If Brits are bad at learning languages – how do I learn Spanish? – Thinking Spanglish

by learn a language journalist

It is estimated that 95% of British people are monolingual.  Which is shocking, really. Many people say Brits are bad at learning languages because there’s no need.  English, after all, is the lingua franca.  It’s the language most commonly adopted between speakers of different languages – whether socially, or in the business world.  So what’s the problem?

This might be fine for people who don’t need to use it in their daily lives.  But what about British people like me – who move to Spain with only a minimal grasp of the language?  Yes, you can ‘get by’ in some senses – but living here without Spanish is also very restrictive. If Brits are bad at learning languages, it doesn’t bode very well for enjoying a life in Spain.

Moreover, the idea that British people in general don’t really need to learn other languages isn’t quite true – at least not from an economic perspective. A CBI (Confederation of British Industry) report carried out in 2014 concluded that this ‘language deficit’ was costing the UK around £48bn a year.  Also shocking – and something to consider.  If you’re planning on moving back one day, maybe those Spanish skills will be more useful than you thought?

A look back

Last week, Regina wrote about how she gained fluency in Spanish, from her first classes at an American high school, through to her experiences at university and her life here in Madrid.   However, I’m aware that for the majority of British people, fluency in another language might feel like something the Spanish call a ‘quimera‘ – in other words, an unattainable fantasy.

So this week, I want to share my first post from this site.  It’s edited, but the experiences, language skills and feelings I refer to are reflective of my first year in Madrid.  I also talk about some of the reasons why the British are bad at languages – or, rather, why I don’t really think they are.

My Spanish has moved on a lot since I wrote this – although I still have bad days.  And, whilst Regina talked about the practical ways in which you can work towards fluency in Spanish, this post from 2016 talks about ways to motivate yourself as you get started.

When can I call myself a Spanish speaker? A British perspective

No one likes labels – they are limiting by their nature. But the ‘British’ label has to be one of the most limiting when it comes to languages.

As far as learning a new language goes, most Brits accept their status as the embarrassing relations of Europe. There are those, of course, that don’t fit this stereotype. And others that don’t want to.  Unfortunately, the facts speak for themselves. As reported by the BBC in 2013, there is an “alarming shortage” of foreign language skills in the UK.

Why Brits are bad at learning languages

One convincing reason why Brits are bad at learning languages is the low priority given to foreign languages in schools. In fact, until very recently, British schoolchildren only received 261 yearly hours of compulsory language learning. Pretty measly when you compare it to the 791 received in Spain.

Although there has been a recent move to make modern language learning  compulsory for 7 – 14 year olds, there is a declining trend in modern language GCSE enrolments. In 2015, for instance, there were significant drops in the number of students sitting French, German and Spanish GCSE examinations.  The three foreign languages, incidentally, that British industry regards as most important at this time.

The vicious cycle – another reason Brits are bad at learning languages

The upshot, it seems, is that whilst Spain (the other embarrassing cousin) has been gaining these skills at a demonstrably quicker pace than the rest of Europe – the UK has gone into reverse.  In my personal experience, this is a vicious cycle. Parents who don’t engage with a foreign language themselves are less likely to encourage their children to do it.

Brits in Spain

If you’re reading this thinking you can’t ever see yourself speaking Spanish, you’re not alone. You are one of millions who see themselves as bad at learning languages. You might have moved to Spain hoping to ‘get by’ in pidgen-Spanish, Spanglish or even English. If that sounds like you, at least you can say you fit the norm – especially if you happen to be British. As I said earlier, however – no one likes labels.

Will I ever speak Spanish?

Learning and ultimately communicating in a new language is all about motivation. If you have the right motivation, you will succeed. Being British, in fact, has nothing to do with it. The British are not bad at learning languages. Or, at least, it’s not genetic. But you will need to work at it. Nobody learnt a language by osmosis, regardless of their nationality.

Keeping it up

I am not just here to tell you that you can, though.  I’m here to tempt you – with the delights of slowly but surely becoming a Spanish speaker. I’m a Brit – and I have my good and bad days. But there is no way I would give up on it now.  Nevertheless, you have to stay motivated.  With that in mind here are a few tips on how to do that – 10 of them, in fact.

1. Recognise day-to-day achievements

Yesterday I chased up some hospital appointments on the phone. I kept putting it off, hoping a Spanish friend would do it for me. Finally, however, I realised I had to face it alone.  I made some mistakes. But I also noticed that I was stopping and self-correcting far more than I used to. As a result, the nurse or receptionist at the other end gently encouraged me through the call. By the end, we had established some semblance of cordiality and I didn’t feel like burying my head in the pillow in shame. Six months ago, this would have been impossible.

2. And celebrate…

This was just one of a series of language milestones I have experienced since moving to Spain. You will experience them too. Every one should be met with a mini-celebration. Nothing big – a simple clenched fist, victory dance, round of applause or Facebook announcement will do. Or if you’re really feeling it, go big with an American-style air punch. Whatever – just enjoy the moment and move on because the next one is only just around the corner.

3. Identify your personal milestones

Everyone’s milestones will be different. Mine to date have ranged from being able to pick out individual words in simple exchanges, to the more recent realisation that I am starting to use a bit of humour.

The points at which you start to inject your own personality into proceedings are the points at which you start to become more communicative. And this is why your milestones will be different to mine.  We all have different aspects of ourselves that we want to communicate. I like to joke around – and I remember my deep frustration at not being able to attempt this in Spanish.  You, too, will notice immediately when you can’t express yourself as you would like.  These are your personal milestones.

4. Learn to stay strong in the face of rejection

Ok, so after all the celebrating, you need to accept that you will frequently get things wrong. And when I say frequently, I really mean constantly. You are in good company though.  I’m not just talking about beginners. Everyone makes mistakes in their second language. I know bilingual translators who slip up. Not only is it normal, it’s also a big part of how we learn.

The important thing to remember is that – whilst you will continue to make mistakes – over time these mistakes become fewer and farther between. And with a few patient friends around, this process of feedback (and sometimes rejection) becomes progressively easier.

5. Get patient friends

This is why it helps to find at least one or two language buddies. Whilst organised language exchanges are useful, the best language buddies are real buddies – or ‘friends’ as I prefer to call them. Friends will be more patient and willing to speak to you in Spanish.

And there is more than one benefit to be had. One of the real joys of learning a language is being able to converse with your friends in their, and not just your, native tongue. For one thing, it gives you a warm, fuzzy glow of companionship to hear them express themselves without effort.

6. Denial – it’s uses and drawbacks

So having dealt with rejection, lets move on to denial. Denial can be a roadblock to acquiring a language – but it can also be a blessing. For example, in order to start communicating at all, you need to deny the fact that you know next to nothing very useful and just go for it.

Denial is also, however, the thing that tells you that you can ‘get by’ with a few words or phrases. Or that voice in your head that tells you the language is, somehow, not real – an academic exercise only.

7. The cycle of denial and acceptance

Living in a Spanish-speaking country is an amazing opportunity because it means this denial is constantly being challenged. After all, Spanish is all around you – get on a bus and it is there, turn on the TV or radio and it is there. It’s as real and vibrant and relevant as English – your brain just may not have acknowledged it yet.

If you stick with it, you will start to accept the language into your life. This process isn’t linear, however. It goes in cycles – with each round of acceptance becoming more profound.

My first ‘conversations’ in Spanish felt a bit like an out of body experiences – with a mini-me floating above my head shouting ‘whoa…you’re speaking Spanish – careful there’. These days, my enthusiasm for a subject often overtakes any of this self-consciousness. More and more I am finding myself simply ‘in the moment’, and taking my first steps into conversational Spanish.  Albeit, like a clumsy toddler.

8. Enjoy the new dawn

People often talk about the ‘switch’ into another language. But I’m not sure about this description. It’s nothing like turning on a light switch.  For me it has felt more like a gentle dawn rising through your bedroom window – you start to notice the light fleshing out the shadows with more detail. You start to make sense of the shapes and forms. And at some point – or several points – you start to notice that you are communicating with increasing effectiveness.

9. And enjoy your day

I can’t really emphasise this enough. Find things that you like to do and do them – wherever possible – in Spanish.  If you like music, go and see Spanish-speaking musicians.  If you like art, go and read the Spanish in art galleries.  If you like sport, find a Spanish-speaking sports group.  If you like a beer after work, pop in the nearest locals bar and interact with the locals.  In fact, just be a local – because, unless you’re on holiday, that’s what you are.

10. Start thinking of yourself as a Spanish speaker

You can call yourself a Spanish speaker the minute you start interacting with people in Spanish. Are you fluent? Of course not. Could you be? Of course – given time, practise and a bit of work. In a sense, whether you decide to call yourself a Spanish speaker or not is irrelevant. What matters more is the extent to which you can enjoy your life whilst using Spanish.

Don’t just take my word for it – why bad is bad and young is GOOD

This last point reminds me of a Croatian girl I met during an English immersion course in the UK.  She, too, had lived in Spain and remarked that the only way she really learnt was by sitting around a table and joining in.  She didn’t have a ‘lingua franca’ to fall back on at the time, so she had no choice.

Most of us will be familiar with the expression, “Lo siento – mi español es muy mal.”  One inspirational teacher on that programme counselled his students against calling yourself ‘bad’ at a language.  He recommended introducing yourself by saying that your target language is ‘young’. I’m not sure I can fully embrace this approach – the other party might just assume your Spanish really is bad. However, the concept is good. And something I definitely can embrace.

Nurturing your Spanish

Thinking of your Spanish as a youngster that needs to be nurtured should encourage you to take care of it. If you’ve read this far then you’re probably already a Spanish speaker. If you’re a British person reading this – your Spanish isn’t bad.  If anything, it’s just young. Look after it and it will thrive. And you can trust me on that. I know where you’re coming from.

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