You clicked onto this story because you thought I might reveal a secret, effortless, and instantaneous technique to Spanish fluency. Hate to break it to you, but that doesn’t exist.
Go ahead: flip me the bird and surf off in a huff. Or read until the end. There are a few ideas here that might support you on your way to conversational Spanish. They take time. They take effort. But they helped me. And if you’re one of those expats who struggles to learn languages, like me, then you may walk away with a better understanding of how to fearlessly fail your way to fluency.
Your first stop, of course, will be with the free apps: Duolingo, Busuu, Memrise. I don’t know any expat who begins his or her language training with a credit card.
Before even those, Chantal and I registered for a complimentary course offered by the City of Ottawa. It was ridiculous. Our instructor, a Peruvian, had no previous teaching experience. She told us at the outset that she was changing professions because her old one made her clinically depressed.
Not a great start. There were a dozen-or-so students on Day One. I think it was just me and Chantal by the end. It might have been just Chantal.
I tried Duolingo, as one does. In fact, I completed Duolingo’s Latin American Spanish course twice. About forty minutes, every morning, while I ate breakfast before work.
The funny thing about Duolingo is that it teaches you just enough Spanish to understand what utter crap Duolingo really is. Same with Busuu. You quite literally come to the end of the free program and think, “I actually know less now than when I started.”
This is because the free apps provide only basic reading comprehension with little context, and puzzle exercises. Lots and lots of puzzle exercises. Which is not to say these have no value: quite the contrary. It is an important stage in your learning to realize that you aren’t learning correctly.
Try it. You’ll see. You won’t avoid those pesky verb conjugations for long. There will come a time to put on your big boy pants and do some heavy lifting.
I tried Rosetta Stone, as one does. It ain’t cheap. Furthermore, I wouldn’t say that Rosetta Stone is all that effective.
Like those free apps, Rosetta Stone offers little by way of verb conjugation, and plenty of puzzles. The context-free, complete-the-dialogue animated sequence at the end of every major learning milestone is total nonsense. But the program is much more detailed than either Duolingo or Busuu. (I never did give Memrise a whirl.)
In terms of vocabulary retention and basic grammar, Rosetta Stone is as good as any other paid software learning application. But it’s still missing something: that ineffable, put-it-all-together quality that brings with it a certain confidence to launch yourself into conversations with native Spanish speakers.
Chantal also tried Rosetta Stone but almost immediately switched to Fluencia. She says Fluencia provides language learning exercises that work best for her: lots of writing and AI coaching – two elements that are almost entirely absent from Rosetta Stone’s Latin American Spanish course. I’ve watched over her shoulder every now and then, while she completes her exercises. I wish I’d spent my money there, instead.
But by the time Chantal was ready to learn Spanish, I’d already been picking away at it for almost two years. And I did discover an add-on technique that helped enormously where Rosetta Stone was weakest.
I can’t stress this enough: don’t try Spanish TV at home, until you’re certain that you have the fundamentals of Spanish comprehension. Paid software learning provides those basics.
And when I say Spanish TV, I don’t mean that unusual scene-by-scene adaptation of Breaking Bad on Netflix. No, I mean watching your favourite Netflix (or Hulu or Amazon Prime or Disney Plus or whatever) series with Audio on Spanish and Subtitles on English.
Subtitles on English is important at the very beginning of this exercise. At least, it was for me. It helped with context. And I eventually became aware of just how bad the English translations were, relative to the spoken Spanish. So, I switched my subtitles settings to Spanish – and that’s when everything clicked. I remember the day it happened. I just… understood.
There’s no other way to describe it. Hearing the spoken Spanish, and reading it at pace at the same time, does something to the brain. In combination with an elementary understanding of Spanish grammar and vocabulary, subtitled Spanish TV is a powerful resource. When you’re paying attention.
That means no gaming on your smartphone while the television program unfolds before you. This isn’t sleeping with an algebra textbook under your pillow. The language doesn’t magically seep into your grey matter while you’re busy flaming someone on Twitter.
What it does do – if you’re paying attention – is to train your ear for conversation, and to train the muck between your ears for comprehension. You’ll know when you’re ready. I sure as hell did.
I still enjoy Spanish TV this way. It amazes me how much more I comprehend, every time I watch.
There’s no substitute for immersion. Much as I love the company of my fellow expats, there are only so many Spanish words and phrases I’ll learn by hanging around Booby’s Beach Bar and Grill on Trivia Night. Sorry Todd.
We’ve started to make friends outside the comfort of our gated urbanization. Discomfort is key. In my esteem, you always have to be a scooch outside your comfort zone, if this is going to work at all. Chantal and I dive headfirst into immersive opportunities. No fear. That’s our motto.
Buying a car? Who needs a translator when I can fuck up the purchase on my own? Answering the phone, when you don’t recognize the number? If it’s a cold-calling salesperson, not my problem if they don’t pick up what I’m putting down.
Yesterday, I told our friend Yessenia she looked pregnant. I wanted to say embarrassed. I didn’t know the word, so I guessed. Embarazada was definitely not it.
What was the worst that happened, as a result of my terrifying false cognate? We all had a good laugh. Her husband Luis corrected me. We went on with our day.
We choose to spend time with the guy who does occasional work for me, and the girl who keeps our gardens. They’re lovely people, and Luis and I have a deal. Luis speaks as much English as I speak Spanish. I correct his English when he’s in error, and he reciprocates. It’s an equitable arrangement.
In fact, I’d say that type of relationship is where you ultimately want to find yourself. We’re here, in part, to learn the language and the culture. So do it.
Google Translate doesn’t want to take me deep sea fishing. But Luis sure does.