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Learning Spanish takes time

Just this week, an email came through letting me know it was time to sign up for the next term’s worth of Spanish lessons. Not wanting to miss out (and always falling for the “places are limited, sign up now!” line), I duly clicked through to enter my card details and get my place confirmation. What I was surprised by, though, was the list of past transactions in my account. I’ve forked over a surprisingly large amount of money to further my language-learning goals since my first class when I was shown a flashcard depicting a sun and another with a moon and the teacher carefully enunciated buenos dias and buenas noches.

Since April 2015, I’ve been taking evening and/or Saturday language classes at my local university. In other words, I’ve been learning Spanish for almost two years now – it’s my Span-iversary (you can have that one for free). From struggling to understand or speak a civil word to my suegros, I’m now capable of watching (and understanding…mostly) the news in Spanish, reading a novel, and chatting away on Skype. I’ve even got my DELE B2 to prove it. So how hard was it to get here?

In terms of money, because I’ve paid for the classes in blocks of 6, 10, or 20 weeks it’s always been a manageable expense. I haven’t been to any pricey DELE prep courses in Madrid or any residential language immersion schools – although some of my classmates have and they sound like fun experiences. There are tons of free resources online, including Coffee Break Spanish, which I’m almost evangelical about. I’ve bought most of my textbooks secondhand, and use the Word Reference free dictionary app.

The real investment has been the time and effort (isn’t it always). I heard while studying for my DELE B1 that the key to improvement in learning a language is daily practice – and so it is, no shortcuts here I’m afraid. So while immersion in a Spanish-speaking environment would have been ideal, I’ve made do with radio programmes, TV, varied reading materials (starting out with kids’ books and fashion magazines and progressing up to more challenging texts) – and daily conversation with my Spanish prometido.

This is where I’ve had a clear advantage over my classmates – as well as the extra language-learning motivation that comes from not wanting to get left out of the animated conversation of the sobremesa on our frequent trips to Spain, I’ve had a human dictionary at home who’s there to correct my every grammatical misstep. But while I’ve been half-jokingly accused of “cheating” in my language learning due to having a Spanish partner, getting this far in the language hasn’t been easy. It’s a constant effort to express yourself in a language that’s not your own, and all too easy to slip back into English when a concept is just too nuanced to verbalise easily in castellano. Frankly, I don’t know how Carlos manages in English every day. But he does, and it’s impressive.

Learning to communicate properly in a foreign language is a struggle, no lie. In many ways, it goes against the grain to speak and understand another tongue – that’s why it’s so unsurprising to me that people can study, say, French for seven years at school and at the end still barely speak it. And it’s why I smiled when I heard a radio interview with Michael Edwards, the first ever British person to be elected to the French Academy, who said he still didn’t feel he’d mastered the French language. I’m sure I’m revealing no big secret here when I say that learning a foreign language is a lifelong process: a really big investment.