If you’ve ever had the opportunity to attend a language exchange event or meet up, you might find yourself spending little or no time talking to native speakers. This can feel like a bit of a shame, but it’s an experience shared by anyone in a language course, when the teacher is the only native speaker in the room. What can you gain from practising with other learners?
Teaching is a great way to learn. If you discover gaps between your knowledge and theirs, explaining a small grammar point or new piece of vocabulary helps cement your own knowledge.
Listening will often be easier by virtue of them speaking more slowly… and if they sound more British than Valencian you might be able to follow them better (even if you’re not honing your accent).
Sympathy is a good thing to find with a fellow learner – with Spanish, I think people have trouble with the speed, and almost everyone rolls their eyes at German grammar. (See also the perfect German word for sympathy: Mitleid, literally with-suffering).
Tips and Resources! Everyone can suggest a film, app, podcast, musician or travel destination to help your language journey and cultural experience.
I just returned from one of these experiences, where I ended up chatting in Spanish with a Danish person (like you do), and came back thinking about the benefits of non-fluent chat. You can still make the most of it!
Of the four language-learning pillars, listening is most likely to induce panic. Speaking, reading and writing can all be done at your own pace, but you can’t pause native speakers or hit “x0.5 speed”. Classic example – Tina Fey’s 30 Rock character trying out her high school German #hubcap?
The Listening Problem
Hearing the real language has to happen, but you have to manage it carefully. I had to study French and German between the ages of 11-14, and I remember the feeling of confusion and despair – and a little bit of betrayal – when I went to those countries with my family. You know, you’re suddenly surrounded by native speakers talking Martian(?) and you realise: “oh no. Oh right. I know nothing.” How can you tackle this shock?
Every morning, I listen to two news podcasts. First, I get a five minute German-language version, which helps wake up my brain, and gives me the headlines. Second, I click on the El País podcast, which is a three minute deluge of Spanish I barely understand. I would never recommend it to intermediate learners – it’s too depressing – unless you play it at x0.5 speed and want to hear a drunk newscaster.
It is easy to find the real, slightly bewildering spoken language – you can choose Netflix shows, the evening news, some YouTubers. It is important to expose yourself to the real thing, because this never happened when I was in school, and the learning materials alone cannot reflect how people actually talk. That said, beginner or intermediate listening practice will help you improve in a way that standard resources won’t.
Also consider finding a tandem partner, Conversation Exchange is a popular site allowing you to find a language partner to swap languages via messaging, skyping or meeting up in your city. It has a ‘classic’ design (ca. 2004?) but there are active users!
If you are in a face to face conversation, you probably won’t understand everything they say. My last piece of advice is to look up – or remind yourself – how to ask the person to slow down, or repeat something, or to rephrase it. Sé valiente y probarlo!
Zero is an interesting place from which to start a Duolingo course, as it was when I began Spanish about two years ago. I recognised a few words, but to give you an idea, when I saw the word mujer I thought “what the hell is that”. The private disappointment that I knew hombre but not the word for women made me more determined to gain some Spanish. Two years later, I’m at an intermediate, B1-B2 level (see the Central European Framework of Reference). How does that happen, and what does it mean?
It’s possible to finish a Duolingo course in a few weeks, but as fast as you accumulate lesson badges, the faster they ‘fade’. I was interested in Spanish but not in a hurry, so I set my daily goal to the basic level and concentrated on revision as much as progression. That approach took me a year – quite a while, but it felt more valuable than finishing and dropping the course in five months.
The advantage of Duolingo has always been that it gives you a taste for the language as well as some familiarity – in more concrete terms, when I began evening classes a year ago, I was on the cusp of A2, or upper beginner.
How did I get from beginner to intermediate? In the past year I’ve had 40 hours of super good group classes, regular conversation with a tandem partner, active learning time with apps, and passive time spent listening to podcasts, watching Easy Spanish, etc. etc. What does B1 mean?
I have a good understanding of Spanish but I rely on clear communication and I have to be in familiar situations. If I overhear some Spanish teenagers on the train, it’s like snatching words of a whirlwind.
I can write simple texts (with errors) – for example at work I sometimes trade emails in Spanish with a colleague (who sympathises, because he’s always trying to improve his English).
I can discuss opinions and plans with native speakers.
What’s next? B2, upper intermediate, means you can talk to native speakers without either of you making a lot of effort. At the moment, there is a ton of pausing, and questioning, and switching between English and Spanish. So – next stop, effortless Spanish! Easy!
Language learning can feel full of setbacks if we start with super-high, new-year style goals. In an ideal world, you take up studying, speaking and writing in Spanish, and 18 months later you’ve got a mountain of vocabulary and speaking confidence. Most online resources – including bloggers like me – don’t often acknowledge lost motivation and ‘lost’ skills.
Instead of goals, here’s my language failures and ‘abandoned’ languages:
French || My first – and worst – foreign language! Like most British kids I started French aged 11, and I always liked the language but I really disliked learning it. There were two classes sorted by ability, and it really put a nail in my French ambitions when, in my final year, I was moved from the ‘good’ class to the ‘less good’ class. The mandatory classes ended when I was 14 and I never looked back – until Summer 2017 when I spent a month cramming basic French for a vacation using Memrise… that convinced me French was still tricky but that I could actually enjoy it.
German || My school made us take two languages, which was a nightmare for some of us. I was randomly assigned to take five years of German (other option: Spanish), and I liked it, but by the end I had a B grade and could tell someone I had two sisters and lived in a detached house. Since 2015 I have gone from apps, to evening classes, to intensive courses, to using German at my job. But those feelings of inadequacy are hard to shake – while my understanding is 100%, I often second-guess myself or feel self-conscious when speaking. I know lots of people who are fluent in English but they focus on tiny weaknesses or small errors. It sucks that imperfections and anxieties feel like failures, but it happens to everyone.
Spanish || The second foreign language I can actually speak! I started an evening course a year ago, and I am at the intermediate stage – so still optimistic. Nevertheless, every day I regret all the learning I’m not doing: I started a diary in Spanish – stopped that! I have a lovely tandem partner to learn with – but when did I last see her? Where are the handmade flashcards? Why am I not reading El País every day? Will I ever finish ‘El Ministerio del Tiempo’? When I do pick up my phone to learn, I enjoy it, and that’s the important thing.
Okay here’s one resolution for 2019: there’s limited resources to learn Swedish (because it’s not super useful) but there’s course for German speakers called ‘Sprich mal Schwedish’ and my Noble Goal for the year is to have a crack at it. (I don’t know, I can enjoy the Scandinoir better? I’ll have a leg up if Sweden ever invades?)
My advice: keep your goals flexible, don’t feel guilty about taking a break from a language, and download a dictionary onto your phone!