How to,  Language Learning,  Living Abroad

How I maintain my Spanish without living in a Spanish speaking country

Dear Emily,

Learning a language is hard but maintaining that language, especially when living in a country that doesn’t speak the language, may be even harder. I have lived outside of Spain for over five years, however, I am using Spanish more than ever now that I have a little one in my life, trying to ensure that their language learning journey starts sooner than my own. I have to admit that even though it is something that I have wanted to do, talking to a child in my non-native language means I have to work hard to keep it as up-to-date as I can (with the investment I am willing to make).

Luckily, I do feel like my base was very strong (I considered myself to be fluent in Spanish before leaving the country). This has been beneficial because I haven’t been actively trying to learn more or improve my language skills as much as not lose what I already have. I know that everyone will have different takes on how to maintain language skills but these are some of the ways I keep a good hold on my Spanish while living in Finland.


Talking with native speakers

They say that practice makes perfect and practicing with people who are native speakers encourages us to read, reflect, and respond in that language in a way that I think is very beneficial. While my contact with Spanish-speaking friends has ebbed and flowed depending on the season, it is not uncommon for me to connect with friends living abroad relatively frequently either through texts, emails, or calls. At some points during the last five years, I have probably spoken more with friends in Spain than I have interacted with friends here in Finland!

In addition, if I have access to people living locally who speak the language I try to connect with them too. When I lived in Helsinki, this was pretty easy and I had several connections who spoke Spanish with me (including one Finn who is married to an Argentinian). At the moment, despite living in a pretty rural part of Finland, I have contact with one Spaniard who lives close by and I recently heard that there is another one I could connect with too. Connecting with people I can see face-to-face is also really nice because it means you not only have the possibility to practice the language but also to get out of the house and meet up with people, which isn’t always easy as a foreigner in a new town.


Traveling back to Spain

Another way that I keep my Spanish up-to-date is by going back to Spain and communicating with people while there. I consider myself very fortunate that my family still lives in Spain and I have a good excuse to go back to visit the places where I lived and talk with the friends and acquaintances I have there. It is also a great way to expose my new family to Spanish in a more immersive way and to introduce them to other beautiful aspects of the country I called home for many years.

Traveling is such a good way to be motivated to practice a language or even to grow within your language because you will find yourself in new situations or “forced” to speak because it is all around you. It also allows you to get back into the routine of speaking every day and dusting off the spiderwebs that may have collected around the language. This is especially great if you have been putting off practicing or are in a very secure routine and don’t change your day-to-day very much. It is also a good moment to focus on what has been harder for you recently and try to improve where you can.


Reading books

We are strong encouragers of interacting with different types of media such as books, movies, or tv to help develop and maintain language skills. I have to admit that recently my energy has gone mostly towards reading in Spanish (I don’t watch tv or movies very much at all and less now we have a little one at home). Although reading in English is simpler for me, reading in Spanish isn’t too difficult and is a good way to expand my language skills. Like with traveling, these types of media will often put you in a place that you don’t expect and you are able to develop your capacity during the process.

Another way to incorporate this into my daily life is to invest in baby books in Spanish. Because reading is such a big part of my life, we are hoping to introduce it in different ways with our little one, one of which is by ensuring that they have their own tiny library. When family visit or we go to Spain picking up a book or two is definitely on this list! Our little one already likes to look at them, so it is fun for the whole family. By far our favorite book is ¡Mírame! ¡Soy un gatito! but we also recently discovered the Pequeña&Grande books which are beautifully written and illustrated biographies of some of the famous people throughout history.


Following news and social media

I am now spending less and less time reading the news or scrolling on social media but, at times, this has been a great way for me to stay current with what is happening in Spain or understanding current cultural norms. Also, I find it really interesting to see how different world news is presented differently in different places, so this is a bonus for also understanding new perspectives on the same things you might only be seeing from your home country or news source of choice.


Practicing every day

Since the beginning of the year, the biggest thing I have been actively doing is practicing Spanish every day. Maybe I did speak, read, or write at least once a day before but now I am really upping my Spanish speaking game. This isn’t always easy because Spanish is not my first language and I sometimes stall when thinking of words or how to express concepts. However, the more I practice, the more it flows.

I also want to note that I am not worried about being 100% perfect all the time, mostly because I know that I won’t be. My Spanish is simply not 100% perfect and I don’t think it needs to be for me to use it in daily life with my family (for more inspiration of people speaking their non-native languages at home, I can recommend BilingualCoco on Instagram). Therefore, I do find myself looking up words I don’t know and feeling silly when I have been making basic errors. For example, for a while I was saying “erupto” for burp instead of “eructo” until one day I questioned myself and looked for a translation.

From what I have understood, exposure to a language is more important at this point than being perfect all the time. Being able to express feelings tops my list of important things and I am focused on making sure I am comfortable doing that. In addition, I invent many silly songs in Spanish, read children’s books out loud, and just try to communicate as well as I can. And I have noticed that by practicing every day, I am not only exposing my little one to the language, I am also improving my confidence in myself to speak my non-native language on a daily basis.


So let me know what are your best tips for maintaining a language you have learned while no longer living in a place that speaks them! I would really be interested to get more ideas!

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