To understand and correctly use a new language is a lengthy, tumultuous process. Unless you’re that one guy who got Icelandic down pat in just 10 days, the trial and error period of learning to fully restructure the mental machinery you use every day to interpret your environment and respond accordingly can be a bit of a struggle. Though if you do it our way, and plunge right into a culture that functions on the language you’re trying to learn, you’ll learn faster than you think. I actually had the opportunity to step out and survey my progress more clearly this weekend after a brief trip to Ireland. Once the plane landed in Dublin, I spent the next day and a half doing double-takes when I heard English—albeit a different species thereof—being spoken by passerby. And then I did more double-takes when I caught myself doing the initial double-takes. When I finally re-entered Spain, I was so comfortable with my Spanish that I hardly realized how much things had changed since the first time we landed in Madrid. And so I began to retrace my steps…
1. “Could you please repeat that?”
For some, this first stage is also known as the “Did I ever actually learn Spanish?” stage. Passing conversation sounds like a chaotic exchange of arbitrary mouth-sounds, and you hope that nobody on the street will ever stop to talk to you. At the least, you can feign deafness, or get by with a simple, “Sí,” and hope that you didn’t just agree to something unseemly. Conversation is difficult when many of your responses are delayed by weighing your two options of either 1) replying to what you think was said, or 2) feel like an incredible nuisance and ask the other person to repeat what they said for the third time. If you’re constantly surrounded by Spanish-speakers, you might go awhile without hearing the sound of your own voice, or at least without constructing a full sentence. This can be the most overwhelming stage, but hang in there.
2. “How do you say that?”
Little by little, your conversation skills improve. Even though it’s still essentially impossible to find your best friend in a Spanish-speaker at this point, as it’s difficult to get to know someone when you only understand the gist of what they say, you’re confident enough to start laying the groundwork. A bit of sidra can help with that. The biggest problem is, however, that you quickly run out of stuff to say. You have a reliable piggy bank of useful phrases, and you can conjugate the most common verb tenses, but your vocabulary is still lacking. Conversations may end too soon; sometimes you can get no farther than giving your basic biography. You’ll find yourself suddenly in conversational territory that you’re ill-equipped to traverse. You want to dig into the stuff that you and your friends talk about in the States, but you aren’t sure how to say “feminist theory” in Spanish. You’d describe it to the other person so maybe they could help you out, but unfortunately you lack the words to do that, too. The important things is, though, that you’re talking and improving.
3. The Muddling
Prepare for a very brief, but very weird trip into psychological badlands. It starts by forgetting how to say certain phrases in English, which is a problem when there are many things you still don’t know how to say in Spanish. You’re doing your best to think only in Spanish, but since you’re knowledge of the language only extends so far, you’ve effectively limited your own range of possibilities for thought. Your head is empty but for thoughts that translate to: “I am walking to my house right now. I have to study. Later, I’m going to meet my friends at a cafe.” There’s the occasional vague English mental background noise, but you do your best to keep it at bay. Then, when you go to speak to your American friends in English, you’re so used to attempting to avoid the language that you find yourself tongue-tied. You feel like your identity is in limbo, but The Muddling only comes in brief episodes. Think of it as the growing pains of learning a language.
4. The Plateau
You’re language skills aren’t where they were when you first started, that’s for sure. You know you’ve made leaps and bounds in improving your Spanish, but somehow you can’t fully convince yourself of this fact. There are whole worlds of grammar and vocab you want to learn, but you don’t know how to make it happen. “Stagnant” is the best word you can think of to describe your situation, and coincidentally also a word you don’t know how to say in Spanish. It feels like you’ve stopped improving, and you worry things won’t pick up again. The Plateau never happens only once. You hit them at intervals throughout your journey, even in the most advanced stages. Usually, the Plateau is a good warning sign that you’ve gotten too comfortable. Remedy the situation by getting out and talking to new people.
5. “Espera… ¡Estoy pensando en español!”
When you first got off the plane, thinking in Spanish was a chore. At times mentally taxing, it always required conscious intention. It’s the only place to truly begin the process of mastering a language, but the problem is that at the start, you can only really think in translated Spanish. That is to say, you were probably thinking: “I’m thinking in Spanish,” in English. What makes the moment when thinking in Spanish stops being a dissociative experience is that you won’t even realize it at first. Thought is automatic, but people are also specially gifted with the ability to stop and think about what they’re thinking about. The day that the lightning bolt strikes, and you find that what was once a “foreign language” is now your part-time inner monologue, you’ll feel like you won the lottery.
Confidence was a long time coming, but it’s finally arrived. You still make plenty of mistakes—words are forgotten and people are misheard—but that’s only because you’re talking more. You can switch between Spanish and English at the drop of a hat, and you’ve realized it’s now possible to eavesdrop on Spanish-speakers (careful with this new power). You might even feel brave enough to step up and help that English tourist understand what the bus driver is trying to tell him. You might be so convincing that passing acquaintances may not ever realize that you aren’t actually from Spain.
7. The Spanish Dream
This is the Holy Grail for any language student. The Spanish Dream is that monumental moment when the language has made itself so at home in the wrinkles of your brain that it knows it’s way around without having to consciously consult you. Strangely enough, the first I can recall having was during my first night in Dublin. This doesn’t make you fluent—you can still speak incorrect Spanish while dreaming—but it does mean you’ve made such a habit of thinking and practicing that you can literally do it “in your sleep.”
Anything I say about fluency would be pure guesswork. I’m not there yet. And I’m sure there are plenty of other steps between 6 and 7, too. Some experts say fluency may only be attainable for those who begin learning a language before the age of six, and so I, who was not so lucky as to have my infant brain molded by the Spanish language, may not be so lucky. But who knows? What’s important is that fluency is something much more complex that only comes after much more hard work than I originally thought. Before coming to Spain, five months sounded like a long time. Now it’s clear that five months is probably not enough if fluency is on your agenda. But the truth is that fluency isn’t even necessary to do all the things that you might need language to do for you. It’s just as well to be able to speak Spanish at a level that allows you to have a conversation, to understand the culture, and to make friends. Fluency is great and all, but as with any language, these things aren’t so fixed. Show me two English-speaking people with exactly the same vocabulary and attention to grammar, and then tell me what exactly it means to be fluent. To speak Spanish at an operational level, as I’m proud to say many of us are already doing, is a feat in itself, and at the end of the day may be all that we ever really wanted.