I often get asked the question: “How long did it take you to speak Spanish properly?” I usually try not to answer with: “How long is a piece of string?” I don´t want to be facetious when answering a genuine query, but the truth is that there is no real answer.
I arrived in Spain in my mid-thirties having taken O levels in Spanish and German and an A level in French nearly twenty years before. As I had spent a couple of months in France in my teens I felt I could more or less get by in that language, but Spanish and German were still mere theory. The only advantage for me with both languages was that they appeared to be phonetically written, so I could at least have a shot at pronouncing them understandably. As I enjoyed languages, even though I wasn’t especially good at them, I had also had a stab at learning Italian, which got me into the Latin frame of mind a bit more, but that was about it.
I arrived in Santander in northern Spain to work as a teacher, so I quickly came into contact with the spoken language and had to have a go at communicating straight away. Two years later I set up my own English academy in an Asturian village. By that time I could say quite a bit but still had a lot of trouble totally understanding what was said back to me. I would use all the strategies I now recommend to my students – guesswork being high on the list, pretending to understand if you don’t think it’s very important anyway, asking for repetition, using body language, smiling, laughing and of course accepting that you’re going to get a lot of things wrong a lot of the time.
Over the years the situation has improved enormously, but I still consider myself a student of the language. I have never stopped learning new words and expressions and I still misunderstand what I hear at times, especially when it involves local accents and references to things and people I’m not familiar with. Combining that with my role as a language teacher, I have become not just a perpetual student of Spanish, but also a perpetual student of the learning process which I find fascinating.
Since I started out in 1988 there have been many changes in Spain of all sorts including, to some extent, the language. There have also been advances in understanding about how language is acquired, and how useful language learning can be to keep our brains in good form. I hope these articles will contribute to that process in those valiant readers who, like me, just keep on learning for the hell of it.