A Texas Rose in a Spanish Garden

The Challenge of Learning a New Language

For me, the hardest part of learning a new language has always been the spoken part. I can usually learn the written part okay. I picked up written Spanish pretty easily. Watching a Spanish movie is harder for me than reading a Spanish book, unless there are subtitles attached, which really only makes it feel like I’m reading a book anyway. I don’t think I’m alone here, although I’m sure that there are plenty of other people who think that learning a language visually is easier than learning a language orally.

I think that a lot of it comes down to this: a language changes when it is spoken out loud. On the page, the words look exactly the same each and every time. Your pattern recognition skills can help you out, and you don’t need to puzzle over whether you really got the word right. This really isn’t the case when it comes to spoken languages, including spoken Spanish. The speakers will talk faster or slower than you will expect, and that is the case for every language. People’s personal ways of talking will change the way in which the words sound, which is going to be tough for someone who is still a novice in the language.

My main experience in listening to someone speak in a foreign language is to process what they said a few seconds too late. They’ll say something, I’ll vaguely recognize the words that they just used, and then I’ll actually understand what they just said. The problem is, the conversation has usually moved on by then. It’s like everything is going in fast motion, and I’m still stuck in slow motion.

However, it really is just the sort of thing that you have to practice. The brain gets better and better at processing that sort of challenging information the more and more you are exposed to it, and that’s the great thing about an immersion program in a place like Spain in the first place. You can’t say that you’ll practice Spanish tomorrow and you have more Facebook to read right now, and that Facebook will all be in English. People are talking to you in Spanish right now, and you have to make sure that your brain works, and you have to make it work if it isn’t happening. You have that responsibility, and you need to use it.

I tend to work better when people actually make me work, since I am one of the worst procrastinators that you will ever meet as both a student and as a general worker. Being placed right in the middle of Spain where I need to speak Spanish just to get by is actually making me learn it and do the work, which I just wouldn’t have done on my own time.

I’ve always found speaking to be easier than listening when it comes to the oral use of the language. You can pick your own words and talk at your own pace. I’m sure that I sound really slow to the native speakers of Spanish, but at least I can understand what I’m saying. The thing is, sometimes I’ll try to say something, and I won’t automatically know which word I’m supposed to use. I’ll have to think about another way to state the exact same thing, even if that new way isn’t really a part of my normal speech patterns and I sound kind of weird to myself when I think about the meaning of what I just said. Soon, I also end up using that phrase habitually, because it helps me express whatever it was that I needed to say in the first place.

When you learn a new language, you aren’t learning a direct counterpart to your native language. I talk in a fairly casual way normally, with a little formality thrown in. When I speak in Spanish, I talk in a more formal way with some slang terms thrown in, because that’s largely how I learned to talk in the language. I don’t have enough experience with the language to be able to speak with the same level of skill that a native speaker would, which means that I am not able to talk in quite the same naturalistic way that they can. I really almost feel like I’m a different character when I’m speaking in Spanish, and not just that I’m myself and I’m talking in a different language. Hopefully, that aspect of the process isn’t going to last forever, and there is going to be a point where I really feel like it’s me speaking the language, and I’m not just playing a character.

I guess that’s essentially what achieving fluency means. You can put on an accent, but even if it is good enough to fool people who naturally have that accent, it still isn’t going to feel like yours unless it is one that you use often enough for it to be considered just another way that you speak.