How I’m Learning Spanish

Living in a Spanish-speaking country does not magically make  you a Spanish speaker. Especially when you live with an English-speaking spouse in a city where it’s easy to meet other English speakers and find restaurants, shops, and doctors that cater to them.

Were I in my 20s and living with a host family, there would certainly be more magic. I know this because when I was 16 I lived with a French speaking family in Switzerland for six weeks.

My incredibly talented French teachers, Mrs. Gold and Ms. Calenti, gave me solid foundations in the language. But I truly believe that if I hadn’t spent six weeks completely immersed, I wouldn’t remember any of it today.

So when I set about to learn Spanish, I wondered if Michael would entertain the idea of us living with a host family. The thought lasted just two seconds because I know my husband. He likes his privacy.

Then  I wondered if he would mind me living with a host family.

But we are still technically newlyweds. I’m not sure how good it would be for our marriage if we didn’t live together for at least our first year here in Spain.

But now that we’re coming up on our second. . . 

I’m not a stranger to trying to pick up languages in a short amount of time. My first attempt was in the month leading up to a trip to Italy I took with my grandmother, brother, and two cousins in 2006. Knowing Grandma was hard of hearing but fluent in Italian, I wanted her to be able to interact with the locals. So I learned enough of the language to repeat back (loudly into her ear) what people were saying. This, of course, made people think I spoke fluent Italian.

It was true that I learned enough not just to repeat words but also understand a lot of the questions she was asked over and over. 

Q: Where were you born? 

Me to Grandma Gallo (loudly): Where were you born? 

Grandma Gallo (proudly): Brooklyn, New York!

Q: How do you know Italian?

Me: How do you know Italian? 

Grandma Gallo (smiling broadly): My grandmother was from Avellino.

“Ahhhh! Avellino!” they would say. And thus would start our five, ten, thirty minute conversation with whomever it was that had seen the tour group name tag Grandma wore everywhere we went. A bright yellow tag around one’s neck with the name “Angelina Gallo” apparently, in Italian, means, “Talk to me.” 

In my eyes, our trip was 1000% more memorable thanks to going with our Italian speaking grandmother. And I credit only one source with teaching me what I needed to know to help make that happen: Pimsleur.

I can’t recall where I first heard about these cassette tapes. Maybe it was the only resource the library had? But I kept the box of tapes in my car and each morning, on the way to work, would pop one in.

They promised that 30 minutes a day was all that was needed. No studying grammar. No reading. Only listening to someone speaking in conversation at a normal pace and repeating what they said–with some English explanations and instructions along the way. 

I later learned that Dr. Pimsleur had studied language learning and repetition. Specifically: how long after someone learns a phrase do they need to repeat it and then repeat it again and again before it gets into their long-term memory? 

His research gave him the answers that led to the creation of his language learning audio program.

After our once-in-a-lifetime trip to Italy with Grandma Gallo, lack of practice helped me to promptly forget everything. 

But the experience was enough such that when I wanted to learn some Spanish before my Camino with Lois, I got the CDs from the library and was successful once again. 

On that Camino, Lois served not only as walking partner and friend but also photographer. She took a picture nearly every time I had a conversation with someone in a foreign language. To this day, I can look at most of those pictures and tell you what we were talking about. Or, at least, what I thought we were talking about. . . 

So when Michael and I decided to move to Spain, I got the latest incarnation of the Pimsleur program: their app. 

Michael, as is his nature, researched how best to learn a language. I told him he didn’t have to research–I already knew how.

He tried Pimsleur.

Then told me he didn’t think it would work for him.

At first, I felt personally offended. I had given him the keys to the kingdom and he had turned and walked away. But since moving to Spain I’ve learned that when it comes to learning Spanish, like so many things in life, what works for one person doesn’t work for everyone.

I walked away from Pimsleur, too, not long after we got to Spain. I tried language schools. I tried other online programs. But none of them gave me the skills and confidence to speak as quickly as Pimsleur did.

So now, one year after walking away from it, I went back. Maybe one day I’ll learn that when I find something good, it doesn’t matter if it’s not good for everyone. If it’s good for me, I’m sticking with it.

Camino 2015 with friend, walking companion and photographer, Lois:)
Grandma was 82 when we went on this trip!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. I love the photos of your family and of you and Lois. Wish I had learned another language when I was young. Seems too much effort now and takes too much time. Love your blog as usual. Is your grandma still living? How about Lois? Your grandmother is so fortunate to have you kids go to Italy with her. I wish I had a travel companion sometimes. I don’t even go to Asheville now alone. Age changes everything. Glenda

    Glenda C. Beall NCWN-West Program Coordinator 581 Chatuge Lane

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    “Coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, working together is success.” —Henry Ford

  2. Dom Bonavolonta says:

    Rebecca, I love reading about your life! Keep the stories coming.
    Many years ago I got serious about leaning Spanish (more than my one semester high school course). I went to adult classes for six months and listened to Spanish speaking radio every time I was in my car. THEN I went to Guatemala and lived with a family who spoke no English while I was talking a one on one Spanish class 5 days a week for a month. When I left Guatemala I can honestly say that I spoke Spanish. That was 34 years ago. I can’t really speak it today, but when I go to a Spanish speaking country it comes back enough for me to get by.

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