Aprendo Español

29 June 2011 · 7 comments

Though things have been quiet around Foldedspace, they haven’t been quiet in Real Life. As always, I spend most of my time writing about money. I’m also exercising 2-1/2 hours a day, five days a week. I’m absorbing enormous (digital) piles of information about money and writing and travel. I’m meeting friends and colleagues for lunch and dinner. I’m doing my best to not let the yard turn completely feral. Kris and I are hanging out with friends. And, yes, I’m learning Spanish.

For years now, I’ve said that I want to learn Spanish “some day”. But that day never seemed to come. I’ve always found reasons to put it off.

Part of the problem is that learning a new language is slow going. Plus, it’s scary. I feel embarrassed stumbling my way through verb conjugations and incorrect nouns. I hate when the words don’t spring immediately to mind. Besides, there’s a huge time commitment if you ever really want to become proficient.

Background: I studied German for two years in high school. During my first semester in college, I studied Spanish, but then (for reasons I forget) I went back for three more semesters of German. Since then, I’ve tried to teach myself Latin (hey, I should try that again!), and have dabbled in French and Italian. In other words: I’m fluent in English and know a smattering of words in other languages.

Earlier this month, I met Benny Lewis, the Irish polyglot who writes about language learning at Fluent in 3 Months. I told Benny I wanted to learn Spanish and asked if he had any suggestions.

“The best thing you can do — if you can afford it — is to hire a private tutor,” he told me. “Meet with the tutor as often as you can.” (Later, Benny spent an hour with me on Skype. We talked about his current trip to Turkey, and he gave me travel tips, especially for Latin America. Benny rocks!)

Well, I can afford to hire a private language tutor, and so that’s what I’ve done. For the past two weeks, I’ve been meeting with a Peruvian woman named Aly. We spend 4-1/2 hours a week together, and she assigns stacks of Spanish homework. It’s almost overwhelming at times — but I love it.

I feel like I’m catching on fairly quickly (and Aly seems to think so too), but I’m also frustrated because I wish I lived in a world populated by s-l-o-w-talking Spanish speakers. I could learn Spanish more easily if everyone around me would just speak it!

This is actually one of Benny’s top tips. In addition to hiring a tutor, he recommends immersing yourself in the language you want to learn. He wants to learn Turkish right now, so he’s in Turkey. If I want to learn Spanish, he thinks I need to go somewhere that Spanish is the primary language. I need to be forced to learn it.

Meanwhile, Stephanie (the Travel Chica), Courtney Baker, and Shannon O’Donnell have all suggested I try to find a language school in Antigua, Guatemala or Quito, Ecuador. From my initial research, it looks like I could sign up for a week at a time (for about $25/day) and get one-on-one personalized training. Benny says a language school isn’t necessary, that I’ll simply absorb the language through daily experience. He says I should head to Medillin, Colombia. “Colombia has the easiest Spanish in the world to understand,” Benny told me.

Benny may be right, but I know how my mind works. One-on-one lessons are going to be a better bet. Besides, if I decide I don’t like the language school, I can always shift my focus to learning from daily interactions.

In any event, I’m excited to have a focus for my first solo trip. Next week, I hope to pick my August destination. (Ecuador holds some charm because it’s a jumping-off point for the Galapagos Islands.) In the meantime, I’ll continue working with Aly three days a week.

I feel like the days ahead hum and glow with promise.

1 K June 29, 2011 at 14:22

I did this.

I took two weeks between jobs and went to Oaxaca, Mexico, where I took Spanish classes at Instituto Cultura de Oaxaca. I could have done it a little cheaper elsewhere, but I have been wanting to return to Oaxaca for many years. Before I went, I started DVRing a telenovela (which was a fine idea but didn’t help much, I learned vocab like “drug addict” and “prostitute,” which don’t come up that often in my life, but it probably helped with picking up the accent quickly).

I did a homestay with a Spanish-speaking family, took grammar and vocab classes all morning (I was one of two students at my level during my time there), did a one-hour intercambio with a Oaxacan woman, half in Spanish for my benefit and half in English for hers, did cultural classes in the afternoon (cooking or dancing, taught in Spanish), and did homework, reviewed flashcards (I love me some flashcards), and read Spanish media (local newspapers and magazines and the Spanish version of the first Harry Potter book) or went out on the town — more salsa dancing! — in the evening.

I spoke only a small amount of Spanish before I went, though I did take seven years of French, which helped me to learn Spanish more quickly because there are a lot of structural similarities. My brain also picks up languages pretty quickly — just the way I’m wired. Those two weeks got me to a level of proficiency that was equivalent to a semester and a half or two semesters of college-level Spanish. It was definitely worthwhile and was a ton of fun, besides.


2 jdroth June 29, 2011 at 14:30

Hey, K. At our first lesson, Aly, my tutor, asked me if I danced. “Not really,” I said. “You will,” she said. I thought that was pretty funny.

3 Darin Moss June 29, 2011 at 14:46

JD —

Great article and an inspiring challenge… Wishing you well and look forward to the updates on your progress (accountability is huge, so we’ll help to hold you to your goals…)

As for Ecuador, I cannot provide a review on the language schools, but the country is an amazing place, and having visited the Galapagos, I can say that it would be an exceptional “reward” for achieving your desired level of proficiency.

If I can answer any questions about the potential trip to Ecuador, feel free to drop a line… Keep up the solid progress!

4 Becky June 29, 2011 at 16:04

I find the formal structured classes are the best way for me to learn as well. I’m an American living (and teaching) in China, in a small city where no one outside of my school speaks English. It’s total forced immersion and I figured I’d pick up the language no problem.

Only this is you can live a very comfortable life just with a few basic words and pointing and body language. After 6-months I realized I would need to do something more so I started attending classes and my level quickly rocketed up. I’m also the kind of person that has a hard time “picking a language up” and need someone to explain things to me before it really sticks.

5 Benny the Irish polyglot June 29, 2011 at 16:43

Great to see you post about this J.D.! This is actually one of my biggest tips; announce it publicly so you can be held accountable to reach the goal :)

I generally don’t recommend private teachers since most of my advice is tailored to people on a budget, but the advantage is that you can feel comfortable making lots of mistakes since you are paying her to hear them (never forget that!! Make as many mistakes as possible – it means you’re speaking lots! In the real world lots of mistakes is fine in the early stages as long as you’re communicating), and in group classes the generic nature of it can miss your best speed of progress in most cases.

You’ll get lots of conflicting advice in this circle; I’ll say speak all the time, others will say classes are the way. I think the best thing by far is to sample a little of everything, see what definitely produces real results in actual conversations with people based on your learning preference and stick with that :)

As long as the classes are mostly in Spanish this week as you had planned, then you are on the right track!

Keep up the good work and I’ll be happy to chat you on Skype if you need any more tips or want to practice your Spanish with someone else!

6 Amy Jo June 29, 2011 at 20:40

JD: Kathleen and her daughter Emma did this a few years back. If I recall correctly, the school they attended was in Guatemala. I’m sure she’d be happy to share more information about her experience.

7 Dianne July 3, 2011 at 14:29

My grandson left for Ecuador yesterday. He will be living with a host family and attending college Spanish classes. He is a Junior at Ole Miss and this is a course for college credit. Lots of student went, the course is for the Month of July. He and a friend are staying an extra week at the end of the course to travel around the country. Some went early, but he said they would learn where they wanted to go during the school month. I am so excited for him. He already has had 2 years of Spanish in High School and 2 semesters at Ole Miss. It amazes me that he can write as quick in Spanish as he does in English all ready. I am so excited that he will be learning and hearing a different Spanish than what we have here in the south. He is planning on going to Med School.

Previous post:

Next post: