“Poco a Poco”: Learning a Language

I have a confession to make. When I arrived in Spain, I rapidly became quite discouraged and disillusioned over the monumental difficulty of truly becoming fluent in a language and of then maintaining that fluency. The way that I solved this temptation to despair and sulk, moody and mute, during the remainder of my time in Spain (translation: do enough to get by in the classroom and spend time lots of time with American friends speaking English)? Well, I’m not sure that I’ve yet entirely overcome the temptation to indulge in frustration (we all have our days), but my mentality has become this: learning a language is a process. And I may never really speak like a native (the perfectionist in me wants to throw a tantrum at this one). But these realities should in no way preclude me from giving my all while I’m here, seeking to learn as much as I possibly can, to the glory of God (Colossians 3:23). And by His grace, progress I am making!

The 10th century castle I walk by on my way to classes each day. Love it!

But first…a dose of reality. You see, there is a gaping chasm, far larger than I could have imagined, between proficiency in the classroom and the mastery of a language. Certainly, one can learn a great deal in the classroom—I know I certainly have!—but this is simply not enough. Where, then, does one really begin to put the pieces together and to comprehend and speak like a native? Well, in the real world. Where everyone speaks Spanish. One thing I’ve noted, since arriving, is that, although my classes (thus far, anyway) don’t demand the same number of hours of study as do my courses at Erskine, simply living in Spain is in itself a challenge. I remember my friend Aimée’s mentioning this before I left Erskine, but I didn’t really understand what she meant until I arrived. This type of constant, 24-7 language learning is called immersion, as you doubtless know, and it is both exciting and exhausting.

Calle Mayor–a street I walk down daily

If, for example, you have a cold and need to purchase medicine, you will need to be able to converse with the pharmacist about various medications—in Spanish—before successfully making your purchase. When you go to church on Sunday mornings, the sermon, and the “small-talk” following the sermon will be both uplifting and, in addition, will require great concentration and will frequently involve several repetitions of “¿cómo?” (“what’s that?”) and awkward moments of partial-comprehension. If, on your fourth day in Spain, you get lost on your way to catch your bus to the university, numerous kind people will be only too happy to help you find you way again (the Spanish are, I’ve found, remarkably open and friendly)—but, of course, this will be helpful only if you can understand their extremely rapid Spanish. (Yes, this is my veiled way of admitting that, during my first week here, I often asked directions of multiple people before I was able to piece tog
ether a coherent picture of where exactly it was that I needed to go.) And when, after you’ve had a long day, you blithely head to a Bible study to be refreshed and renewed by Scripture and fellowship? Make sure you have a bilingual translation handy, or you may be utterly lost during the discussion of the passage. Not that that would ever happen to me, of course.

This is the wonderful Bible study group I’ve become part of since arriving in Spain. What a blessing!

Now that I have waxed prolix on the difficulties of learning a language, perhaps I ought to avoid seeming sardonicism by pointing out that, although I’ve had my moments of frustration while in Spain, many of the situations enumerated above are no longer a problem for me (hooray!). In fact, I’ve begun, of late, to be able to actually laugh and joke with Spanish friends (instead of stuttering stiltedly) and, in general, to communicate with far greater facility. And I’ve only been here for a matter of weeks! Perhaps I’m a bit impatient? It really is exciting to walk down the street and, upon hearing snatches of conversation, realize that I understand what’s going on. It’s also great fun to be able to talk with Spanish friends in an almost-normal way. (I would say normal…but I hardly thing that competency at chit-chat and basic conversation is impressive enough to term “normal”. Stay tuned for greater progress in week seven.) I’ve also been thrilled to find th
at, after years of attempting to “read” books in Spanish, I really can sit down now and work through the *cough* modest library I’ve begun collecting since arriving in Alicante. I’m currently reading a work of non-fiction on leadership and two novels—and my vocabulary base is now actually wide enough for me to follow the storylines! I may have something like a fourth-grade reading level, yes…but still. That is exciting.

And as my lovely host mom frequently reminded me during my first couple of weeks in Spain, fluency will come– poco a poco (little by little). As with most worthwhile things in life, it just takes time.