When I tell people that I have been living and working in Spain for many years, they often say “You must be fluent by now”. Well, this is a sure fire way of knowing that they have never studied a foreign language abroad. There seems to be a belief that just by being in Spain, that Spanish will somehow creep into my brain at night and come popping out of my mouth fully formed in the morning. It’s true that you get more casual input from hearing people speaking around you or from the TV, but the hard study and practice still needs to get done.
There are many factors that will impact how quickly you pick up the language when you decide to study Spanish abroad.
Who do you spend your time with?
Is it with Spanish people or do you hang out with English speakers? If I wanted to meet English people I would have stayed in England. I made a choice when I arrived to only share apartments with native Spanish speakers and preferably only ones who did not speak any English (this was a bit harder to stick to). I had only one English friend, who I didn’t see that much. This setup forced me to listen and learn as quickly as possible.
Only date Spanish speakers.
An extension of my previous point. Tricky I know, and love is blind blah blah blah….If you’re really serious about learning Spanish you’ll resist English speaking temptation until the right Spanish speaker comes along. OK, maybe joking slightly and a slight fail for me here. I am with someone who does speak good English, and also prefers to speak Catalan over Castellano.
Where do you work?
Getting a job when you have a low level of Spanish can obviously be very difficult, but if you end up working for your local Irish pub serving tourists and other expats, you are missing out on 8 hours a day of golden practice opportunity. I have failed at this one, I have to admit. The company where I worked the most during my time in Spain used both English and Spanish interchangeably, but I only spoke Spanish regularly with the minority of my colleagues who did not speak English. I should have tried harder at this one.
What do you spend your time doing?
I remember how it was not knowing anybody in a foreign country and trying to resist just staying indoors with a good English language movie. Big fail. At least make it a Spanish language movie! If you don’t know anyone yet, get yourself an intercambio. Your Spanish level will improve rapidly and you may make some good friends. I certainly did.
If you’re feeling brave you could even sign up for classes in something, alongside native Spanish speaking people, such as cooking, film appreciation etc. You may not understand much at first but you will avoid the main problem with Spanish language classes. They are full of foreigners!
If all else fails you could actually study.
If you’re not abroad specifically to take an intensive Spanish language course, then at least hit the books and put the time in. Before I had a job here I spent many hours in the wonderful public libraries of Barcelona just going through my Spanish grammar exercises. I know some people are a bit dismissive of using standard Spanish grammar and exercise books, but as part of a mixed way of learning I think that they are invaluable.
I’d love to hear from anybody who has studied Spanish abroad, and get your opinion on how quickly you progressed. Just leave a comment below.