by Kara Freedman
Hola estudiantes! I’d like to share this post with you, because many of my students feel that, some days, they’re speaking Spanish really well, and other days, they’re not. Read about Kara’s experience learning & mastering Spanish, and at the end of the article, I’ll tell you why these ups and downs happen…
There are a lot of different types of curves in the world, and they’re not only good for math and architecture. Curves can apply to almost anything. As a Spanish student, you might wonder: What about learning curves, does this apply to me? This phrase is great for talking about something that is hard to learn, like your responsibilities at a new job, or the rules for a new card game, or, yes, the intricacies of speaking a new language.
As Spanish students, we’ve all heard this, that there’s a learning curve to getting a handle on a new language, that we have to be patient and let it come at its own pace. But when will we finally feel comfortable speaking Spanish? When will we be able to talk comfortably, fluently, without stress or anxiety?
Unfortunately, there’s no universal answer to these questions. We are all different and learn in different ways, and the pace of learning also depends on your exposure to the language. Are you taking classes a couple times a week and still living in an English-speaking place, or have you moved to a Spanish-speaking country (or neighborhood) where you will hear Spanish and interact in the language every day?
From my experience doing both of these things while learning Spanish, the learning curve for a new language is a bit unorthodox. It wasn’t really fair for me to compare it to learning the rules of a card game or the responsibilities at a new job; it’s an entirely different entity. I’ve never seen a name for it, but it looks something like this:
Over time, undeniably, you will improve. If you are practicing the language, studying new words and learning new grammar, it is impossible to go backwards. However, on a day-to-day basis, it may well feel like have you retreated further than you’ve stepped forward.
Some days, you’ll go to a bar, and meet a cute guy who insists that you couldn’t possibly be American, your Spanish is fantastic! You’ll be flying, words coming out of your mouth like you’ve been speaking Spanish your whole life. You understand nearly everything he’s saying and – you never would have believed it two months ago – but you’re having a real conversation. With a native speaker! You’re asking questions, telling stories, and you might even make him laugh. You’re feeling pretty powerful and you’ve never felt more confident with your Spanish.
Until the next day, that is. This graph does not lie: some days are great, and some days aren’t, and you never know which you’ll get until you wake up in the morning. Maybe you’ve bought coffee and a pastry from the bodega around the corner every day this week, but today for some reason you can’t understand what the cashier is saying to you, even though you’ve had this same conversation countless times.
It can be extremely frustrating when you compare these two situations. Why did the words flow so easily one minute and yet stall completely the next?
The simple answer is that there is no answer. Everyone learns a language on their own time, in their own way. Most importantly, the process of learning a language is not a smooth curve. You might seem to go backwards in your skills, or plateau, or take a giant leap forward, all for no reason. The only thing you can do is be patient with yourself and your personal learning curve, and never give up.
Learning Spanish is probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I’ve talked to people I never could have otherwise, lived with Spanish-speaking families across the world and had job opportunities that are not available to people who only speak English.
Learning Spanish was also one of the most exhausting, frustrating, and difficult things I’ve ever done in my life. On the days where someone had complimented my Spanish, I felt like I was surrounded by a warm glow of you can do it. On the days where I felt exhausted and afraid to leave the house because I’d have to speak Spanish, it felt like I would never reach fluency or even confidence in this foreign language.
Yet, somehow, I did it.
That graph may not be a straight line, or even a predictable one. But it does go up, competency does increase, and if you’re patient and unrelenting in learning Spanish, you’ll find that your good days outnumber your bad days, and soon you’ll be speaking effortlessly, without quite knowing why.