In 2015 I decided it was time to break the shackles of my monolingualism, so I spent two months in Spain, studying Español and eating tapas for breakfast. Learning a new language is hard work for adults, so I wanted to minimize the pain by visiting a place I would enjoy. I chose the mid-sized city of Valencia on the east coast of Spain. It’s a livable place, a good walking city, plenty of restaurants, few tourists in winter, and it has a very good language school called International House. For February and March I lived in a one-bedroom apartment in the central part of the city, within walking distance of everything I needed.
I walked to school every weekday to attend class, and walked wherever else I wanted to go. It was quite cold in February, though not enough to spoil the adventure. I rarely needed a taxi, though when I did they were abundant and inexpensive. I found a very nice pool/gym at the Westin Hotel and swam most days, and of course depended on restaurants for most of my meals. My daily interactions with the natives were an important part of the learning experience, plus it was a realistic way to measure my progress.
For the first six weeks I attended class 6 hours/day. This included 4 hours of regular class, one hour of conversation class plus one hour of private class. In retrospect this was a bit much, and I actually burned out in the seventh week. Next time I would try to not to exceed six weeks at four hours/day.
Class sizes ranged from 4 to 11. Student ages ranged widely, though most were toward the younger end of the scale. The youngest was 16. Teachers were all professional, their methods of instruction were consistent and the school was well-organized.
I particularly enjoyed the diversity of the students. There were Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Swiss, Germans, Danes, Swedes, Brits, Dutch, Austrians, Italians, Russians and even one student from Saudi Arabia. I was the only American in my class, and one of very few at the school. Everyone spoke at least some English, and most were near fluent even though it was not their primary language. Most were learning Español for requirements related to work or education, though a few shared my purpose of personal challenge. Some were there for just one week, most for one or two months, and a few for as much as one year. As far as I know, I was the only monolingual person in the school.
The younger students seemed to learn faster, though most of them, as dictated by their typically lower budgets, lived with local families where only Español was spoken. So I can’t really determine how much of their progress was due to their younger brains versus the extra exposure from living among natives. By way of example, the youngest student in the class, a sixteen year-old girl from Denmark, was actually the slowest learner. She was not living with Spanish speakers and obviously was not trying very hard in class, and the results showed. So from this small sample, I concluded that most important factor to learning is a combination of effort and hours invested.
We all hope to find a trick to learning a new language. For adults, there is no trick. Simply work very hard and immerse yourself in the language for a year or so, and if you’re wired for it, or highly motivated you’ll probably become functional or maybe slightly better than that. The other approach is to live in a foreign place and study just a little bit at a time, or ‘poco a poco’ as they say in Español. With this strategy you will acquire the new language gradually over several years or more. There is no magic here – it is simply a matter of practice. The more hours/day you put into it, the sooner you’ll learn it.
Immersion is a very effective approach, though often painful. One of the rules for effective immersion is to avoid using your native language. This means you should avoid reading, writing, listening to or speaking your native language and force yourself to practice only the new language. You might allow yourself 20 minutes or so every day to check email, etc, sort of like coming up for air.
This is especially difficult in the early phases. For example, you meet another student and want to have a conversation. You know only 8 words in Spanish, so without reverting to English, your conversation won’t be very interesting. Or on Sunday night you memorize 20 new words, and first thing Monday morning the instructor asks you a simple question. Your brain freezes and is unable to find ANY words whatsoever because you don’t know how to begin a sentence and have no idea how to use the articles of speech (the, to, as, for, and, by . . ). Not wanting to make the error of speaking English, you stare helplessly at the instructor, reduced to the mute foreigner you have become. The pain begins.
There are some enlightened moments where you actually understand a speaker and are able to utter enough words to make an coherent response. This feels good, so you mentally place a small gold star on your forehead. This typically happens in the classroom setting where instructors and classmates are tuned into the learning process. These early successes are usually followed by reality checks out on the street. In class, the instructors speak slowly and with textbook articulation. They repeat words and write them on the board and you write them in your notebook. There are no distractions.
However in real life, people just don’t speak that way. You enter a restaurant and are greeted by a burst of words that sound like machine-gun fire. B-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r. You have no idea what the waiter just said, and even if you did know, you can’t think of any response. You stare helplessly at the waiter. Then he switches to flawless English, implying “I can speak nine languages, why can’t you?”
Of course a great deal of language is contextual. It takes some time to memorize the typical things people will say in different situations, then to expect them in advance. Once you know what to expect, it is easier to differentiate between the slight variations in the machine gun fire that is most human speech. The key is to practice in real situations as much as possible.
Learning to read Español is probably the easiest part (at least for English speakers) since pronunciation conforms to spelling – unlike some languages, in Español, what you see is what you get. When reading, you can take your time, there are no issues of accent or pronunciation, and you can use a dictionary. Listening is more difficult for these same reasons, but with practice and contextual experience is picked up after not too long. For most people speaking is the most difficult. It’s important to practice, even if wrong, to get your brain to think and talk out loud in the new language. You must endure much embarrassment and be willing to make a lot of mistakes to do this.
After four or five weeks you take an exam that will test whether or not you are smarter than a four-year-old. The purpose of this test is to convince you that you need more school, because when it comes to language, the fact is you are NOT smarter than a four-year-old. After six weeks in class I began to burn out on the whole classroom routine, so missed much of the next two weeks. I did end up making real progress, though am still at the very early stages of this journey.
As for the city of Valencia, I would live there again, although I probably won’t since I usually prefer to discover new places. Overall I enjoyed the experience, though there was one week in March that would have been nice to avoid. Valencianos have their big festival in mid-March which they call Fallas. It is a week-long mix of huge artistic sculptures, marching bands, unhealthy food, and ear-shattering noise. The town was crowded with tourists for Fallas week, though I got the impression that most of the locals found the whole thing quite annoying. Clearly the local exception were the youngsters who were allowed to behave like children by exploding fire-crackers all over town and at all hours. They actually begin the festivities on March 1st by exploding what amounted to extreme firecrackers shot high into the air, like fireworks, but instead of a visual display of bursts of light, it was an auditory phenomenon that amounted to 15 or 20 minutes of very loud bangs that sound like machine gun fire or worse, and could be heard for at least a few miles away. I didn’t see the appeal of such activity, nor did many of the locals. Yet the festival attracted many tourists and no doubt gave a brief boost to the local economy.
In 2015, Spain was very affordable for those of us clever enough to be born in the United States. The Euro has recently fallen to 12-year lows, (1.06 USD in March) bringing the cost of living in much of Europe to within reasonable levels. I wallowed shamelessly in the affordability of Valencia, which like much of southern Europe benefits from the largesse of people with too much money, and their fondness for loaning it to countries that cannot repay.
After two months, it was time to leave. I took the high-speed train to Madrid. My timing was good – a few years ago Spain was the train laggard of Europe, though recently upgraded its entire system, which now features modern high-speed trains between major cities. This train traveled 215 miles in about 95 minutes, which is 136 miles/hour, or close to race car speeds for the entire non-stop trip. The ride was smooth, quiet and pleasant, gazing at the Spanish countryside on a sunny Saturday.
I spent one night in Madrid, just enough to get a very favorable impression, then flew to Hong Kong where all of my recent language gains were set aside for a while, temporarily suppressed by a steady steam of noodles and Cantonese. It will be important to resume my efforts in Español soon, or risk losing my hard-earned gains.
Risako, Ines, Nieves (instructor), me, Sally, Jeff
me, Stephan, Daniella, Jan
Lunch w/ Daniella & Stephan (taking photo)
Class is more fun with food
Moroccan menu in Español
Pool at Westin