While I was hitting my daily step goal prowling the streets of Madrid seeking opportunities to practice my language skills, my husband was flying back and forth to Amsterdam on business, doing his Spanish homework in the sky. He was having one intense lesson per week, with lots of heavy grammar including… the dreaded subjunctive *shudder* He maintains he is mentally more exhausted from this hour than the rest of his working day!
Initially when we had different learning methods, we were learning different things. While I was out there, mastering pronunciation of the infamous “z”, he could explain the logistics of the ever-changing verb stem. Both a little defensive of our own style, we would compare notes over a caña and share our newfound knowledge. Every new word or phrase we learn still excites us as we piece together this great language.
Here are a few things my “learning on the street” approach taught me, including where you will and will not gain practice, and how a touch of glam and a cheeky wine can help you on your merry way:
- Firstly, never shy away! If you need to get something done, go out there and do it. I didn’t always stick to this rule, but when my palms got sweaty and my mouth became dry, (acclimatisation I’m sure) I would try to push through. What’s the worst that can happen?
- Hindsight is a great thing. 9 out of 10 situations you will walk away from and analyse. You will replay conversations in your head, curse yourself for saying the wrong thing or for not understanding rápidamente. Sometimes you will walk away with a little skip in your step because you SMASHED IT! Remember these moments.
- You can practise anywhere! True, yet contrary to popular belief, you don’t get much practice in your local supermercado. With a queue of people behind you, it’s not the right time to start befriending the moody cashier; “Tienes mascotas”? Not to mention that your shopping is scanned faster than an AVE high-speed train on the move, giving you little time to think of anything as you frantically stuff your Lays crisps and Fanta Limon in your bag! I always leave scowling. But the novelty of buying “holiday snacks” will never wear off.
- You find comfort in the strangest places. The local post-office became my safe haven. When I first arrived, it was a busy time for birthdays, baby showers and everything in between! Having already abandoned my nearest and dearest, I couldn’t forget these important dates, so I soon became a regular at the post office, sending off airmail with love. And I gained a lot of confidence here as a result. I worked out the ticket system pretty quickly, and passed time in the queue reading posters to learn “useful” vocab related to postage supplies… I still have no banter with the staff, but the place is friendly and it provided that rare sense of belonging in the early days.
- “Look good, feel good” is a mantra I always preach when I don’t feel like myself (wise words from my mum). Within the first three weeks, I went in search of a nail salon because, let’s face it, who doesn’t love admiring their freshly glossed talons in the sun? That shine! I had little in the way of conversation with the nail tech, but simply gestured at the colour chart and I left feeling happy, glam and ready for my next challenge. Around 3 months in, I repeated my mantra. I was so eager to treat my scorched locks to a Spanish bouncy blow dry (rumour has it, las Señoras here get theirs done weekly). So, I put my fears aside, rehearsed my lines and walked on into the salon. By the way, the “fears” I had conjured up resembled that of a notorious clique of hairdressers huddled at the reception desk, all tilted heads chorusing “Qué”? in response to my stuttering Spanish. But on this occasion, I successfully made a same-day appointment and left feeling as bouncy as my soon-to-be barnet. Highly recommend.
- Keep your wits about you! It was early June when I arrived in Madrid and I spent a lot of time in our local parque. This was my dream – to set up camp on my new picnic blanket by 10am, soaking up the rays with an iced coffee in hand, gloating about how distant “real life” felt! I would be studying or messaging my old colleagues for the latest gossip from the workplace I had left just weeks earlier or simply watching the world go by when I was approached. Time and time again. “Do you have the time”? “Do you want to buy agua”? “Will you support this charity”? “Can I have your number”? (Thankfully, the latter was a one off)! I must have stood out as a tourist waiting to be scammed – a pale, polite Brit who didn’t speak the lingo. The cultural differences felt stark and I found the directness intimidating. But after about four weeks, just as I was adjusting to the seemingly harmless routine of the park pests (and as my tan developed!) it stopped altogether, and I was left alone. My theory is inconclusive, but I decided that while not everyone wants to be your friend, not everyone is out to get you either. So just keep your shades on and don’t give up your territory.
- Note your progress! After 6 months, it happened again. In one week alone, I was approached FOUR times for directions – in Español. And guess what? I didn’t freak out, in fact, I barely hesitated. I used to keep “hablo un poco de español” on the tip of my tongue to ward off any unwanted advances but this time, I just answered the questions and was glad of the practise. I don’t know where I sent those poor citizens, but I like to think we helped each other in some way. (Note: I am not as anti-social as it seems. I am just a small-town girl trying to be streetwise in one of the biggest cities on the continent! I actually feel incredibly safe here, and I’m also pretty friendly)!
- Vino helps! Dotting between tapas bars of an evening, it has been proven (by me) that “taking” a glass of wine in each improves the ability to remember and regurgitate learned Spanish, not to mention it does wonders for your confidence. Obviously, this isn’t advised for the everyday learning efforts but, it is a great alternative method from time to time!
Regardless of which learning approach you take, here’s one last top tip: Never resort to speaking Inglés unless you really, really have to.
Would my life have been so much easier if I relied on the Spaniards speaking “my” language?
Well no, probably not, seeing as Spain has one of the lowest rates of English proficiency in Europe and I would just offend the general public by adding to their already existing complex about this.
Not to mention my career as an English teacher would have been very short lived…!