I started learning Spanish in eighth grade, and loved it so much that I continued my studies as I moved on to high school and university. I had no trouble conjugating verbs, using proper genders for nouns and adjectives, or pronouncing sounds foreign to most English speakers. But no matter how much effort I put in, this “classroom version” of Spanish wasn’t giving me everything I needed; there was something missing.
According to most linguists, there is a critical age or period (usually before puberty) where language acquisition is monumentally easier. As adults, it’s much harder for our brains to learn an entirely new language beyond what we picked up during that time in our lives — but it’s not impossible. One of the best ways to learn a language as an adult is to immerse yourself in it — in other words, to live in an environment where you’re constantly surrounded by the language, day in and day out. While that’s not always feasible, one way to do it is to study or teach abroad. That’s what I did.
Intrigued by the possibility of immersing myself in a Spanish-speaking country, I looked for opportunities to do so. Finally, my opportunity came during my undergraduate years. I was offered a placement in Sevilla, Spain for five months. While there, I lived with other Americans but made it a point to befriend locals as well, with whom I spoke Spanish almost exclusively. I also made sure to converse in Spanish with store workers, restaurant servers, and in my everyday interactions on the street. I attended classes in Spanish and even went to a Spanish-speaking doctor when I was sick.
Within the first month, I noticed progress. As I grew familiar with the local dialect and developed a southern Spanish accent, I began to blend into the neighborhood crowds. I had Americans asking me in broken Spanish for directions and Spaniards striking up conversations with me, unaware that I was an English speaker by default. Perhaps my Mediterranean complexion encouraged this, but I like to think my determination to master the language manifested itself in such a way that I looked like a sevillano purely because I wanted to be one.
Through talking with locals and embracing my temporary status as one, I learned aspects of the language that no classroom would ever have afforded me. I picked up street slang, abbreviations, profanities, and pronunciations that were too informal for a textbook. I realized the extent to which English had made its way into the local parlance — in southern Spain, the word for a store receipt is “un ticket” and “un crack” is actually slang for someone who does something worthy of acclaim. I learned that “qué guay” means “cool” and that “qué fuerte” has a variety of meanings, from “what a shame” to “awesome!” I noticed that Spanish has no word for “to borrow” or “to own,” and that instead, one says “to have something lent to you” and “to be the owner of.” It’s understanding these little nuances that marks the line between someone who knows how to speak Spanish, and someone who can truly blend into the Spanish-speaking world.
In the elapsed time since studying abroad, I haven’t once fooled myself into thinking that my study of the Spanish language is complete. A quote by my friend and teacher Skip Hancock sums it up well: “Mastery is the process of renewal.” That couldn’t be truer when it comes to learning a new language. I committed myself to coming back to the U.S. with a higher level of proficiency in Spanish than when I left, and since then, I have continually renewed my understanding of the language in my lifelong journey to truly master it. If you’re looking to learn a new language, take some time to explore the option of living abroad. You’ll find that language acquisition will come more easily than within the walls of a lecture hall.
If you’ve successfully acquired a new language as an adult and have any helpful tips for those just starting out, feel free to share them in the comments below!