If you are like me and grew up monolingual, the concept of learning another language seems… well foreign. The idea of being able to converse, think, and sometimes even dream in multiple languages is an idea that has always captivated my interest. However, the more time that I spend in Spain and the more my language skills improve, the more I am able understand language learning as a process. In this weeks post I want to discuss the progression of learning Spanish through a series of steps which I will define as tourist, traveler, foreigner, and expat.
By the time the first week had come and gone, I had grown accustom to Spanish always being in the background. I was beginning to understand more effortlessly, and was able to passively listen to a dialog without getting lost. At this point, I could understand more or less everything being said to me with minimal effort, but I still struggled when forming complex responses. I felt like a traveler at this point: very capable of getting myself through the day, but not yet integrated into quotidian life. The frustrating part about being a traveler was that I was painfully aware that I was coming across less competent than I actually was. More often than not, I would understand perfectly what someone was telling me, try to repeat what they had said back to them, but my lack of vocabulary coupled with a plethora of grammatical errors made it seem like I was misunderstanding.
I realized I had progressed past the traveler stage when I was sitting in class just the other day. Up until that point, I had always been super interested when my professors lectured because understanding was a lesson and a challenge in itself. However, this past week I found myself truly bored out of my skull listening to my professor drone on and on about some old Spanish poem. I realized that my comprehension skills had grown to a point in that trying to understand wasn’t fun anymore because it came too easily. Another interaction at a bar made me realize my speech was developing rapidly as well. When I was out playing an open mic, I struck up a conversation with some other musicians. Out of curiosity I asked if they spoke English, and they responded that they did, very well, but then continued to speak to me in Spanish. Before, asking this question generally prompted a response and the continuation of the conversation in English. But now, I feel like I can converse fluently enough to the point where the language barrier is a short fence instead of a stone wall. At this point I feel less like a foreigner, much more capable of integrating myself into Spain.
The next step is one that I can approach, but will never reach. In order to be an expat, in my own terms of language acquisition, I would have to have lived in Spain for years, use Spanish regularly in a job, with my friends, and in daily life. I would have to be able to speak without rehearsing my lines in my head before I open my mouth, be able to text without using translators or grammar checkers, and go at least a day without asking, “¿Qué significa…?” (what does … mean?) or “¿Como se dice…?” (How do you say…?). However, with every conversation I have, show I watch, or lecture I listen to, I get one step closer. Language learning can be a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to develop over night. I hope that this post has helped shed some light on what it means to learn a language, and hopefully convinced someone to give it a try themselves. We’ve all done it at least once before, and we all have the capability to do it again.