Learning Spanish


Learning a new language should be exciting.  It could be exciting.  It would be exciting if I were moving out of the US.  It currently isn’t really any of those things, but I still am trying to do it.  It is required in the US public highschool system to take a foreign language.  I took Spanish from the sixth grade until graduating high school.  That’s six years.  I got straight As in that class.  After highschool I joined the Navy, got married, and moved to Los Angeles.  You would think I’d get to use my Spanish a lot living in LA wouldn’t you?  Yeah, you’d think so.

Recently, I was encouraged to learn a new language.  Learning a whole new one was far too daunting a task, so I chose to re-learn Spanish after 30 years of dormancy.  I looked online and there are many places to take classes, for free.  I checked out a couple and frankly it looks a little overwhelming.  They say it gets tougher to learn new things as we age.  So I’ve got that going for me.  I started yesterday, at the very beginning with the articles “el” and “la.”  I remembered most of the words in the vocabulary of the first lesson.  The site I found even has little quizes and tests, both oral and written.  I aced both my first two quizzes.  Yay me. 

In Europe I understand most people speak fluently three and four languages in addition to their native tongue.  It seems to be a bit of a bone of contention among Europeans and Americans…we visit, or even move to, another country not even making the barest effort to learn the native language.  I thought I should try to explain why.

I grew up in the German Midwest of the US.  Very WASP.   We had to drive 30 miles into the city to see a living person of color. I knew nothing of other cultures except for my German heritage and my adoptive Spanish.  Everyone I knew was also a WASP.  Still it was required that we learn a foreign language during high school.  Especially during highschool.  I took more years than most, by starting in the 6th grade.  Almost everyone I knew took German.  Why German, well you were far more likely to meet a German speaker in Wisconsin than a French one.  Still, I chose Spanish, and went where no one in my group went before.  And I liked it and I was good at it.  By the time I graduated highschool, I wouldn’t say I was fluent, but I could understand oral and written Spanish quite flawlessly.  I could read Don Quixote in Spanish.  It was probably the only skill I left high school with.

So, nearly six years of Spanish, including two years of “Advanced” study, and what happens?  I first live in the Southeastern US where I’m not even sure they were always speaking English.  Then I go to Japan, where my Spanish would be certain to prove helpful.  Then, before I’ve forgotten quite all of what I knew, I move to Southern California.  At last I will be able to use my Spanish!  But t was not to be.  Living in LA there was always a native speaker nearby, so my skills were never called into use, never used, and it never occurred to me to just practice with those same native speakers. 

That is why Americans don’t speak a foreign language.  Very few places to actually use it here.  Whereas in Europe you are likely to need to know 3-4 languages because you are more likely to come into frequent contact with someone speaking something other than your native langauge.  In the US, while we are the melting pot, in generations past it was important to the immigrants to learn English and fit in.  There has always been this sense that other languages are secondary, that English is the better language than whatever language you were born using.   Today’s immigrants seem to already know English and come here with a distinct advantage.  I think it’s definitely time the US made more of an effort to integrate other languages into the school curriculum.

So, my European friends, before you throw up your hands and scream “Americans,” please pause and think about what few opportunities we in the States actually have to use a foreign language.  I’m afraid you’ll have to excuse our ignorance, we are slow to join the multicultural train.

31 thoughts on “Learning Spanish

  1. My British partner who has been in Spain for over 25 years still has issues with El/La 😀
    It is true though that here it’s more of a necessity. On our street there are 3 German homes, 1 Swiss home, 2 French homes, a number of British and Spanish homes and so forth. If you want to communicate you have no choice but to learn…

  2. Depends on where you live in the US. Try Texas – we have a lot of immigration here from Mexico – many Spanish speakers. There are some who do not learn English – often their children are enrolled in ESL in our schools – or use both languages interchangably (I find that really amazing and wish my Spanish was better so I could know if they’re talking about my ugly yoga pants). Because of all the native Spanish speakers a lot of stuff is translated into both languages. You could easily get a job down here based on being bilingual alone.

    I took three years Spanish in high school and two years in college. Still can’t keep up with native speakers. Might be because I learned from Anglos, and Spanish people talk very fast. I can read it much better than I can use it in conversation.

    1. Same way in LA. It just always happened that my skills were not needed because someone I worked with was a native speaker. No one ever needed me to translate.

      PS I don’t even hope to become a fluent speaker. 🙂

  3. I’m sure you’ll be fluent again in no time…Since you were doing so well after leaving school it’s likely it will come back. I wish that I had pursued ‘French’ as I did well in school also but never near fluent. Now it really doesn’t matter except I’d love to speak a second language…mais je parl le Francaise un peut seulment…which when translated (I hope) means… “but I speak French ‘a little’ only”…. Diane

      1. Unfortunately 20+ years ago I did that when I was still working but I found it almost impossible to comprehend the learning process…between the fatigue factor and the cognitive areas of disability…just before the diagnosis of MS but I retain a little….Diane

      2. That is one of the reasons I decided to take on this; to combat the cognitive stuff. It makes me feel like I can do something about it. Prove to myself that I can still learn… Though I’ve got ample evidence to the contrary.

  4. Nicely crafted, well-reasoned, and logical. Your writing is a pleasure to read for this one-time Secondary School English/Spanish teacher and writer/editor in the aerospace industry for over 30 years at retirement. I speak, read, and write Spanish fluently, but my poor hearing makes conversing with native speakers increasingly difficult. Thank you for reminding me, however, of what I still have — a deep and abiding love for the Spanish people and culture, including one of the most beautiful and poetic languages of all. Buena suerte y que Dios le bendiga!
    — Randa Lane

    1. Thank you so much, Randa. It means a lot coming from a teacher/editor.

      Perhaps Don Quixote lies in your near future? (I’m sure there are numerous Spanish novels, I just can’t think of any at the moment.)

      Thanks for stopping by.

  5. you have made an excellent point. what i found living in other countries and the method i have used over the years to stay fluent in other languages is to read mags and books in that language. once you start the classes you will be surprised how much your brain really does remember.

    i am so happy for you that you have chosen to do something new and a skill that will make you even more valuable as an employee.

    good luck

    1. Thanks for saying so. I’m just taking on more to do everyday so I don’t have to think about going back to work in two months! LOL I haven’t had time to study yet today, but I plan to try to do at least one lesson per day.

  6. You’re not classing British people as European are you? As we are the worst at languages, we are terrible abroad, we still have that empire attitude whereby we think we own the world. We like to shout louldy and point at things we want. I’m better though, as long as I can ask for beer and say please and thank you in a foriegn language I get by.

    I tried learning Spanish a few years back but I found my brian couldn’t work in the way it did at school, the problem lies in schools, the languages were started too late and then we could drop them after a couple of years, in Europe languages are key to their curriculum.

  7. We live in an area of much diversity – and it’s been that way for a long time, so I guess seeing and hearing many different languages seems normal.
    Learning a language is difficult if you don’t start very young as your ear learns sounds more easily at that time. It also the way you are taught makes a difference – some place teach heavily with books and pencils – immersion and speaking/listening constantly works better if you want to be fluent.
    True bilinguals are very rare – many may have words used in homes or daily life, but may not have the real vocabulary necessary for business or work.

    1. Thanks. I appreciate the comments. So far I have not been very consistent in studying the lessons. The site I’m on has audio of native speakers, so that helps. I have no illusions of ever becoming bilingual.

      1. It’s enough just to listen to conversations and grasp the basic meaning sometimes.
        Don’t know where you plan to use your Spanish, but be aware there are differences in the way Spanish sounds in different countries ( and each country thinks their way is the “right” way).
        Spanish in Mexico sounds different than the Spanish of Spain or Argentina, or Columbia..friends raised in TX (learned Eng. as 2nd language) say they have trouble understanding relatives in Mexico when they visit. So if they have trouble, don’t be too hard on yourself!
        Written language is pretty much the same – some regional vocabulary differences.
        Hang in there and don’t get discourage….and go somewhere where you have to use it

      2. I am quite familiar with the differences in Spanish from region to region. I learned Spainish Spanish during my highschool days, which also lead to it falling into disuse here in LA where it’s predominantly a Mexican Spanish. And boy do they talk fast! I’ll be content to be able to read news articles written in Spanish. lol

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