This article comes from Claudia and Dani, the writers behind the Sincerely, Spain blog. Both Claudia and Dani grew up in the American Midwest but didn’t meet each other until they were living abroad in the south of Spain. For the past three years, the pair have been sharing their experiences, tips, and insights about life abroad, language-learning, cultural competences, travel in Spain, and more through their website and social media platforms.
Both girls believe in approaching language learning from a lifelong-learning mentality and they have had a variety of different experiences learning a number of different languages. Today, they’re sharing what they’ve learned along the way.
Define Your Expectations
We believe we all have our own ways of learning. There are things that some of us are better at and things that take us more time to develop. Language learning is no different and that is why we wanted to dive into our different language learning journeys in this article today. Not only do we want to share some differences we have lived, we also want to touch on the fact that even for us, learning some languages has been a very different experience than learning others.
It is funny how many people we come across who think that in a couple of months they are going to be fully fluent and communicating in a language when, in our experience, it could not be more different. Language learning is something that you could spend a lifetime doing and still get confused by little things or get identified as a foreigner. At the same time, depending on what your expectations are and how much time you invest in achieving them, we believe that you can improve a lot in short periods of time.
At the Beginning
Just like we believe it is important that you properly define your expectations, understanding your motivations for learning a language is crucial, especially at the beginning. This is because, without the proper motivation, you are going to be unlikely to to invest what it takes to learn a language (and yes, we believe you will need to invest because learning a language is hard).
The two main types of motivation are internal and external motivation. Internal motivation can be, for example, when you are really interested in learning the language and you really want to learn more because of this interest. External motivation, for example, can be when you have to learn a language for school or if your job is paying you to learn a new language.
We do not believe that you have to have one, specific type of motivation to be successful but, in our experience, being interested in and “wanting to learn” the language can play a big role in how well and how quickly you learn. One of the main ways we have seen this happen is when you are in a situation where you want to learn the language and you are in a country or community where you have to learn it. For example, when Claudia was living in Brazil, she felt passionate about the language and the culture but the key to learning was the need to communicate in Portuguese (read more below).
These are our stories about how we began learning different languages. One thing we would like to point out is that each story is unique and that even between the two of us we haven’t had the same experience twice. Therefore, do not be frustrated if you find that what you are going through is different to what other people are going through as well!
I have started the language learning journey with a variety of different languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, and Finnish. However, I would say that today I only three of these languages are still present in my everyday life: Spanish, Portuguese and Finnish. I am still at the basic level of Finnish.
Finnish: I never expected to be where I am in the current process of learning Finnish but I seem to be learning a new language and, this time, I feel quite alone in the process. When learning Spanish and Portuguese I had the passion and the desire to learn but I also had the need as people where I was living don’t really speak that much English. In Finland, it is totally different and I decided to study Finnish because I had previously made a promise to myself that I would never live in a place where I didn’t speak the language. These days, I am working on my motivation to learn Finnish by trying to study a little bit every day and using Duolingo to get in my daily practice. However, there are many days that I am quite frustrated by how little progress I am making.
Spanish: I started learning Spanish in the (American) classroom when I was twelve years old—mostly because it was the only foreign language offered to us. However, starting slowly with the language at this stage made me willing and ready to continue taking Spanish classes during all four years of high school, despite the language requirement only being two years. At the very beginning, I wouldn’t say my motivation was especially high but it grew with time as I realized how interesting Spanish could be and that, as long as I worked at it, it wasn’t entirely difficult for me to learn. Eventually, I had so much internal motivation that I went on to continue studying Spanish at university.
In the Middle
Once you have the basics down, things both get easier and harder (despite how oxymoronic that sounds). We consider this to be the roller coaster of learning a language. At this point in our journey, we often discover two main things: that we are now able to communicate with people and that we make lots of grammatical mistakes. When you are in a casual group setting and want to practice your language skills, this is really great because you can begin to express yourself and how you feel in different situations. However, if you are in any sort of academic setting or studying for a language exam, it can feel frustrating because you are not grasping the more complex grammatical parts of the language.
In our experience, in the middle section of learning a language, we tend to focus on only one of these two main things at a time. Sometimes, you borrow a serious grammar book from the library to improve your grammar or sign up for language classes to focus on those skills. Other times, you decide that you would rather participate in language exchanges or other activities that just help you communicate, ignoring the fact that you’re still making grammatical mistakes.
We have taken both approaches at different points in our lives. And, again, we don’t necessarily believe that one is better than the other, we simply think you should focus on what fits best to you and where you are in your journey.
Dani: It wasn’t until I studied abroad in Alicante, Spain in 2011—six years after I began studying the language in class—that I really felt I reached an intermediate level of my language learning journey. Along with living with a Spanish family, the immersion in the Spanish university scene really challenged me. I spent a lot of hours reading to keep up with my sociology classes since much of the vocabulary was new to me but it was an amazing experience to study a subject in Spanish (rather than just study the language) for the first time. Studying abroad definitely helped me to make great improvements with my listening and speaking skills, proving that real world experience pushes you so much more than classroom exercises ever can. At this point in my journey, I was concerned with the mechanics of the language when completing academic assignments, but mostly focused on communicating above all else.
We often discuss between the two of us the nuances of being “good,” being “fluent,” and being “bilingual” in our different languages and it is a complicated conversation. Even the two of us can feel differently about these terms on different days, and where we fall on them. Obviously, at this point in our journeys we are very good at the languages we have advanced in but, at the same time, there are moments where we can find ourselves being incredibly frustrated with basic communication. That is why, when asked if we are fluent, before answering, we may ask you first what fluent means to you.
However, these are our stories with the languages we would consider ourselves to be fluent in. For us, in this case, these are the languages that we are comfortable communicating in for long periods of time (from hours to weeks) and the languages that we have studied and/or worked in. Do not get us wrong, this does not mean that we are perfect speakers of these languages—and we often feel like we can still improve. So, even if you are feeling good about your language skills, don’t get down on yourself if someone is doing better.
Personal aside: this is something that Claudia often feels as her brother speaks fluent C2 level Spanish and, no matter how many times people compliment her on her language skills, she knows that someone close to her is still significantly better.
Dani: I studied for five months in Alicante, Spain during 2011. I lived and taught abroad in Granada, Spain during the 2013-2014 school year. I lived with a Costa Rican family and taught English in San José, Costa Rica for the remainder of 2014. Still, I would say that it was not until 2015-2017, when I was living with Spanish roommates and working for Spanish employers, that I felt the closest I have been to “fluent.” I still refrain from saying I was fluent because, at least for me, that word implies a level of ease and fluidity I’m not sure I had but, as we said, “fluent” means something different to everyone.
Still, at this point in my life I experienced the most fluidity I have ever had in Spanish. Living with my roommates, I realized I was able to come home from work at 9:30 pm, drained, and yet still watch TV and maintain a conversation at the same time, both in Spanish. I realized had the ability to be woken up in the language and still be able to have a coherent response. I realized that, even when speaking to my own family or writing in my personal journal, Spanish words sometimes came more quickly to mind for me than my native language. For me, this is what being fluent felt like.
A Note on Maintaining skills
You may find it funny that Dani doesn’t consider right now (nine years into her living abroad lifestyle and seventeen years into her Spanish language learning) to be the point at which she feels most fluent. However, this is her truth. The mechanics of Dani’s day-to-day life and the fact that she now works from home (in English) simply don’t require her to use Spanish as much.
The motivation to maintain her skills is still there and so she takes an hour of one-on-one virtual classes on italki twice a week and incorporates Spanish-language Netflix shows and podcasts into her entertainment line-up. However, the experience of making a conscious effort to engage with the language is definitely different from being forced to use it constantly. At least in Dani’s personal experience, she’s found that consciously engaging can help you maintain skills you already have but it’s much harder to push past the “plateau” and achieve a new level that way.
We hope you have enjoyed diving into our personal stories a little bit and we hope that this has helped you realize that while you are taking part in a process that many others have taken on before you, your journey is unique. One of the biggest things we have learned while trying to figure out our own paths is the need to stay true to ourselves and we hope that we can encourage you to do the same. This means that we believe that you should decide on a language learning journey that fits your needs—focus on what feels important to you now and don’t be afraid to change it later.
In addition, try to stay true to your personality in terms of humor, emotions, etc. and don’t let a new culture and new way of expressing yourself change you too much (although we also recognize that different languages can change how we express ourselves). This is all part of a learning journey that will teach you about a new language, and maybe even a new culture, but take is as part of the experience to discover and stay true to yourself as well.
Thank you so much Dani and Claudia for this valuable article! You can connect with them here:
- Website: https://www.sincerelyspain.com/
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/sincerelyspain/ @sincerelyspain
- Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.es/sincerelyspain/ @sincerelyspain
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SincerelySpain @SincerelySpain
- YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCAKQHtCWZCK5tiWmR3BxzOg (Sincerely, Spain)
By your side,