From time to time I get asked how I learned Spanish. Here’s my story. Tell me your story in the comments.
I took three years of Spanish in high school. I liked it right away. I had a new friend who was a year ahead of me. We shared the same biology classroom so she started leaving notes for me in Spanish behind the lizard tank every day. After school we would drop in on our teacher and talk for a few minutes with her in Spanish as she graded papers. At Christmastime my family would travel to visit Spanish-speaking relatives there, so I would try to use my Spanish there in shops or when asking for directions. These are the things that motivated me to improve.
During the first two years of high school Spanish, we used a now-discredited method known as Audio-Lingual. Right from the beginning, a lot of emphasis was placed on memorizing dialogues and perfecting pronunciation. I still remember some of these dialogues decades later. Vocabulary was never used unless it had already been presented in previous units. It was a lot of fun.
During my third year of high school Spanish, I improved little. The new teacher put down a no-English rule, which just resulted in a very quiet classroom. My essays came back covered in red. I learned to write using only those structures and vocabulary that I was sure I had mastered. I declined to sign up for the fourth year because by then the focus had turned to reading literature, which bored me. I was more interested in being able to speak. Over my three years of high school Spanish, I clocked about 200 hours of instruction. That might not sound like a lot but it was a good foundation.
When I got to college, I didn’t take more Spanish but I did live for two years in the Spanish language dorm, where Spanish was spoken in the hallways and the dining hall, mostly by my fellow non-native speakers. During the summer I read a long novel in Spanish and wrote down every new word after looking it up in the dictionary. All of this gave the illusion of improving my Spanish, but at best I maintained what I had learned in high school. During the summer I looked into finding native speaking tutors but there were none in my area.
Decades later I got interested again in improving my Spanish and started arranging language exchanges with native speakers in my city in the US. I met with about 60 people and had repeated sessions with several of them. This was a confusing time for my Spanish because my conversation partners came from a variety of countries and I was never hearing a consistent model. But around this time I also came across the excellent Breaking Out of Beginner’s Spanish, which showed me how to think about developing speaking skills.
I decided to sign up for a month of full-time private and group lessons in a school in Mexico. My experience was mixed. I corrected a few systemic problems in my speech, such as <*el calle y *la mes. And I began to confront a bad habit of mine: always using the imperfect instead of preterite because it was easier for me to conjugate. But by the end of the month I hadn’t made much progress beyond becoming more aware of trouble spots with the language. Also, I felt socially isolated. As a result of refusing to speak English with my classmates during the breaks, I ended up making only one friend at the school, a young woman whose Spanish was better than mine.
Class was so mentally tiring that each day after lunch, I went straight to bed until dinnertime. To create an immersion experience, I had opted to live and eat with a Mexican family. That experience was mixed as well. I had naively expected the family to be interested in a cultural exchange and in helping me practice my Spanish a bit. I didn’t understand that the homestay is primarily a way for the families to bring in some extra money.
I left the school discouraged and frustrated. I decided to meet up with some American friends who were sailing on the Pacific coast of Mexico. One day we hired a local guide to take us for a day trip. As my friends went off to explore, I stayed on the beach with him the whole day and practiced my Spanish. Finally I was having a real experience, hearing real Spanish and getting to use my Spanish for actual communication with someone I wanted to talk to. I tipped him double.
Back in the US, I decided to meet only with Mexicans for language exchanges. I also started watching the little Mexican television programming that was available in my city at the time: a news program and a handful of telenovelas. I began to notice new expressions in Spanish for the first time. This was a beginning of period of rapid growth in my Spanish skills.
Inspired by my progress, I began visiting Mexico for three or four months at a time. During my first week in Guanajuato I had the good fortune to make friends with a Mexican student. He invited me to live with him and several Mexican roommates. We took a road trip together through Oaxaca, Veracruz and Chiapas. I started attending a different kind of Spanish school, one with week-long courses in Mexican culture, history and politics for foreigners. Each week I repeated the same courses, learning something new each time. I made friends with fellow students from the US, Germany and Australia. I socialized outside of school with several of the teachers. I ate street tacos for the time and heard the omnipresent word wey.
During my periods back in the US, my speaking chops would get rusty. However, I watched hundred of hours of telenovelas, pausing the DVR to make notes about useful language. I read I could get my hands on about Spanish. I started thinking for the first time about writing a book about Mexican Spanish for foreigners. In 2003 I bought this domain, mexicanspanish.com.
In 2007 I moved to Mexico full-time and started making a life here both professionally and personally. I began living with Mexicans and dating Mexicans. I had to carry out new tasks in Spanish for the first time, such as opening a bank account, talking on the phone, or arguing with a friend. I completed a practical training course for Spanish teachers. I took two examinations, one national and one international, to certify my language competence, earning the highest possible speaking score on both. Although I continue to learn new and useful vocabulary, most of the Spanish I use here on a daily basis I learned before becoming a full-time resident. The main difference is that now I have more confidence with the language.