I have a goal of improving my Spanish.
That's really it in a nutshell.
I know a lot of people talk about learning new languages – and that's great. But, that's not my goal.
You see, I already speak Spanish.
Umm. OK Kevin. Exactly how good is your Spanish?
This isn't a brag post. It's far from it.
I just want to take my intermediate level Spanish, or whatever it is, and make a huge jump toward being awesome. As I'll explain, I've got pretty much unlimited resources and contacts to make it happen, so I'm going to do some experimentation to see what moves the needle the most. If you already speak a language, but want to level it up as well, I encourage you to come along with me. I'm sure you'll be able to pick out something new, or at least reinforce what you already know.
If you're thinking about learning a new language, then you're also in the right spot. I'll be sharing a lot of the struggles I've had over the years while learning Spanish.
My real word uses of Spanish
I've used Spanish while traveling, ordering food, watching movies/TV, listening to the radio, striking up conversations, making friends, speaking in front of groups, performing in plays, and a lot of other things.
I speak well, but with some effort, I know I can dramatically improve how well others understand me. A little extra effort would open up a lot more doors for me in my life.
Here's a paragraph from the post I did introducing the challenges I'll be focusing on over the coming months.
I understand that I still have an accent. I also know that sometimes, when I get out of my comfort topics, I struggle to communicate my ideas to others. I can talk about food, travel, and plenty of other topics, but it's times when I get involved in authentic conversations that I need to work harder.
A good example of this just happened recently. I went in to volunteer at my wife's school to record a podcast with the kids. I've done podcasts with several different grades over the years, but this time I had to explain my podcasting expertise in Spanish. My wife is teaching in the Spanish bilingual program, so everything was in 100% Spanish. My vocabulary wasn't up to the challenge, and so although I got the message across, I could have done it a lot easier if I had a wider vocabulary, and if I had spoken with more confidence.
I decided to break the mold and try something different when I went to university. That's when I chose to tackle Spanish. I didn't need a language for my commerce degree, but I figured there was no use going to university without picking up a new language. It just seemed like the right thing to do.
Growing up I had always taken French in school. English and French are the two official languages of Canada, so that means most people take French growing up. I took it for 11 years of my schooling. Unfortunately, after all those years, I wasn't able to say much beyond basic greetings and the weather. There was no way I could use French for travel or any other real-world use.
I figured a change was in order heading into my first year of university, so I picked Spanish. I reasoned that since it was a Romance language like French, that my background would help me pick it up faster. It also just seemed like a cool language.
I ended up taking two courses, and that was that.
I learned a few thousand words and felt like I was pretty smart, but I felt shy speaking it.
I still remember times in my Spanish 200 class when we would go over homework. I usually did my work, but there were a few times where I hadn't. Luckily the teacher would go around the room and ask every student. He'd go row-by-row and seat-by-seat. I would count the number of people ahead of me, and then figure out which question I would have to answer. As it came to my turn I would do my best to get the answer out right and hope I wasn't asked to explain or do any more speaking. It was terrifying for me.
After that second course, I decided to focus on other subjects and I left my Spanish where it was. I had learned a few thousand words, lots of verbs, and some grammar. I definitely couldn't have carried on any type of conversation at that point. I had only ever done exactly what was asked of me during class. I think I felt like my language experiment was coming to an end at that point.
Yeah, you guessed it. I ended up learning Spanish for a girl.
About two years after my failed Spanish experiment, I met my wife. Yay. The end.
Alright. The story isn't quite that quick.
My wife spoke Spanish, but she also spoke perfect English. That meant that we didn't need to speak Spanish to communicate. What it did do was get me immersed in the Latin community in the city. I met a lot of people and got to have some amazing experiences. Of course, most of the people we met spoke fluent English as well, so they would usually speak the language that we could all understand.
At the time I was really shy – at least when it came to speaking a new language. When the conversation was in Spanish, I'd just sit there and try to take in as much as I could. When it switched back to English, I'd get involved.
Maybe you can relate. I know I've met a lot of people who've felt the same way. They want to speak perfectly in the target language so much, that they freeze and do nothing. It sounds funny when you say it, but it was the desire to be amazing that caused me to do such a miserable job of learning Spanish for a long time.
There were several times when I told myself that I was going to start, but when the time came, I'd chicken out and not say anything. Or, I'd respond in English when someone said something in Spanish to me. It was frustrating. I'd often get mad at myself for not just going for it.
My worst fears came true
Everyone I had ever met had been incredibly encouraging whenever I spoke Spanish. It was good, but there was always something in the back of my mind telling me that people were going to laugh. I don't know if you've ever had that feeling or not, but it was a feeling that caused me to hold back a lot.
One night we were out with a bunch of friends and two new people showed up. They were new to Canada and barely spoke English. I thought I'd get out of my shell and speak to them. I don't remember what I said exactly to one of them but apparently it was hilarious. This particular individual waved over the other and they had me speak some more.
They both burst out laughing. They laughed so hard that they were falling all over each other. One actually started rolling on the floor because they thought my accent was so funny.
That wouldn't be a big deal for me now, but at the time it was devastating. They could have laughed and poked fun at a million other things and I would have been fine, but for some reason, having my language skills laughed at was too much. I think it was because I felt dumb for not being able to speak better. I'm a smart guy. I guess I felt like I should have learned Spanish in six months like some other people do.
I kept smiling for the rest of the night, but I vowed to never speak Spanish in public again.
That pain stayed with me
That incident took me years to get over.
My Spanish stayed at beginner level for years because of that. During that time I thought it was because “those people” laughed at me, but I was obviously incorrect. The truth is that it was never their fault at all. It had always been my problem. It was completely irrational to stop putting myself out there because two people made comments about how I spoke. Yes there were probably 300 people who had said I was doing good at the time, but I focused on the two people who said something negative.
Anyway. The point of the story is that language learning is all about mindset. It's about how you frame things. If you have the language learning framed properly, then the language will come quicker and with joy instead of heartache.
The weird ending to the story
I had the chance to meet up with these individuals a few years later. They were very friendly and we had a great chat. It turned out that they both now spoke English at a super-high level. They also spoke with almost no accent.
It was the complete opposite of my story.
They hadn't cared what anyone else thought so they just spoke and spoke. I'm sure they worked hard on their accents too. In the end, I it was good for me to see how well they spoke English, because their accent was insanely good. It gave me the kick in the pants I needed to get going again.
I bet they never thought twice about that one day all those years ago when they laughed at me.
How I finally started getting it
The best decision I made about learning Spanish was when I decided to speak Spanish to my in-laws 100% of the time.
They both speak English, but they're from Nicaragua and speak Spanish as their first language. I decided to speak to them in Spanish as a sign of respect. That was really my deciding factor. The secondary benefit was that my Spanish started improving.
At the start, my Spanish wasn't very good. I remember going for car rides with my father-in-law and telling him all sorts of stories. I'd tell him what we were going to do on the weekend, what I was planning for my business, and whatever else I could think of. He'd usually just sit there and let me talk, helping me with words from time to time.
I'd get out of the car feeling like I'd conquered the world. Some days I'd walk into the house like a Spanish superstar. Then my father-in-law would walk in right behind me, look at my wife, and ask her what plans we had for the weekend. It turned out that some of the things I was saying were unclear and incoherent, but he just sat there and let me talk because he knew that was the only way I'd ever improve.
The first time my decision to speak 100% in Spanish came into question was when my wife and I were over at my in-laws house. They had guests over and I needed to ask my father-in-law something. I forget what it was, but it was probably something simple like asking if he wanted coffee. I remember hesitating. I had told myself that I would speak Spanish to my mother and father in law, but I never thought about what would happen if someone else was there.
Fortunately I made the right decision and went for it. It felt like there was a huge weight lifted of my shoulders as soon as the words came out. A bonus was that the guests they had over said some kind things about how I spoke. I thought to myself, “This isn't so bad after all.”
Making the decision to just go for it and speak to someone in Spanish no matter what upped my game and took me from a high beginner level to probably somewhere in the mid-intermediate range.
How I got to were I am now
The final stage in my progress, up to this point, was based on a realization and a decision.
Sometimes the most important things you can do are based around seemingly small decisions.
Whenever I spoke Spanish, two things would happen. There were probably more than two, but there were two that stood out.
The first was that I'd feel tension in my chest as I prepared to form the words. I'd tense up and take a shallow breath. The second observation, which was a direct result of the tenseness, was that the pitch of my voice would go up a little.
I knew that I didn't get tense when I spoke English, so I knew it wan't a speaking thing. I'd tense up even when I was speaking Spanish to my wife, so that told me that it wasn't from nervousness either.
In the end, I felt the tenseness was coming from the fact that in the past, I used to be nervous when I spoke. That led me to a game changing decision.
Based on that knowledge, I made two tiny decision that probably upped my Spanish game by 100%.
- I decided to speak Spanish normally. I told myself that I would now use my regular voice and relax whenever I spoke to other people.
- I also decided that I would speak in Spanish to anyone, anywhere. It didn't matter if I knew them or not. I would just go for it.
Poof! That was it. And it worked.
Those decisions have taken me a long way. I know my accent still needs some work, and I need to smooth out what I'm saying, but not it just comes down to getting a lot of practice, and adding a little refinement along that way.
I would love to tell you that my goal is to speak Spanish without an accent. That would be really cool. But that's not a good goal to set. I'm much more comfortable setting a goal of focusing on what it takes to speak Spanish well. I'll take those enhanced skills and 10X the amount of Spanish in my life. I'll talk to even more people, I'll read novels, and I'll do a bit of writing most days as well. My main goal is to improve my speaking, but since Spanish is such a huge part of my life, I'm going to push forward on the writing and reading as well.
I'm setting my challenge for three month. That will take me until the end of the 2016. The goal is to set some good habits in motion and see how far I get. I have a tremendous number of resources I'll be using to take my Spanish up a notch, and I'll be sharing what I'm using and how well it works for me.I'll also do a recording of me doing some speaking and reading in Spanish. Then we'll compare where I'm at after three focused months of working hard.I have a lot of information stored up already and I can't wait to share it with you.
So let's get underway.
Keep a look out for my goal post. I'll go into the exact detail of what I'll be doing and what I'll be measuring.
And by the way. If you have a language learning story, feel free to share it in the comments below. What worked well for you? What scared you? What helped you turn the corner?
OK. That's it for now. We'll talk soon.