The Roller Coaster of Learning a Language
People ask me all the time if I am fluent in Spanish. My response, as you can probably imagine, is a little bit ironic (I will probably never learn): “What does fluent mean?” Obviously, after living abroad in Spain for so long, my Spanish is better than people who just come and stay for a year, but it is not perfect and there are days when I get so frustrated because I don’t feel like I can truly express myself. So am I fluent? I guess so―I work, socialize, think, dream, etc. in Spanish without a problem, most of the time. However, my Spanish is not perfect, and I think that the journey getting to where I am today has been a bit of a roller coaster...
The best part of this analogy is that I find that most people who have truly learned a second language get it! We all understand what it is like to be ‘way up high,’ when you are having a great day and don’t have any problems understanding other people or saying what you want to say. These days/weeks are wonderful because they give you the confidence to keep going and make you feel like you really have been making progress.
But then there are the days/weeks when things are more difficult. When you feel like you haven’t really learned anything and you don’t really know how to say exactly what you want to say. These are the moments when you kind of hate Spanish because the verb tenses are so difficult (hola subjuntivo) or because the reflexive verbs make you want to cry*. It doesn’t help that my little brother has been here since his junior year in high school (and in general is better at grammar than me), which means that he can correct me all the time.
At the same time, when you are on a language high as everything seems easy, I don’t always know if you learn as much as when you are down and frustrated. When someone tells you over and over again that it is se me da bien (I am good at…) and not me da bien, it is easier to remember how to say those things correctly. Personally, I find that I learned a lot from going to Spanish class and that I learned even more from studying/reading in Spanish, but I also learn a lot when I am in everyday situations with friends (or my brother) who kindly laugh at me when I say something wrong. Eventually, when they laugh at me enough, it sticks and I remember to say it right.
No matter how you see it, however, the ups and downs seem to be part of learning a language. Don’t get too frustrated by feeling on top of the world one week, and then like you know nothing the next week. We all go through it, and it is what scares me most about learning another language (which is on my ‘to do’ list)―learning a language is hard (and living in Spanish is tiring). There will be days when you are doing awesome, and other days that aren’t so good.
Our personal recommendations are to challenge yourself, to have fun (maybe try learning Spanish outside of the classroom?), and to take time off when you need it. There is nothing wrong with Skyping home or reading a book in English because you need a break. Even after living in Spain for years I still read faster and stronger in English than Spanish, and I am okay with that. And there are still days when my friends are talking and I totally zone out or say something that doesn’t make sense because I am tired (or don’t know how).
It is a hard journey, but it is beautiful too. Like getting on a roller coaster, it will be fast and fun, and at some moments, scream-worthily frustrating.
*When I wrote my dissertation (final undergrad thesis―I did my undergrad in Spain) in Spanish, it was the first time I was constantly challenged about reflexive verbs, and se is something that was really hard for me. My friend Alex helped me correct this paper and every other sentence seemed to have something wrong. On the bright side, when I wrote my master thesis, I didn’t have nearly so many problems with se (although I was able to recognize to other issues that needed to be worked on).