This week the MiMove blog has caught up with Simon who, among other things, teaches Spanish in Spain. Don’t miss his insights into how to master your new language.
Hi, I’m Simon, and I was born in London.
I have been a permanent resident in Spain for nearly three decades and teaching Spanish to foreigners for over fifteen years. Living in Spain, as with any country, has it’s good and bad points. I guess the good outweighs the bad, that’s why we’re still here!
One thing that has kept me in Spain has been my passion for the Spanish language. It can be very simple at times but has a very large vocabulary and formal register that can be very hard to understand (not to mention the slang, as with most languages). Success in learning Spanish as a foreign language really comes down to keeping your interest in it and having the tenacity.
My path has been a bit unconventional. I had a good background in languages; I learnt Latin for a few years when at private school (don’t ask me to take an exam in it now!), which later I realised is great for getting you to think about the word structure and syntax of modern languages, many of which have a strong Latin base and use the “Latin” alphabet, like English and Spanish. French is another language I studied, going on to take it to a higher level. French and Spanish have so much in common, both grammatically and lexically, so they really complement each other. (However, their pronunciation differs greatly!)
On leaving school, I didn’t continue immediately with languages. I learned carpentry and joinery (my father had a joinery business). I went on to work in marine carpentry (which I got a diploma in), and I got the chance to go and work on a job in France. Being interested in improving my rudimentary knowledge of French, I enrolled at the Alliance Française school in Paris. I enjoyed my time there, and I passed the upper intermediate exam. I even worked for a while as a delivery driver in Paris!
Learned about different cultures
During this time, I visited Spain on several occasions, and I began teaching myself Spanish. I took evening classes but soon realised that it would take me forever to reach a good level.
So, I took the bull by the horns (forgive the bad joke) and enrolled at the Escuela Oficial de Idiomas, the Spanish State-run language school. To my surprise, on taking the entrance test, I was admitted at “intermediate level”, which made me have to work a lot harder than if I had entered at “beginner” level. At that time, the “advanced” diploma qualified you to teach Spanish as a foreign language in Spain (I achieved this). Being in Spanish cities (Madrid and Zaragoza) taught me a lot about the difference between the Spanish and Anglo Saxon cultures. I also visited Almería on several occasions (the first time was in 1980) since we had family friends who had built a villa in Mojácar. I always felt drawn to Almería, which, years later, was to become my home.
Almería became my home at the beginning of the ’90s. I lived inland, close to a town called Albox. At that time many (mainly newly retired) British people were coming to settle in the area. My competence in Spanish was well sought after. I studied translation and gained a diploma in Spanish/English translation.
It was easy to see that there was a demand for Spanish teaching, and I set up a small Spanish school for foreigners. I have taught both groups and individuals for over fifteen years.
One tends to think of Spain in connection with the Costas, holiday resorts, villas and of course tourists (and “residential tourists”, as some Spanish refer to retired foreigners living here), but of course Spain is much more. The variety of its inhabitants is as diverse as its geography.
After a bloody civil war, Spain went through a dark period of nearly four decades of dictatorship, until the death of Franco in 1975. Economically Spain was lagging behind most of Europe, and many were forced to emigrate to find work, or at least move to the big cities within Spain. Franco had, at least, seen the potential of tourism, which he started to promote in the late sixties/early seventies. After Franco’s death was the Transición, the period when the new Constitución española was drawn up and Spain became a democracy. A period of new optimism began and, after so many years of repression, attitudes became very liberal. The tide turned and during the nineties and the beginning of this century immigrants came from many countries to live in Spain. Apart from British, Scandinavians and Germans, there was a big influx from the Latin American countries, Morocco and Eastern Europe.
In fact, the only reason the birth rate in Spain was maintained was thanks to the foreigners! (A stark contrast to the large catholic families of years gone by.)
Success in learning Spanish
So how does one succeed in learning a language? Basically, by hard work. There are no short cuts. There are so many adverts, especially now, on-line, offering an “easy, quick way to learn”.
Some even offer “Spanish in three months”.
I say to people: “If there was a quick way to learn a language, then why doesn’t every school, language academy or university use this method?
Answer: because it doesn’t exist!
Start with the basics
In my opinion, the most important thing is to learn the basics. Take the time to learn the key grammatical points such as the verb endings in the different tenses and the agreement of adjectives with nouns. Yes, this is boring, but it is what will make you eventually speak and understand Spanish well. Many people don’t bother to do this, and years later their Spanish is still not good.
Don’t underestimate the importance of vocabulary too. Spanish has a massive vocabulary, and to understand it well you need a good word-stock. It surprises me how many people try to understand without even having a basic vocabulary.
There are many theories about which language is the hardest to learn, but, in the end, if you don’t know a language, then it’s difficult! Spanish has its complications, as with any language. However, for English and Swedish speakers the pronunciation should not present a problem. Although there are a couple of sounds that don’t exist in English, the way a word is pronounced is totally predictable from its spelling (unlike English!), once you know a couple of simple rules.
Don’t give up
So, my advice is to take a course that introduces you to basic Spanish grammar. You can learn vocabulary at home and that way start using the language.
If you live in Spain, basic everyday vocabulary is all around you, so try to look at and read everything you can (yes, advertisements, signs, anything…).
Put into practice what you are learning.
Some people have good knowledge in the classroom, but they lack the ability to communicate in “real life” situations.
Remember, what you are learning is the language, although you think you hear something different, so use it. Don’t be down-hearted when you can’t understand people speaking, they will be using expressions you don’t know yet.
Don’t be so hard on yourself
Don’t be too hard on yourself, Spanish, like any other language, is full of expressions and colloquialisms, don’t expect to understand these until you are quite advanced. Listen as much as possible. Many say that they don’t get much chance to practice. Well, if you live in Spain, then Spanish is all around you!!
Seriously, it is very hard for a beginner to get adequate practice. A lot of Spanish want to, and will, practice their English on you. You must persist, and nowadays we have the internet, which is a wonderful tool for listening practice, as well as the television. Try to at least watch the news in Spanish.
Even if you have no one to speak to, make sentences up in your head. It has been proven that people who do this advance more quickly. Think of how you would say something as often as you can, this will really help you. Always use a dictionary or app to look up new words, your memory will improve the more you use it.
To sum it up, to succeed in Spanish:
-Take a proper, structured course
-Learn the basics
-Spend hours listening, reading and if possible speaking
-Talk to yourself, make sentences up in your head
-Don’t give up
I hope you have found this useful and good luck to you on your journey to speaking in Spanish.