“No Hablo Español!”

Over the weekend I passed my 9 month mark of being in Mexico. I love it here: The culture, the weather, the history, the music, the food, the people. Everything feels right and I’m constantly bugging my Mexican friends and students to tell me more about their culture and what their opinions are on current events.

But there’s one little problem: These conversations occur in English. I still cannot speak Spanish.

In fact, I’m not even going to try and sugarcoat it: After nine months, I’m still essentially a beginner.

When I came to this country in November, Spanish was a very new language for me. In school I learnt Welsh, French and German – Spanish wasn’t even an option.

In the months running up to my departure, I watched a ton of Mexican/Latin American films in preparation for what I was about to immerse myself in. I also download every album Café Tacuba ever released. With a phrasebook and pocket dictionary in hand, I felt prepared.

Then, of course, I arrived and it was a whole other story. It’s one thing to watch a subtitled 2-hour feature of actors being overly-dramatic. It’s another to be faced with real-life situations.

Nevertheless, I did try to speak some Spanish. I carried my phrasebook with me religiously and learned how to greet people for the first time and ask how they were, read menus, ask for the bill in restaurants, ask how much something was, and how to say I didn’t understand something.

Life was pretty easy the first couple of months. I was learning how to be an English Language teacher – which, of course, requires nothing but English - and surrounded myself with English-speaking friends who usually had a much better grasp of Español than yours truly.

When I moved to D.F., it was even easier. My full-time teaching job meant that I was speaking English to a lot of people for a lot of hours and, once again, I was surrounded by fellow English-speakers.

There was no need for me to learn Spanish.

Don’t get me wrong – I want to be able to speak Spanish. I really do. I want to be bilingual – hell, maybe even multilingual one day – but the truth is that nothing has progressed thanks to my full schedule and – admittedly – a lot of laziness on my part.

I started feeling ashamed of myself.

But it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that my lack of Spanish put me in a scary situation.

I’d been given a new class at Santa Fe - the corporate headquarters of Mexico City. (It’s a really disgusting place if, like me, you’re deeply turned off by Capitalism.) In order to get there I had to take a little microbus from Tacubaya – an area I’d only heard bad things about (like how dangerous it was and that a person shouldn’t go walking around there alone).

I got to Tacubaya and searched for a microbus with the “Santa Fe” sign on its window. I saw none. I wandered around for a while wondering if I’d missed something but still couldn’t see anything. I was also already late for my class.

What would a normal person in this situation do? Ask for directions, right?

And what did I do? Not that. 

Why? I didn’t know how to.

I came to realise that I was lost and overwhelmed in a new ‘dangerous’ part of the city with only 10 pesos for the bus and no way of asking for help.

I even began to break down and cry. (The world’s smallest violin for Ceri.)

Of course, the school I work at does put on free Spanish lessons for its teachers.(Don’t worry – I didn’t get mugged or kidnapped in Tacubaya – one of the girls from the school called me and spoke to a random person on the street after I thrust my phone in his face with an overbearing smile and nod trying to hide my look of desperation.) My schedule through January-June meant I couldn’t attend them though, as I was also teaching when those classes were held.

Come July, I’ve been given a new schedule that means I can attend those classes now.

I’ve missed the first three weeks due to nothing but fear. I’m scared of looking like an idiot and not being able to do well. I’m scared of sitting in the Basic class with other people who know exactly what’s being instructed, while I’m sat there like a deer in headlights.

People think exposure to a culture is the perfect way to learn a language. It’s really not. A lot of my students try to encourage my Spanish outside of class by saying, “Come on, teacher, just practice. Just start speaking.” But how can you start speaking when you genuinely don’t know any words? It’s not as if they’re magically going to appear on my tongue when I’ve never seen them before.

Learning a language is more than just being around people who speak it. I guess some people can pick it up that way. I can’t because everyone learns differently. I learn and remember Spanish words by seeing them written down. If someone tells me what a word is, it’s completely disappeared from my head within 20 minutes.

As a Language teacher, I already know what my strengths and weaknesses are with Spanish: I do pretty well with reading and listening by picking out words I know and then figuring out what’s being said through that. My speaking ability is non-existent. So’s my writing. As for my grammar? Well, I have quite a large Spanish vocabulary built up in my head due to months of being exposed to a lot of different words. I just don’t know how to put them together. I don’t know how to form a sentence. (That’s where my speaking and writing blocks come from.)

For the first time in … well, ever, I’m genuinely scared of trying something new and failing.

But, on the other hand, I don’t want to be put in a position like I was in Tacubaya again. I want to at least be able to make conversation with someone here.

The next Spanish class at the school is tomorrow morning at 10.30am. I’m going to go.

If Mexico has taught me one thing it’s that I tend to develop a lot of fears of things that challenge me. I’ve always been a perfectionist and get easily frustrated with things that take a little time to learn. In December I developed a fear of Salsa dancing – Why? Because I was no good at it and didn’t know what to do. Luckily, I got over that fear by just going for it one night and not caring about how I looked or moved.

Spanish language is my new fear so the only thing for me to do is to turn up to that class tomorrow and try my best by remembering that I can’t be perfect at everything.

Wish me luck?

Have you ever struggled to learn another language? What did you do?

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21 thoughts on ““No Hablo Español!”

  1. I’ve been learning Spanish since I was 15 and have been immersed in it since 2006 more or less. It’s tough but so worth it. I still feel like there is room for improvement. You can do it!

    • I bet your Spanish is awesome, Sa. :) I’ve definitely woken up feeling really determined this morning so all I have to do is go for it.

  2. If you like to see the words in print, you should get some kids’ books! Or go online and read fairy tales that you know how they go in English. It really helps. I was lucky. I had the chance to sit around in a house for a year and a giant stack of books that the family had collected from their kids’ birth. You start with the kids’ books and just go from there. Before you know it you’ll be reading “100 Años” y otros clasicos.

      • Picking up some children’s books is definitely something I’m intending on doing. :) I walk past a bookshop every day and have vowed to go in once I get paid again. It’s definitely something I want to try doing.

  3. As long as you’ve the motivation to learn it you will, and from the amount you’ve talked about wanting to learn I’d say as soon as you’ve the time it will happen :) I’m far from fluent in my chosen second languages, but my preferred method, since I don’t have anyone converse with, are tv shows and music coupled with books that teach spelling and grammar. It’s so much easier to learn when you’re enjoying the learning itself.

    If I can ask a question – how do you go about teaching people whose first language you don’t speak? I’m assuming your students must have had some basic knowledge before you started teaching them.

    • That’s a good question, Charlie. :) The school I work at always gives beginner students Mexican teachers or those that can speak Spanish fluently just in case they’re really struggling. I’m lucky that my students range from Elementary level all the way up to Advanced, and when they’re at those levels, they’re discouraged from speaking Spanish in class. If they don’t know the word, they’re always encouraged to describe what they’re trying to say rather than ask for a direct translation first of all. :)

      I think a lot of schools have different methods. My friend works at a primary school and teaches children but she always has a Mexican teacher with her too just in case the children get confused.

  4. Sorry to hear about your bad experience. I’m not any better myself though. I’m pretty nervous about having to live somewhere not knowing the language. Looking forward to hearing more about your progress with Spanish!

    • Thanks, Estrella. :) It’ll be interesting for both of us when we come to learn Spanish – Mexican Spanish and Spain Spanish has quite a few differences (like US and British English). I like that we’re both travelling over the Atlantic to learn Spanish though. Haha. x

  5. I am still a beginner too. Actually this Fall I need to get off my butt and take some lessons in Toronto. I seem to have a lot of vocabulary but I can’t form proper tenses.

  6. In my opinion, immersion works best for those who already have a basic understanding of the language. Interaction with native speakers helps you acquire more vocabulary, recognize your mistakes, etc., but I think it’s very difficult to pick up the basics that way. Go to the Spanish classes that are being offered to you, and take advantage of online resources to learn some basic verbs and their conjugations. Even if you just learn 10 super common verbs like ir (to go), tener (to have), necesitar (to need), comer (to eat), etc., it will help tremendously. Good luck, and don’t get frustrated with yourself for not achieving fluency overnight. It’s a process.

    • I think you’re right, Katie. I didn’t even have the basics. This week I finally went to the class and started learning all about the basics: Yo soy, Tu eres, Él es, Ella es, etc. etc. as well as the uses of el, los, la, las, un, una, unos, and unas. No wonder I couldn’t speak t people! These classes definitely do inspire me to do some extra activities outside of class though. :)

  7. CERI! Oh my goodness. I can so relate to this blog. Learning Spanish has been such a challenge for me, and I, like you – am attending classes now. (on break) but the paragraph where you talked about everyone telling you to try but you genuinely didn’t have the words or know how to put them together was exactly me. I even said that exact sentence to Ricardo when he would stop me in mid-english sentence and tell me to say it all over again in Spanish. How can you possibly do that, when you don’t know?

    The good news is that once you start doing the Spanish classes you’ll feel sooooo much more confident. I am doing so much better after only 3 weeks of classes. If your class doesn’t work for you, look into Warren Hardy Spanish, it’s the most simple, amazing, easy and fun Spanish method I’ve had the pleasure of doing. Keep us posted!!!

    • Thank you!!! I’m so glad someone else understands that. It drives me crazy when people’s solutions are to just “practice and speak” and it’s like, “I WOULD if I actually knew the words!”

      I did end up going to my Spanish classes this week (I’m in the middle of writing a post about it ;-) ) and you’re so right – It was only learning the basics but I already feel 100 times more confident and eager to learn. :D

  8. I must admit, I have been a bit of a slacker when it comes to learning Korean. When I first moved here I learned a few phrases so I’d be able to greet people, order food, and say thank you; but then I realized that I didn’t really need it to get by and I’ve been at a standstill ever since…
    But unlike me with Korean, it sounds like you DO have the desire to learn Spanish! I hope those classes are going well! :D

  9. I enjoyed reading this… I’ve definitely been there with Spanish, except in Barcelona. Same deal: English teacher, I’d studied everything but Spanish in high school and university, really wanted to learn, couldn’t make much headway. It’s a case of getting over your fears, as annoying as that sounds. Just speak, speak, speak, even if you can’t say much. Find friends who are as determined to learn as you are. I spent a lot of boring evenings in 2007 copying out all the verb forms of the past imperfect and memorizing them even though I didn’t understand when you used them… then when I heard them used it started to click a bit. Don’t worry about making mistakes (think of some of the things your students say without being ashamed of their level). Buy a newspaper and learn every piece of vocabulary in one article (then look up all the antonyms of the words).

    It’s totally doable though! I learned Spanish and even speak some Catalan now. I’m sure you’ll be great within the next nine months!

  10. I know I’m late commenting on this, but now that you’ve done it, how was it?? I hope it wasn’t as scary as you thought!! I don’t think it’s anything to be ashamed of that you haven’t picked up a lot of Spanish – as you say, you are an English teacher, with English-speaking friends over in Mexico, and haven’t been able to do classes, so why would you be fluent in Spanish? Anyway, perhaps now you’ve started your classes, you’ll pick it up really quickly! Good luck. :)

    As for me, I’ve not tried to learn a language since I left school, so I’ve not had that problem. But through my husband I’ve been learning Arabic/Algerian dialect, and improving my French. My problem is that I learn language really quickly, but then I’m shy using it around anyone other than my husband. That is something I need to work on!

  11. I’m still pretty much a beginner when it comes to speaking Spanish. I took a couple courses in university, picked up a teach yourself Spanish book and also did some evening, extended learning courses taught in town. Having to speak when the words elude you is scary! You should check out http://www.duolingo.com – I found it to be a great, free tool for helping me learn more words and being able to put them together into sentences. I’m behind on my lessons now but it’s always there. ¡Buena suerte!

  12. I’ve been in this country for a year, and I think I’m still in pretty much the same position as you. I’m going to take on the Spanish class as soon as I can, ’cause I’m a bit ashamed of my self too.

    Are things any better since you wrote this post? How is the class.

    I have a pdf copy of “Spanish for Dummies” acquired in an ENTIRELY LEGAL way. I’ll pass it on to you if you like?

  13. How’s it going with the Spanish, Ceri? Best advice — a Mexican lover who speaks NO English. It’s the single best way to learn a language (especially the dirty words).

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