How did I learn Spanish?

Spanish was the first foreign language I learned. My parents are both native speakers of English, but both of them can speak some Spanish, and when I was a kid, they spoke Spanish with each other when they didn’t want us to understand what they were saying. So that motivated me from a very young age to pay attention to what they were saying and try to understand it! In addition, my older sister learned Spanish, eventually learning to speak it at a pretty high level. (I don’t like the word “fluent”, as it is used in so many different senses- so I will just say her Spanish was good enough to attend university classes in Spain.) Spanish is also the most commonly taught language in the US, and for good reason- a significant portion of people living in the US and/ or their families speak Spanish as a first language, and of course most of the US’ nearer and more distantly neighboring countries are Spanish-speaking. In the US, foreign language instruction typically begins in high school, and my high school offered only a few languages: Spanish, French, German, Latin, and also Russian (but only for a very small number of students). At that young age and living in the Midwest, I couldn’t really imagine that my life might take place outside of the US. As a result, languages that were rarely spoken in the US, like French and German, didn’t really attract me. At the same time that they seemed impractical, they also were not exotic. Maybe if Chinese or Russian had been offered (actually, Russian was offered, but was taught at lunchtime, and only to a small group of kids who had already learned Latin), I would have studied one of them. Or- maybe not. I was a serious student in high school only when my parents were pushing me, and in addition, in 1994 in the Midwest of the US, places like China and Russia seemed both very poor and very distant. In any case, like most other kids in the US, I decided to study Spanish, the main reason being that my parents spoke it (I reasoned that if I had difficulty learning it, they could help me) and that it was the only language spoken in and near the US. I also understood that my choice of language was quite important- my high school, unlike many US high schools, required that all students study their language of choice for three years.

When I began studying Spanish, I was 13 years old. I knew that Spanish shared a fair amount of vocabulary with English and that this would make it easier to speak and understand, and I had heard my parents speaking it with each other for some years. I also knew that Spanish nouns and adjectives were either masculine or feminine, and that to speak correctly, you need to know each one’s gender. However, I was ignorant of an important fact about the language- I didn’t know about the complexity of the verbs, that each one of them has many different forms according to the subject of the sentence and when the action happens. As I later learned when learning German, French, and Russian, it’s extremely helpful to know about a language before you begin studying it- if its grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation are difficult and why.

I found the first few months of high school Spanish rather difficult. I didn’t know what a person needs to do to learn a language, so my grades weren’t very good. But- my parents showed me how to make word cards to memorize key voabulary and grammar. At the time (1994), there were not nearly as many learning resources for languages on the market as there are today, so my ability to do work outside the classroom was more or less limited to the books we already used for school. Still, with the limited resources I had, I was able to ge OK grades in Spanish. Our classes focused heavily on grammar. Our teachers were rather strict (but not unfairly so), and we often repeated verb forms alone and in chorus, and were tested on the many verb forms every week. We sometimes read short texts, but we rarely listened to audio and we rarely read texts that were longer than a few paragraphs. None of the teachers I had were native speakers, but I don’t think this is that important, as they all knew the language well. They had accents, but they were not too heavy. Most of the speaking we did was in pair work with other students. I remember how the pair work exercises would start- the teacher would tell us to talk to each other about this or that topic, we would all try to do so, but finally we were all rather bad at speaking Spanish and soon the “conversations” stopped. When I was in the third year of Spanish, our teacher made us read some adapted, simplified versions of Don Quijote. I remember reading several pages of it and thinking to myself, wow!, this is great, I am actually reading Spanish! I didn’t understand a lot of the words, but was able to guess what some of them meant. I knew that this was not the original version of the text, but I still enjoyed it and wanted to read more. I liked Spanish enough that I studied for a fourth year, even though I was only required to study three years. High school Spanish was a long time ago and it’s possible that my memory is misleading me, but it seems to me that our program moved very slowly. At the beginning of each school year, we started with material that we had learned in the middle of the previous year.  I also remember how in the third or fourth year of Spanish and after having learned what seemed like a lot of verb tenses, I asked the teacher “Where does this end? When will we learn the last verb tense?” He laughed and said we had many more to learn. I wish I had known this at the beginning of my Spanish learning! Or maybe not- perhaps it would have simply discouraged me.

At the end of the fourth year of Spanish, all the kids who had not quit at the end of the third year had the option to take the AP test. This is a test that is used in the US in many different subjects (foreign languages, math, history, geography, biology…) with kids in their final year of high school. If you get a good enough grade on an AP test, you get university credit for your class, which helps you to graduate from university earlier and/ or to start studying more advanced and interesting classes from the beginning of your time in university. Again, my memory may be misrepresenting what really happened, but it seems to me that around half of the kids who could take the AP Spanish test did so, and that of them, most got rather poor grades, around 2 out of 5 being a typical score. I don’t recall that we ever took practice tests, either, although again, I may be mistaken. Overall, I can say that our Spanish program, while being rather expensive (this all took place at a private school), was something other than a success. Only around 25% of those learning Spanish went for a full four years of study, and of those who did, only one or two got OK scores on the AP test. If only 5% or so of all students have a decent ability to communicate in a language and pass a test after four years of study, then that program has done a pretty poor job. I also remember that around the end of my four years of Spanish, my older sister, who had also learned Spanish in a different high school and at university, went to Spain in a university exchange program and took classes in Spanish. Before she went to Spain, her Spanish was definitely not fluent, but after she returned, it was. I concluded, falsely, that the only way to learn a foreign language well was by living in another country. The fact that I came to such a conclusion also does not speak well of the effectiveness of my high school Spanish program.
Still, I cannot say the program was a complete failure. After four years of high school Spanish, I recognized a lot of different verb forms- this is essential for reading and understanding- and could even correctly say a lot of verb forms in many different tenses. In fact, we repeated different verb forms so often that I still remember them today, nearly twenty years after my last Spanish class. And later, my Spanish actually got much better without me even needing to practice! That probably sounds strange, but it really is true. After learning Spanish, I went on to learn German, French, and Russian (all of which I speak, read, write, and understand at a reasonably high level). Probably as a result of learning and practicing these other languages, two of which are significantly harder than Spanish, I needed to constantly try to recall words that I needed to understand and/ or use in conversation. This ability also transferred to the Spanish that I learned years ago- I got better at speaking Spanish after not speaking it for eighteen years!

So, how good exactly is my Spanish? Well, my Spanish is a bit strange. I can speak it at a conversational level- I can express basic needs and wishes and say my opinion in a simple way. I would say that I know and can easily use about 700 very common words, although I have not ever tested the size of my Spanish vocabulary (I also don’t particularly trust vocabulary size tests that one takes in the internet). In addition to these 700 or so words that I know, I am very good at taking advantage of the large vocabulary that is shared between Spanish and English- Spanish is a Latin-based language and about 50% of English vocabulary is from Latin. I am interested in etymology (word history), so I know which English words come from Latin and which don’t. Often, I don’t know a Spanish word, and instead simply modify an English one with Spanish pronunciation. More often than not, I am right. I am pretty good with verb forms, but tend to speak in short, relatively correct sentences. The strange thing is, I can actually say more than I can understand! I am very good at remembering words I learned years ago, and very good at using vocabulary that’s shared by English and Spanish. But there are many basic words that I don’t know, and I have not had much practice listening to spoken Spanish. As a result, rather strangely once more, I can say more than I can understand! The same however is not true of reading and writing- I can read the newspaper with pretty good understanding in Spanish, but my ability to write is much more limited. Overall, I’d say my level of Spanish is pre-intermediate for conversation and mid-intermediate for reading, especially when reading academic Spanish, which is logically and predictably structured and shares a lot of vocabulary with English.

I’d like to learn more Spanish, but there are a lot of things that are stopping me. I admit that one of them is pure laziness- improving one’s language takes a lot of work, and I have a lot of other projects to work on. Also, I am not one of those people who likes to know a large number of languages at a rather low level and instead prefer to know a smaller number well enough to feel comfortable reading them without constantly using a dictionary. So perhaps my Spanish will always remain at the strange level it is at now.