How I plan to learn Spanish fast

I’m really not very patient with languages. I do like them, but being bad at them is not a stage I enjoy. I have been on a plateau for the past year. Any improvement has been unnoticeable. Now, with one of my two little ones in school, I finally have time to learn properly, and I want to learn fast. So this is my plan. Feel free to share your language learning plan, too.


Step one: Enrol in classes

Technically I should be able to get my oral practice from the neighbours and my grammar from the books, but I find classes a real motivation, and you do learn from others’ mistakes as well as your own. I’ll be aiming to get my money’s worth by taking the teacher all the awkward questions that come into my head between lessons.


My faithful grammar guide

My faithful grammar guide

Step two: Use a good grammar guide

Not a textbook, just a go-to guide with an irregular verb table and the grammar rules spelt out. A guide like this keeps different tenses and other concepts in their places.

Step three: Use every opportunity to talk

Even though I am living in Spain, at my level of non-fluency, these opportunities arrive and then disappear very fast. Once you’ve greeted some acquaintance, like the other mums at my daughter’s school, the conversation can either tail off or get interesting. Most of my conversations tail off very quickly. Even in a shop, you can either get by with a few words and gestures, or you can find the accurate way to ask for what you want and include some details. To try to get more practice, I have started planning what to say in situations that I know are coming up – the doctor, teacher, shops, anything. Since you actually do use what you plan, it gets embedded in your memory; it’s way more effective than memorising vocabulary for some theoretical future use.

Jumping on opportunities also means accepting to use very, very basic language to start a conversation, or even asking a question you think you probably already know the answer to, just to get things started. Hey, at least if you’re right then there’s a fair chance you’ll understand the answer. It’s tough having to look stupid to all these new people you’re actually trying to make a good impression with, but I figure I’ll feel cleverer when I can actually speak Spanish.


Spanish in the park (with the toddler on the next swing)

Spanish in the park (with my toddler on the next swing)

Step four: Work at home

Or in a café. But on my own (that is, with the baby), going through the class notes, revising new vocabulary, looking up any words I wanted to say but couldn’t think of, checking my grammar guide for the right way to conjugate some verb, or to form some tense. Also talking with friends about my language questions, as well as things I’ve just learnt. Teaching others is one of the best forms of repetition for a learner, so make sure to tell someone the new stuff you come across. I try everything out on my husband, who fortunately also wants to learn. When I was learning French I would revise classes with a fellow student afterwards.

Step five: Read for pleasure

Roald Dahl, here I come again. The local library has a few translated Roald Dahl books marked 10 years and over. They are just the right level for me. You want to find books where you can understand the story without a dictionary, or else it’s too slow to be motivating. When you meet unknown words you can guess, look them up, or skip them. Dahl’s books are good because I have vague memories of the storyline from, um, about 20 years ago. But it would be better to have books originally written in Spanish, I just haven’t had time to scour the library shelves and find the right level along with a good read. Reading isn’t just about books; packaging labels, newspaper headlines, adverts, posters and graffiti – they all count. I still remember the satisfaction of finally understanding the cultural references and bad puns in slogans on the billboards in the Paris metro stations.

Step six: Pay attention to culture

This comes in conjunction with all the other steps (that’s why Roald Dahl isn’t as good as native Spanish options, but it’s better than nothing). This is more than knowing the stereotypes. There’s a difference between knowing that the Spanish have a late lunch and knowing that the builders are going to disappear at 12 noon for something they call desayuno. See below for more.


Men called Maria

I already knew that all Spanish women of a certain age seem to have Maria as part of their name. When I had to find which parent was collecting the school supplies fee, and asked one of the other mums, I didn’t get all of her response. I understood it was “Maria” who was standing over there wearing a “camiseta gris”. I couldn’t see a mum in a grey top at all. “Con las gafas?” I asked, but she said no, dark hair, no sunglasses. The only one I could see with dark hair and no sunglasses had a pale blue top on. I wondered if the mum helping me was colour blind since she was definitely pointing that way. So tentatively I approached the blue top lady. Only to have a guy come over and introduce himself as José Maria and offer me a receipt for the fee. The penny finally dropped. Thinking of Maria as a woman had blinded me to his grey T-shirt. I should have known this, as France has its own share of men called Jean-Marie and the like, but they are usually not the same generation as me (think: Le Pen). The moral of the tale? Knowing what to expect is half the hard work.

First impressions of Spanish school

My daughter has now been at school for a fortnight. I wish I had more feedback on it, but trying to get information out of her is no easy task. So far she has done a fair amount of dancing to music and colouring in, has played a great deal, and has watched Peppa Pig twice. They eat their 11 o’clock snack sitting in the classroom before the break rather than during. The school day runs from 9am to 2pm with a half hour break. There isn’t any half-day option. When I was five, back in the UK, we had a break in the morning and the afternoon, as well as a lunch break. In comparison, the Spanish hours make for quite a long day at four years old (and a few kids in her class will still be three). I guess it explains the Peppa Pig, though I’d prefer some kind of free choice activity/play instead of television. We parents are supposed to send a pack of wipes, a spare outfit and 50 euros’ worth of books along with her for the year. The school provides the other supplies, and parents pay a 30 euro fee. The books are colourful workbooks, full of illustrations and stickers! Not like in my day…


curriculum for a four year old?

curriculum for a four year old?

As for my first week at school, I’m relieved to be finally doing something about my Spanish deficit. Having taught a fair amount of English, I know that being able to read and write a language doesn’t mean you can speak it. Although Spanish looks understandable to me on paper, I still struggle forming very basic accurate sentences in real life. So when I went to the A2 level Spanish class (beginner II) and found it fairly straightforward, I was not sure whether to ask to move up or not. The teacher told me to go ahead and try the class above, and I’m glad I did. The course will definitely be harder, but I’m willing to be stretched.


One major advantage is that the harder class is half the size, so that means twice as much practice in class. It seems at least half of the students doing the lower level don’t bother continuing to the intermediary stage. There is also less disparity in levels in my new class. In the A2 level, there were 20 students, of very varying abilities, even though many had been there the year before for A1. Interestingly, just over half were British, whereas in the B1 class I am the only Brit. There are a couple of North Africans, a couple of Iranians, a Frenchman, and a couple of Scandinavians. Of course, different ones have different strengths, especially those who are working and are therefore quite integrated and know a lot of vocab and expressions related to their jobs. The primary school vocab I’m learning isn’t that useful in other contexts. My only strength is my impatience – I should use that on some job interview question about my failings. Actually, the Instituto Cervantes, which devised the standardised DELE levels describes A1 as Breakthrough (acceso), A2 as Waystage (plataforma) and B1 as Threshold (umbral). I definitely don’t want to be on the plataforma any more, and I can’t wait to get past the umbral.

Check out their site if you want to try past exam papers and the like.


A few words from my week:

AMPA – parents’ and teachers’ association, pronounced “ampa”.

asistir – to attend

ausentarse, yo me ausenté – to be absent, I was away

la rutina diaria – the daily routine

ama de casa – housewife/homemaker/stay at home mum; careful - the Spanish say el ama, just like el agua and el aula (classroom) even though these nouns are feminine because they start with a stressed ‘a’. If it helps you to swallow this phrase, the ama is not from amar (to love) meaning someone who loves housework so much that it’s all they want to do in life, but actually from amo, owner.

soy perfeccionisto/a – I’m a perfectionist (somebody else said this, not me, believe it or not.)


Bursting the bubble

This my second vuelta al cole in Spain, the second time I have been here at the start of a new school year, when summer winds down, temperatures become pleasant, and town gets quiet.

The first was a non-event as nobody in our family went to school, to the surprise of our neighbours. This time round has been quite different with my four-year old now officially escolarizada, which actually meant braving the seasonal flurry of stationery to buy books (for preschool!). She wasn’t the only one. I am now enrolled in the Casa de la cultura for Spanish lessons twice a week, as I attempt to keep up with my daughter as long as I possibly can!

This is the third time I have moved to a new country and thrown myself into learning the local language. But this time is more complicated than the previous two.


unas mochilas

unas mochilas

The first time was the simplest: I moved to Paris and immediately started a French degree. I knew a lot of other English students but I did plenty of activities in French, listened only to French radio, wrote all my notes in French, and read constantly in French. I had no internet at home for the first two years, so no BBC Radio, no English TV, no Skyping family all the time. Instead of looking things up on the Web I had to find everything out from the locals. It was true immersion.

The second time was in Lebanon. I started lessons after a few months. Lebanese is a harder language to break into, as there’s no real written form of it. But by the end of three years I could understand most of what went on, even in fast-moving social situations. However, meetings and the radio were still very hard. I also had my work (in French and English) and soon a baby to take up my time, as well as other priorities.

This time round is the longest I have left it before starting any classes. I’ve spent the last year and a half in a bubble. I speak Spanish every day, but only the smallest of small talk, buying the veg, other mums at the park, neighbours in the stairwell. I have a few Spanish friends who speak reasonably good English. Life is too busy for me to go out looking for new friends just because they are Spanish. However, this time round there are also some advantages. The local language seems so much more accessible. Unlike Arabic, you say everything like you write it (albeit at top speed). Plus it is so similar to French. I’m not just talking about words like timide (FR) and tímido (ES – shy). Even phrases like no vale la pena (it’s not worth it), and hacerse pasar por  (pretend to be) are so similar in form to the French equivalents ça ne vaut pas la peine, and se faire passer pour.


There wasn’t a placement test for the classes at the Casa de la cultura. The secretary just enrolled me in the A2 level. From what I can tell, A1 is for absolute beginners, A2 for basic tourism, B1 for actually communicating, B2 for competency, C1 for fluency and C2 for mastery.

When I got home and researched the levels, I decided A2 could be a bit slow. I know there will be stuff in it that I don’t know – in fact there’s probably a fair bit in A1 I don’t know yet. But with a kid in school, I am now officially out of my bubble. Not only do I have to talk to her teacher and to the other parents, I have more time to talk to everybody I meet all week, and more time to learn on my own. Also I know the past tenses, the future, the conditional and the subjunctive, when I see them. And I’m willing to work at it because I’m impatient to be able to communicate.

So I tried the online tests, which I passed, up to and including B2. I’ve always been better on paper than in real life. Sad, but true. In fact, when I sat a similar placement test for Classical Arabic lessons years ago, I asked the teacher to enter me into a lower level than the one I qualified for, and the class I ended up in was plenty hard enough. There I was at a disadvantage there compared to many of the other students. Most were of Arab origin, so that gave them some background knowledge, concrete examples they knew were right, and a bunch of random vocabulary they could call in to play. This time I don’t feel any such disadvantage, as most foreigners here are English or Scandinavian or Dutch and can’t call on any knowledge of Latin languages. So I have been swotting up on my conjugations in the hope the Casa de la cultura will bump me up a level when I start.


From now on I’ll be sharing what I learn here. I figure it makes an extra outlet to ease the avalanche my husband faces every time I come in the door, spouting all the expressions and grammar explanations I’ve learnt! For now, here is a bit of vocab from the scolastic baptism of fire.



la mochila – back pack, specifically at my school they want them to be sin ruedas, without wheels, so none of this small suitcase business


la vuelta al cole – the back-to-school period or start of the school year


el cole = short for colegio – primary school …NOT British college (16-18y), not French collège (11-15), and not US college (18+). After el colegio comes instituto – secondary school


infantil – the preschool section for ages 3 to 5


la maestra – teacher, or of course el maestro if you have a male teacher


el desayuno – breakfast of course, however my school papers say the children must have desayuno before school but also bring desayuno with them in their mochila to eat before el recreo (break). So elevenses, or playtime snack, or tuck if you like. Le goûter for the French, but at the wrong time.

Against the flow

You would think that passing on your mother tongue to your children would be straightforward. Actually, if you speak a well-regarded, globally useful language, it isn’t particularly hard. Relatives on both sides of the family will support you and even be grateful you can pass on a language which will boost the kids’ career prospects. There is a plethora of materials available. People won’t look at you strangely in the street. People won’t erode your determination by suggesting that your speaking your native tongue is hindering their progression in the majority language.

You can look at it this way: if English is the minority language in your family, you needn’t worry because it’s the majority language of the world. The same is true of other “major” languages, to a lesser degree. I really feel for parents trying to transmit equally important heritage languages, but which are less well known or considered of little use in the business world.

Lots still to learn...

Lots still to learn…

Still, even with a “major” language, there is one element which can make it hard to pass on that language as fully or as consistently as you had planned. I tend to think of it in terms of a current. Immersion works because you end up being carried along by the current. As soon as your kid goes to school, they’ll not only learn to swim, they may even be carried away by the majority language to the detriment of their minority language(s). So they need you to provide a strong enough flow in your language for them to swim in that direction too when they choose. But as a parent living in a foreign culture, you, too, need to learn the local language. Just because you want to pass on a family language doesn’t mean that you don’t want to integrate your host country. Anyway you need to talk to teachers, doctors, and so on. So mentally you are pushing yourself into the local-language current, trying to learn to swim in that direction. This makes for a linguistic struggle in your head, because you too end up being carried along by the majority language, even though it may be your weakest language.

On the one hand I desperately want to ease the transition into school for my rather reserved daughter. I want her to know some basic vocabulary, to be able to express basic needs. I also want to keep up with her teachers, her playmates, her homework. On the other hand I want to keep providing a decent flow of English interaction when she is with me, and also support our other minority language, French. Not to mention continuing to support a modicum of Arabic exposure. I already try to speak French with their dad during mealtimes so the kids are more immersed in it. I can’t afford for the majority language, Spanish, to steal any of my linguistic effort, when the last thing my kids need to hear from me is Spanish because they will be thoroughly immersed at school.

So my plan is to start Spanish lessons in the autumn, when my oldest goes to school. But I know this will mean a battle of currents. I know I’ll have to fight against Spanish expressions slipping into my speech, fight against the tendency to choose vocab from the top of my head which would mean muddling it all up, fight against talking in sentences that would raise monolingual eyebrows.

Some people succeed with a more relaxed approach, but I need consistency, so does my routine-loving daughter, and so does my 19-month old who says his 40 odd words in three languages and I’m sure will end up being on the receiving end of an avalanche of Spanish once his big sister comes home from school and wants to play teacher on him, poor thing.

Speak, that I may see a muddle

Although my Englishness is not the top thing I’d choose to draw attention to, nationality or origin does tend to come up when meeting people. I suppose it’s a typical ice-breaker question and it does answer those burning questions (sometimes unasked) Why do you look strange/like you’re not from around here? and Why do you sound strange/have an accent?


In Beirut, my identity could be succinctly summarised as “English”. Sometimes “European” was even enough. In Paris, on the other hand, where many people had visited the UK, “English, but not from London” pretty much covered it. Soon after I arrived in Spain I was asked the same “Where are you from?” question and I answered “England.” Then I felt rather stupid since the person asking was evidently English too and was wearing a look which said “Well, obviously!”


In my 13 years abroad I have never been surrounded by so many English people as here on the southern coast of Spain. Now simply saying “England” won’t pass muster in these awkward introductory moments where one is required to define oneself in a few choice terms before being allowed to move on to actual conversation. Not only must I be more precise, all the information I give will mean something, be processed and assessed by peers.


I can no longer merely be “English”, I have to be a southerner, from Devon, where all the posh folk are (so they tell me). Not that I need say much; my accent labels me a southerner before I admit it myself. At this point I should probably point out that most Brits in this part of Spain are from the Midlands or the North of England. Who would have thought that after years of being defined (superficially, at any rate) by my foreign accent in French and in Arabic, it is now my mother tongue accent that is getting me pigeon-holed.


I had spent a long time outside the English social class system. I didn’t miss it, I can tell you. Of course, every country has its class system, its social strata. In Lebanon, for many, being European alone was enough to put you in the upper ranks. But I could ignore that, with it being so out of touch with reality. This is something altogether closer to home. Everything I say is like a label for my little perch in that class-ridden society. A misleading label though.


Actually, I’m only a fake southerner. Where I grew up in a market town-cum-holiday village in south Devon, you only qualified as a “real” local if your parents were born there. Some people in school were from families who had been local fishermen or farmers or butchers for generations. The rest of us had moved in. I wasn’t a true local because my parents are from the north and the Midlands, both from working class families. So I grew up with a mixed accent; actually I think my parents’ speech varied a lot too depending on the situation, it’s just not the type of thing you think about as a kid.


I remember my older sister laughing at me when I was about 10 and inadvertently picked up the pronunciation of some local school friends – not a posh accent though, more a farming accent. And I was probably about 13 when I spent some time with a few “toffs” who laughed at my short-vowelled “fast” and “grass” and instead said “fahst” and “grahss”. A couple of years later, school friends pointed out that I sounded mostly normal except I said “lizzen” for “listen”.


I still seesaw between long or short a’s. Just the other day, while I was giving my three-year old a bath, she picked me up on saying what we would do “afterwards” with a short ‘a’. “We don’t say ‘afterwards’ mummy, we say ‘ah-fterwards’”, she announced from a mountain of bubbles. A bit rich, I reckon, since she gets her English almost entirely from me. Since she is learning to read, I do sometimes use a short ‘a’ sound on purpose when we are practising reading together as it seems inconsistent to read ‘cat’ with one type of ‘a’ and ‘pass’ with another. In my accent, the long ‘a’ is also the same sound as ‘ar’ makes in ‘cart’ too, making it particularly unhelpful for phonetic reading.


I was never aware of actually changing my accent as a kid, but I guess over my school years it was knocked into a fairly bland “standard” British accent of questionable paternity with the odd Geordie touch. (If you want to know what a fake southerner sounds like you can listen to me here, from about the 24 minutes mark.)


This may sound naive to proper Brits, but as an out-of-the-loop expat, I hadn’t realised quite how much I would be judged on my accent in my adult life. Now if only I could crank it up or down I could keep both camps happy…. but I’m afraid it’s entirely out of my control.


“Language most shows a man: Speak, that I may see thee.” – Ben Jonson