Is immersion into a completely different culture with a different language the best way to learn that language?


Misconception: I will learn Spanish quickly if I live in Loja, Ecuador. (This page is in response to the idea that native English speaking “expats” – usually referring to retirees from “first world” countries who move to other countries — should move to a place like Loja which has very few English speakers in order to learn Spanish quickly. However, the information is relevant for many parallel situations, such as moving to any place where pretty much only Spanish is spoken thinking that then you will finally be able to learn it.)

The hard truth seems to be that people can learn Spanish no matter where they live, but if you are over the age of 30, chances are it’s going to take lessons and practice, lots and lots of practice. I have heard so many expats say that they will learn Spanish when they get to Ecuador and it will be easy because they will be surrounded by it. But after years of taking lessons most still cannot understand more than a few words of Spanish spoken by a native speaker in a natural conversation and can say close to nothing that is understood by them. And yet, there are a few who are learning the language successfully. So, what is the difference?

The bottom line seems to be that those who really learn Spanish well later in life are either very gifted foreign language learners, or, if they are mere mortals like the rest of us, they learn it quickly due to already knowing another romance language (French, Italian, Portuguese or Romanian, all of which have very similar grammar and sentence structure to Spanish) OR… they are extremely dedicated to the endeavor. So unless you have one of the other two advantages, it just takes lots and lots of study, time, effort, etc. Especially in this age of internet, you could do this from an apartment in Poughkeepsie or a shack (with web access) in Indonesia. The ability to learn is going to come from the commitment, not from the place. After you learn a bit you will need to be hearing it and speaking it. There are more hours of Spanish spoken on youtube than you will have time for in this life. Speaking it will be a bit more challenging in some places, but there’s always skype. Or, if you are in the States, perhaps you can find some Latino/a neighbors with whom to practice.

Why do people think that being surrounded by people who speak a different language means they will learn that language? If I, speaking NO Mandarin (Chinese), went to a remote village in China where no English was spoken and was surrounded by only Mandarin speakers, do you really think I would pick up Mandarin? Suppose some English-speakers moved into the village? Who do you think I would hang out with? Suppose the English speakers then moved away. Would I be rattling off paragraphs in Mandarin in no time? More likely I would be incredibly lonely and isolated and desperately wanting to return to something familiar where I could buy food and get my basic needs met without it being an ordeal each time, no matter how nice the locals tried to be.

And by the way, SOME people say it’s easier to learn Chinese than Spanish (but not my friend Vera who lived in Asia for many years). Check this link which compares Chinese to English but is also very relevant to why Chinese may be easier to learn than Spanish (and it may also make you laugh). Note, Vera says it’s not true and that the person who wrote that article does not have a clue. But even if Chinese is 100 times harder to learn than Spanish, the point of this article is to discuss why Spanish is so hard to learn and to give pointers for how to make it easier. For the record, I do have a North American friend (native English speaker) who thought she would pick up Spanish quickly in Ecuador because she learned Chinese and other languages easily, but after years of trying she is still not leaning Spanish. She chalks it up to learning Chinese at a young age and trying to learn Spanish as an older adult.

I lived in Cuenca for one year before moving to Loja and during that year I met many wonderful, kind, compassionate, fun-loving, sincere North American expats. Almost all of them expressed an interest in learning Spanish since they were living in a Spanish-speaking country. Many were taking classes of one sort or another. With only a couple exceptions, they were making very little progress. Why? First and foremost, most grossly underestimated the amount of work it would actually take to learn the language and were only in classes a few hours each week and spent little time studying or practicing outside of that. Other misconceptions complicated things further for many. I heard things like, “I don’t feel that verb conjugation is important, I am going to learn the language without that.” (Which is kind of like saying, “it doesn’t matter if the brakes work on my car as long as the steering is good”.)

What are some of the other doozies? One friend said he was annoyed at trying to understand accent marks and special Spanish alphabet letters like the “ñ”. Reminds me of the famous internet story of the gringo who was trying to pick up a young woman in a Latin American bar. Trying to impress her with his 10 words of Spanish, he said “Cuantos anos tienes?” Because he used an “n” instead of an “ñ”, he thought he was asking her “How old are you?” but he was actually asking her “How many anuses do you have?” The woman was not impressed. A first date was not scheduled…

Some people think they can skip the grammar and the written Spanish and just take classes in Spanish conversation. Well, good luck with that. You will probably want to stay in a community with lots of English speakers if that is your strategy. [This is not a judgment. There is nothing wrong with learning enough Spanish to get by in a place with an English-speaking expat population, in fact this is what the vast majority of North American expats in Ecuador end up doing.]

Another thing I’ve noticed a lot is gringos who claim they’ve learned Spanish (i.e., they are done), some even stating they are fluent, when there is so much that they really don’t have a clue about. Some such people claiming fluency will write on social media forums like Facebook “Spanish lessons” in response to a question and will give completely wrong information. We have to give them points for trying but possibly demerits for arrogance.

In my opinion, and that of many others, Spanish is actually a very beautiful language, flowery and long-winded. It’s also a lot more formal than English. Sentence structure is complicated. So for those who really are trying hard to learn Spanish and finding it is much more difficult than expected, take heart in this:

Spanish really IS a lot more complicated than English. NOT in terms of pronunciation and spelling (where English wins the Complication Award hands down). But in many other ways. Click here for a more technical discussion of why Spanish is a lot more complicated than English.

I had the good fortune to teach a university class in 2013 and again in 2014 that included a unit on how English came to be a global language. You can blame it largely on the British as it was originally spread around the globe when they were colonizing 6 continents at once (see this page for a map of the only 22 countries in the world today whose land was never invaded by the British). But what I learned from teaching this unit is that the REASON English is here to stay is that it is much, much simpler than other languages. That will not get you very far in many places in Ecuador, though, as it doesn’t seem to have caught on quite yet, especially in smaller cities like Loja.

But, anyway, the point is that Spanish is complicated!! You can learn it, but you aren’t going to learn it by moving to a place where only Spanish is spoken and absorbing it. In fact you’ll probably learn it faster living in a place that has more than a few English speakers because you’ll be less stressed, sleeping better and having easier interactions all day long. But you’ll need to find a good Spanish teacher, no matter where you are, who can explain things in a way that you understand and can build on. (Some people do better with books and/or internet sites as their “teacher,” most people will progress most quickly with a combination.) And if you’re like most older language learners, you’ll need to study. A LOT.

Recommendations for those who sincerely want to learn Spanish well enough to have meaningful conversations with native speakers:

1. Learn how to pronounce the letters of the Spanish alphabet, especially the vowels, from the very beginning. It is much easier to learn it correctly at the start than to fix ingrained bad habits later (although if you already have the bad habits, you still need to fix them). And if you can’t pronounce the letters right, no one will understand you. Except for the “rr” that people stress about so much. The “rr” is really not that important if you can pronounce the other letters.

2. Learn the rules for how to know which syllable to stress, what an accent mark means, and when to use accent marks or not.

3. Learn the verb conjugations. The book “501 Spanish Verbs” published by Barron’s, has an excellent beginning section that explains how to form each tense, when and how to use it and idiosyncrasies about the tense. Beyond that it is a great reference for irregular verbs. The authors of this book outline 14 verb tenses plus the imperative. This is not all the tenses, but if you learn these you’ll have a great foundation for learning how to speak, read, write and hear Spanish. Note: A lot of people think that learning all the verb conjugations is 95% of learning Spanish. It isn’t. It’s 10%. But it is crucial to learn it, like building the foundation of a house before building the rest.

4. Listen to Spanish as much as you can everyday. Watch movies in Spanish, listen to conversations (on youtube if necessary), listen to the news in Spanish, find Spanish music that you like so you can print out the lyrics, learn them (and what they mean), and sing along.

5. Start trying to read Spanish everyday . Look up the meanings of the words (and word groups… often the meaning changes based on which words are grouped together). An excellent resource is for learning what things mean in context. (Type just one word into the SpanishDict search box to get the word meaning in various contexts. The other option is to type a group of words or sentences and then you get three versions from different machine translators, but all three of them might be wrong because English-Spanish translation is very context-sensitive and a machine often cannot differentiate.) In addition, can be very useful for looking up individual words and seeing what they mean based on context. This latter site also has conversation forums between native English and Spanish speakers that can be very helpful.

6. Find “teach-yourself-Spanish” books or internet sites that can help you progress faster. (which is free) is great for beginners or as a review for more advanced learners (but don’t take their promises of how much Spanish you now understand too seriously…) Personally I love the Practice Makes Perfect series of books. I have only used the advanced learner ones, but they have them for all levels. Once you get pretty far along there’s a series of three that should be done in this order: Spanish Pronouns and Prepositions (includes an excellent unit on “por vs. para”) by Dorothy Richmond, The Spanish Subjunctive Up Close by Eric Vogt and Advanced Spanish Grammar by Rogelio Alonso Vallecillos.

7. Work on building your Spanish vocabulary everyday. You cannot speak or understand Spanish by just knowing vocabulary, but you also cannot speak or understand it if you DON’T know the vocabulary. It is most effective to learn a little bit each day (and keep reviewing what you’ve learned and practicing with it so it becomes ingrained).

If at this point if you are saying “oh my gosh, this is way too hard,” don’t worry. There’s nothing wrong with choosing NOT to learn a lot of Spanish and there are plenty of communities in Ecuador and around the world with medium to large English-speaking communities. The main thing is that you can enjoy where you live and be able to communicate well enough to be relaxed in your environment. Especially when people are creating a life in retirement. After a lifetime of hard work and plenty of stress, it would seem that none of us really needs more anxiety-producing living.

Looking for more information on Loja? Click here.

Looking for more Misconceptions about Loja? Click here.