So, Do you Speak Spanish?

I have been living in a Spanish speaking country for 10 months. That’s almost a year. But what does that mean for my Spanish? Do I consider myself a ‘Spanish speaker’? Its been an interesting, frustrating, challenging and amazing journey.


I arrived in Santiago on the 12th of January (or something) knowing little more than hola and Ciao. Literally. If you read my very first entry you’ll see how I admit to blocking out the fact that I was about to encounter a huge language barrier by coming here. Someone, and I don’t remember who, told me that Spanish was an easy Language to learn. Hearing this helped me with the process of mentally blocking out the idea of actually learning another language. Its easy to do.

Though I cant remember who told me this incorrect piece of information I am almost positive that they didn’t speak or ever really attempt to learn the language. Its not easy. I still remember the first time someone gave me my first ‘lesson’ in Spanish. The cant-live-without personal pronouns me, you, him, her, they, us…yo, tu, el, ella, ellos and nosotros. It lasted about 5 minutes and took place at a bar counter. The words were scribbled on a serviet. I will never forget it.

But I didn’t realize that it would be a few months, at the least, before anything started to happen, click, connect or be retained by my brain. My personality didn’t help either. The best approach to take is obviously to not give a shit what you sound like or what people think of you or anything related to self-consciousness. In my time here Iv detected two camps. People in camp A are the ones I just described. In camp B we have people like me who would rather keep their mouth shut than utter a broken sentence in Spanish. And my friends, you will never, ever, learn a language that way.

It was super easy for me to ignore this problem. Without actively trying I surrounded myself with people who spoke English. I still do. And at least I know I’m not alone on that one. Its what happens. As easy as that made my transition into a different life and world, it was an absolute disaster for my Spanish. I moved in with an American, a French and  a Costa Rican all of whom spoke good English. I managed my way around the city and general life just fine. Well, with difficulty obviously. But its doable. There was never a NEED to learn. English is a powerful language. If you can read this you hold a certain power that so many people are unaware of. It really is the Language that the World speaks. My life was 100% able to continue without having to learn Spanish. But that way of living gets old quickly, believe me. It was tough to go from miss independent to someone who had to get someone else to help them get something scanned or printed.

When I took this picture I wasn’t really concentrating on what it said, I just thought it was an interesting thing to see on the floor of the metro train. Turns out they’re telling you not to sit on the floor.

As powerful as English is, it really is a shame to speak only one Language. Combining it with at  another language is when you’re really winning. (winning!). I truly envy and admire the people that I’ve met who are fluent in three or more languages, switching effortlessly between them. You automatically become a wordly person, even if you’ve never left your own country.

Realizing that my opportunity was slipping away from me, I began to become more proactive in the learning process. As important as pro-activity is in the language learning process, enough cant be said for time. As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was a language learnt. It takes a good long time for things to happen. It took me about 5 months to really start building up a vocabulary and a familiarity with the language structure. With a bit more proactivity and less of an ‘I’ll learn this through osmosis’ attitude this might have happened sooner. But still, it takes some crazy number of times hearing a certain word before you remember it.

I can still be very lazy and go for weeks without glancing at some grammar or taking some time out to study the language. But what I do know is that as an adult, grammar is your friend. We may not know whats potting in our own languages grammar wise because we learnt it as a babies, but it really helps a lot in understanding a second language. Its not the most important, practice is, but its super helpful.

I went through a stage that lasted a couple months where I knew I HAD to learn this dam language and if I was going to be so dam mute when it came to speaking it I was going to have to at least study it. And what a great process. As boring as it is at the time, when you start to recognize what you’ve learnt when others are speaking and start understanding more and more of the spoken language it really is a great feeling.

An even better feeling is the one you get after just having conversed for a good amount of time in the language you were previously unable to speak. Being aware of yourself progressing is a reward in itself. At times I thought it would never happen.    My hangups about speaking Spanish to friends who Iv only ever spoken to in English is finally disappearing. Its weird, speaking Spanish to those who I’ve always spoken English to comes very unnaturally. The easiest people to have conversations with, for me, are those who I don’t know. Or those who can’t speak any English. The method to my brain’s madness is that my bad Spanish is less of an issue if being heard by someone who can’t speak better English than my Spanish. (?)

At least animals love you no matter what… or do they?

Things that are true about learning and speaking another language:

  • You have good days and bad days
  • Listening to music is helpful but also  difficult/impossible to get to the sing-along stage
  • Facebook chat taught me a LOT. especially how to write, obviously.
  • TV commercials are helpful too. Their annoying repetitiveness forces you to learn new words and increase your vocabulary.
  • Half the battle is won if you get the accent down. Whipping out a reasonably good accent makes people think you’re better at Spanish than you actually are.
  • The French have an unfair advantage. Some have referred to it as basically the same language. Sometimes I silently hate on French people and their easy transition to Spanish. *They are obviously not the same language and differ in fundamental ways. But its still unfair.
  • Sometimes I think that living in a Spanish speaking country has made me have less of an opinion about things since its difficult to fully express your opinion in a different language. (maybe not the worst thing ever) Its even difficult in English when speaking to a person of a different language. Sometimes I forget how easy it is to get your point across when talking to a native English speaker. I can speak as fast as I want and use as much colloquial language as I want and be understood.
  • Google Translate can be your best friend and worst enemy. good for translating one word at a time but potentially disastrous for  full sentences. And the translation by Bing on Facebook is a joke.
  • Not speaking the local language will limit who you can be friends with. It can be really frustrating knowing that you could potentially get along well with someone but not be able to get to know one another.
  • Teaching a language while learning a different one is oddly helpful

The journey is far from over. In fact it will never be over. To master a language and be fluent at it can be a lifelong challenge. But the question is….. Challenge accepted?

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6 thoughts on “So, Do you Speak Spanish?

  1. Jackie Bourhill says:

    This is a great piece…..and so much of what you say is so true!! I hope if you ever have children you will teach them a second lanuage from birth….what a gift you will be giving your child.

  2. roxy says:

    Awesome post Vix!
    And so very true! While in Korea, the hardest part of the day was the first word uttered in Korean, from then on it just got easier, especially when you get that smile, you know, the one that says, ‘haha, this person doesn really know their tomatoes from their tuna, but hell they sure are trying!’ 🙂

  3. teri smith says:

    Spannish is a sexy language, and to be able to get the opportunity to learn it in a traditionally Spannish speaking country is so fortunate xx

  4. lacy says:

    I feel like we have so much in common here! I have done almost all of my travels in Spanish speaking countries. I do have the desire to learn, but its been too easy for me to get around on my horrible “Spanglish”.

    I definitely understand the good days and bad days. I have been trying to build my vocabulary (yet again) for my upcoming trip and it has been frustrating, to say the least. I am considering trying a Spanish-immersion course while in Panama or Colombia. Have you ever tried those kind of courses?

    • alittlechile says:

      Hi Lacy,
      Its funny, now that Im out of Chile and back home in South Africa I have become determined to master the language. Im definately afraid to lose what I learnt in that year abroad.. it would be such a waste!
      to this day I have never taken a formal class but if I could do it all again I would jump at the oppertunity. when I was travelling in Boliva I stayed in the quaint town of Sucre which is popular for travellers to take cheap but great Spanish lessons. The people I met doing this were staying at my hostel but I do know that it is possible to do home stays- this would be really beneficial to the learning process.
      I have no doubt there are similar places in colombia and Panama to do both the home stays and the lessons. What was awesome about the lessons in sucre is that you werent confined to the classroom. They’d take you out to the markets and around the town and you’d learn conversational Spanish while learning some of the Country’s history at the same time.
      Good luck:)

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