A language learner’s reflections

We’ve been in Spain just shy of 3 months, almost halfway through our language program. In terms of language, it’s crazy to think how far we’ve come in a short time, but in another sense, we still have a long way to go. Justin & I are in different classes, which is probably healthy for our marriage! He tested into a higher level than me, but likes to say that I am a better student and will soon pass him up. Well, we’ll see. We have different strengths, so in a way we complement each other. Justin likes to speak, and is fearless when it comes to practicing WITH ANYONE.  I comprehend a lot more, and am getting to the point where I can read quite well. However, speaking fluidly will take a while to develop. Basically when we talk to people in Spanish, I listen & understand, translate to Justin, then he replies.  It’s been a good system! But we both have to be able to stand on our own.

Language learning is a humbling process, and it’s interesting to be on the other side of it after my previous work in TEFL.  I still remember the faces, expressions, victories, and struggles of my students learning English in Japan and Myanmar. Now, I have some idea of what I put them through!

The 4 languages of Spain. If you’ve never visited Spain, it’s anything but homogeneous.  For starters, they actually speak 4 recognized languages in Spain:  Castilian (the official language), Catalan (a blend of Spanish & French spoken in the east & along the coast), Basque  (completely unrelated & distinct, spoken in a small region in the north of Spain & the western mountains of France), and Galician (spoken in the western most tip). On top of this, there are regional dialects that make communicating even among Spaniards difficult. And if you think that Spain Spanish and Central/South American Spanish are the same, think again.  People can generally understand each other when communicating, but the vocabulary and accents are very different. And given the state of migration all over Europe, Spain is becoming an international hub, with many Arabic-speaking North Africans in the south, Germanic speakers dispersed all over, and in a university city like Salamanca, a stew of European, Asian, and English langauges.


Language makes up a big part of our world right now. In learning a new language, we are literally re-wiring parts of our brain. So after 5 hours of immersion each day, we’re zapped!  We’re constantly translating, conjugating, and asking each other, ‘which tense do I use?’ or ‘what’s the word for <blank>?’  Even though it’s challenging, Spanish is a beautiful language, and it’s fun to practice and gauge our progress. It’s exciting to think about where we might be after 6 months, 1 year, or 3 years.

Awkward moments. Yes, I’ve had plenty of awkward moments with Spanish.  For one, on my 2nd day of class, I CRIED in front of everyone. I was overwhelmed and felt like a complete idiot because I didn’t understand anything! And to be honest probably jet-lagged and reeling from the transition of uprooting our lives. Then there was the first time I went to the grocery store. Apparently in some markets, you ring up and label your own produce before checking out.  So I got to the counter with all my unlabeled bundles of vegetables & fruit,  only to have the cashier say a lot of stuff I didn’t understand really fast while using a ton of gestures. Not to mention, lots of hurried, anxious looking people behind me, waiting to check out. Did I mention it was right before siesta/comida? Essentially, the busiest time of day. And there are the many times I got strange looks asking for “el baño” because in Spain they don’t really use that word (it actually refers to the bath tub), and they use “aseos” or “servicios” for bathrooms.

Clearly I’m used to having the upper hand in language (I mean c’mon people who travel, English is spoken EVERYWHERE, and we’re so coddled). Ok, well there are places where English is spoken more widely than others.  But Spain is not one of those places. Compared to other European countries, they are far behind and hesitant to speak English. Which is actually due to their history. For years the dictator Franco outlawed things like American movies and Spain was very closed off from the rest of the world. Things are changing now, especially with young people, but your average Joe in Spain does not know or speak any other language. Hey, just like Americans!

Things we don’t normally have to think about in our native language, can be sources of stress in another language. Here, things like receiving mail, filling out paperwork, finding a doctor, going to see a movie, ordering at a restaurant, talking with your landlord, etc., can be stressful while you are learning a language. It influences everything, including your ordinary, everyday activities. And as I eluded earlier, even going to the grocery store can be stressful. Soothing this stress often requires planning ahead, translating or googling some phrases you think you might need, and moving forward with patience.

Language, or lack thereof, can also cost you money and time.  I’ve tried twice now to ask for a grocery store’s discount card, and both times left in frustration without it.  We’ve had to pay expensive taxes on receiving mail (Christmas gifts!), because we didn’t know how to navigate the postal system. Another time, we ended up taking the “slow” bus (4 hours instead of 2) because we didn’t read the bus website correctly. In the moment these things are stressful, but looking back we try to have laugh at all our newbie fails.

You make rookie mistakes when you move to a new country. You just do.  Some days are easier than others.  Some days are super challenging. Some days we just want to be hermits, because it’s comfortable.  But, we know we won’t assimilate with that attitude.  We’ve learned to celebrate the small victories, like ordering at a new cafe, and actually getting what we want. Or the other day, I successfully gave an elderly Spaniard directions. And just yesterday I ventured to the phone store solo and talked to a clerk about potential phone plans.

We keep going and keep trying each day because we know so many people are behind us. And we know there are sweet souls here that God wants us to talk with. He gives us grace, even when we find it hard to extend it to ourselves. In His grace we are here, and we truly are grateful to be here, cultural/lingual faux pas and all!





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