and I read a local Spanish newspaper online, again, looking up the words that are new to me.
4. Read a Spanish book.
Read a book in Spanish that you have already read in English. For example, I have read Twilight by Stephanie Meyer in English and enjoyed it, so my teacher recommended I read it now in Spanish. It doesn’t matter that I don’t know all of the words because I already know the story but it’s great for getting used to how sentences are constructed.
5. Try Duolingo.
Last but definitely not least, I discovered Duolingo, it’s a fantastic free online programme to learn languages. They currently offer Spanish, English, French, Italian, German, Portuguese, Danish and Irish! Unlike some other free websites I’ve tried, which can be full of “buy now to upgrade to the full course” type ads, this is brilliant! It has a very structured pattern that you follow by completing levels. Each level has a variety of stages and if you’re confident with them you can take a test to complete the level faster. The “Skills Tree” allows you to view your progress and you can also connect with friends to compare levels and leave messages of encouragement! It’s amazing! I strongly recommend Duolingo if you want to learn a new language, of course, as with everything you need to put in the time and effort but if you do, and you follow the course, it will be really beneficial. It helped me so much to practice Spanish grammar and increased my vocabulary. If you do try Duolingo I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. Maybe we can connect on there and motivate each other too!
Have another suggestion? Let me know what’s worked for you!