Sunday, February 12, 2012

La verguenza: struggling with español

A lot of people have asked me how my Spanish is coming along, so here is a little update on my language learning progress. Truth be told, it isn´t coming along as well as I was hoping it would after a few months in Spain.

You may be thinking... well, you´re speaking Spanish all the time because you're living in a Spanish speaking country, right? Not exactly. I live with another native English speaker. I work as an English teaching assistant and I teach a private English classes a couple times a week, and pretty much all of my friends here speak English. As you can imagine, I have been speaking far more English than I have Spanish.

When I decided to move to Spain, I had every intention of immersing myself in the language and culture. I imagined myself living with Spaniards and speaking Spanish at home and making friends with locals. In reality, finding an apartment with Spaniards didn´t work out. With my low level of Spanish, the apartment hunt was quite a bit more difficult, and I wasn´t able to find a nice place in a good location, in my price range, and with Spanish speakers within a short period of time. However, I did find a cute place with an English speaking roommate in an area that I love, so I jumped on the opportunity.

I have also found it much easier to just hang out with other English speakers. The teachers at my school don´t make a huge effort to talk to me and I´m not really able to comprehend their conversations, let alone join in. I typically just hang out with the other auxiliars at my school or talk with the teachers who speak English. And lastly, it´s just easier to make English speaking friends here, and I´ve made some really great friends so far.

So yes.... I will be the first to admit that I´ve been taking the easy road out. It´s not that I never try to improve my Spanish. In my first few months here, I studied grammar on my lunch break, listened to Spanish podcasts and tried to practice the phrases I learned, I carried a notebook and wrote down words and phrases to look up and practice, and I took a class a couple days a week to improve my grammar and vocabulary. It pains me to admit this, but at some point over the last two months or so, I started to give up on myself. I wasn't seeing the improvement I was hoping for, and it was discouraging... and also totally my fault. However, I would be lying if I said that I haven't improved at all. I moved here with a really low level of Spanish, so while I have learned a lot, that isn't saying much.

My slow improvement really boils down to one thing: not speaking enough. And why am I not speaking enough when I am surrounded by Spanish speakers? I have a little case of la verguenza, or the shame. In other words, I get shy and nervous about speaking Spanish. I guess I´m somewhat of a perfectionist, and I keep getting afraid to sound dumb and not know the best words to get my point across. I know, I know... it´s stupid of me. I know that I have to push through it and just try, even if it means making mistakes. I know that´s the only way to learn. I know I´ve been making too many excuses for myself. I have been meeting with a few language exchange parters since arriving in Spain, but I find myself flaking out more often than not.

Since returning from my winter break, I´ve been feeling my motivation slip even more. I was almost to the point of considering it a lost cause, but I don't want to give up on myself that easy. Over the last two weeks, I have been trying to enroll in an intensive, 8 hour/week course at a public language school. After completing a written and oral exam, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I tested into the lower intermediate level. After becoming SO excited to take this class, my plans were crushed when I went to enroll last Thursday and learned that there were only 7 spots to enroll in the class and I didn't get one... and neither did two of my close friends who were also trying to enroll. Go figure.

After Thursday's disappointment at the EOI, some friends and I met up to bitch it out over a bottle of wine. After unexpectedly bursting into tears of frustration, my friends gave me the reassurance and motivation I needed (to all my friends in the kitchen that night, thanks again). It's interesting... although we are all at different levels, ranging from beginner to advanced, we all find ourselves having the same frustrations with learning Spanish.

Anyways, there you have it: an honest report on my language learning progress. I wish I could have shared more positive news, but hey, it is what it is. I 'm ready to stop making excuses and start having more realistic expectations for myself. More importantly, I'm ready to put in some real effort and to begin challenging myself more.

Have you ever found yourself in a language learning (or just motivation in general) rut? Any advice for how to overcome it?


  1. I have faith in you! You can totally take on the challenge you still have enough time to make amigos de Espana and practice. Don't back down from the challenge, face it head on! You and your friends could have nights where you speak only Spanish.

  2. Be gentle with yourself Lindsay. Everything everything everything is happening in perfect timing and in perfect order there. Consider that. I am so proud of you. Xox

  3. Hi, fellow auxiliar here. I'm having lots of trouble with Spanish as well (although here actually it's doubly hard because Gallego is way harder to understand). I totally know where you're coming from about the teachers in school not talking to you, mine never talk to me either, although I'd like to practice with them. And I'm having a hard time making other Spanish friends to talk with as well. But I've found reading the paper every day can help, because then you are both practicing Spanish and you can make small talk with people around you. I also think it helps to think about how frustrated I get with my students when they're shy about speaking English, and how they put in the effort every day to speak with me although they are making mistakes. So I should be willing to put in that effort to talk with other people too.

  4. Learning a language is extremely difficult but you have been given an amazing opportunity to be fully immersed in the language through this program. Of course, there are some things that are out of your control (your roommate situation and your job) but the rest are choices. Though it is difficult and embarrassing to talk to people in a language which you aren't familiar with; how do you feel when people who aren't native English speakers attempt to talk with you in English? Likely you don't laugh at them; you appreciate their effort and want to help them. Make conscientious decisions. Decide to eat lunch and talk to the native Spanish speakers at your school. So what if they don't want to talk to you; force them! You either won't talk to/see them again after this program or you will make great friends. Practice speaking with your roommate in Spanish. Sure, the class didn't work out but why not talk in Spanish only to the teachers and have them correct you. Look for other classes; I'm sure that isn't the only one in Spain. Check out juvenile books from the local library and read them aloud. Don't be to hard on yourself but also don't feel sorry for yourself. You can do it; force yourself! In the end when you return to America speaking Spanish like a native you won't regret it.:)

  5. Hi Lindsay,

    I definitely hear you. I am sure it is hard to force yourself to break into the more local scene when your friends are primarily English speaking. I have never been to Spain, but I have traveled alone in different places for shorter periods of time. For me, I had to basically just be brave and open my mouth. In Brazil, I actually used my Spanish more than the few words of Portuguese I knew, and it saved me a few times! I guess I just looked at it as a time when I could try to get my point across, ask a question, and make myself a little bit uncomfortable...all for the sake of a purely selfish end; I felt proud of myself afterwards! Everyone was so nice when I would at least try to speak to them in their Costa Rica, the folks were so sweet, and we chatted as much as possible in Spanish...I was only there for ten days, so it's not the same. My friend was with me, and my dad...we all made fun of each other, but we all stunk to different degrees in Spanish, and by the end, I was better in Spanish than they were because I would only use Spanish with all the people we met and stayed with. I really like the idea above of reading kids picture books in Spanish, fun! Mi Espanol no es bueno anymore...but I still use it with Julio, my favorite checker at our grocery store! He's so excited to ask me questions, and when I look at him like a deer in headlights, he tells me what he means, and then tells me how to say my just need a safe, patient speaker to drink wine with! Sorry you've been frustrated, but you can still do it! Just keep trying! Love you! (your cousin-Sarah)

  6. I've felt the same way several times. When I went to Copenhagen, to London, and last but not least Wisconsin. All you've said sounds so familiar. I think most of the people feel the same way for a while... And I also know how difficult is to meet natives, well not to meet them but to be friends with. When I was abroad, my friends where always internationals. It was still a good think as I was learning English, but I never get to know the culture. Until I went to the US. Then I found several amazing American people who spend with me a lot of moments... I can say that some of my best friends are from the US.

    The thing is that after all my experiences abroad, I've changed my personality. I loveee getting to know people from other countries and I love to include everyone in my planss and go out and for cañas y tapas! Also, as I know how hard it is to really get to know Spaniards (in your case...but people from the country you are living in in general) I understand perfectly how you feel aaaaaaand as I want people to treat me like this when I travel, I love to do this!

    So let's hang out more!! I need more crazy American friends, and I'll try to speak in Spanish as much as possible, even tho I love English :)

  7. Thanks everyone for you sweet comments and suggestions... it means a lot to have your support and feedback! I've already been practicing more, reading the paper, and watching t.v. shows this week, and I'm looking into other class options. :) I suppose I've been a bit impatient with myself and have expected to improve faster without really forcing myself to speak enough... poco a poco!