I’m often asked “What is it like to speak two languages?”
I think people ask me this a lot because I did not always speak two. I’m not one of those people who spoke two from birth or even as a toddler.
The reason I’ve chosen to write about this is because I do blog so much about traveling here (going to Mexico on 27 December! So soon!! Then I’ll be able to update you guys with some adventures). Speaking another language is often a big part of travel, especially if you do travel for more than just luxury (but I do love me some luxury travel – I’ll be on a Royal Caribbean cruise in June – the Allure of the Seas. sigh.)
Anyways, back to what I was talking about. I’m going to break this into bullet points of questions I often get asked and what I usually respond with or what I should respond with.
(By the way the two languages I speak are Spanish and English – I’ve taken French, Portuguese, and Russian classes. I’ll resume French in the fall.)
1. When you speak Spanish do you think/translate in English?
Not anymore. When I was learning Spanish I always had to listen to what someone said, then translate it into English, then think of what I wanted to say in English then translate it into Spanish before the words came out. Now I just hear things in Spanish and understand them. I don’t know how to explain it. But when people speak to me in Spanish, unless it’s a very specific word I’ve never heard, I just understand. There is no thinking involved. It’s become second nature.
2. How long did it take you to learn Spanish?
This is hard for me to answer because I’ve taken Spanish since I was 11. Mind you, when you begin language classes in middle school it’s VERY basic. Colors, greetings, numbers, simple present tense. My classes were not fully in Spanish until Spanish 3 (my sophomore year of high school). We began to read in Spanish in Spanish 4 (junior year) but I had a hard time understanding things. I have always had AMAZING Spanish teachers. Except for my 7th grade year but it’s cos the guy didn’t speak English so he couldn’t explain anything and all we did was make piñatas. Literally.
3. But umm…so how long did it take you to learn Spanish? That didn’t answer my question.
I know, I know. I’m sorry. I could really actually SPEAK Spanish fluidly after going to Guadalajara for a week during my senior year of high school. In AP Spanish (that same year) my teacher always made us speak only in Spanish. Of course she made us in previous years, but this was the first time I became confident in my ability to do so. So I could speak Spanish around age 17/18. However, if I had been immersed sooner, I would have learned more quickly. You have to keep in mind that in school you go to Spanish class 2 or 3 days a week and that’s all of the exposure you have. Or you have it every day for a semester and then nothing for the entire next semester. Practicing continuously and sin miedo (without fear) is what helps more than anything.
4. Why don’t you have a heavy American accent when you speak Spanish?
My accent is still definitely American. It’s marked and obvious. However, I know that it is not AS strong as most Americans. It has taken me so much practice and I have so much further to go.
5. How did you get rid of it then?
Honestly, a lot of my friends in Mexico made fun of the way I said words. Not to be mean, they just thought it was hilarious. But it irked me to no end. So I would practice saying words as I walked home from school. Under my breath, but still out loud. I felt like an idiot, mumbling under my breath on the side of the highway – but it helps. For example, I can roll my r’s but I don’t often do it because it’s not natural. So I would just walk along saying words with the double r in them or a word with an r followed by a consonant because that’s what I struggled with. I would just go “Arrrrrgentina” “Arrrrgentina” over and over again. I also had to practice shortening my vowels. In English we pronounce our vowels in a very elongated way. In Spanish there are very short. It’s not hoooolaaa. It’s oh-lah. Very cortada. Very short and to the point. I still work on words I have trouble with, especially when I drive because no one can hear me, haha.
6. What are your tips for learning a foreign language?
Learning a foreign language is like losing weight. For it to happen, you have to COMMIT. If you truly want to learn a foreign language you will not be satisfied knowing how to order more beer. I watch TV in Spanish, I listen to music in Spanish, I read in Spanish, I work in Spanish speaking countries, do exchange in Spanish speaking countries. Something tricky is finding people who speak a foreign language in the US and who want to speak to you. With Spanish I can definitely say it’s hard to see someone Hispanic and NOT want to speak Spanish to them. But you can’t assume that A) they even speak the language or B) that they will want to speak it to you. Often, Spanish speakers speak very good English. But for example, in my work there are LOTS of women who speak Spanish better than English. Upon meeting them, I would throw in a bit of Spanish to test the waters just like “hay chicken?” (is there chicken?) and “con permiso!” (or – in it’s diminutive form – permicito which means excuse me). Eventually they caught on to me speaking Spanish and those who didn’t mind always spoke to me in Spanish but I still threw in English occasionally because I knew they wanted to practice as well.
But really though you HAVE to commit. If you had told me when I was 11 years old that I would one day be laughing my butt off with friends who speak no English, I’d say no way. No way could I learn Spanish well enough to understand jokes. No way would I learn slang. No way could I be fluent in it.
7. What made you choose Spanish/French/Portuguese/Russian?
I chose Spanish because in high school I had to take two years of a foreign language. I knew this going into middle school and my mom said Spanish would be good. So I just took it. Once I’d finished my requirements in high school I just kept taking it cos I liked it. I even took AP even though no one made an A allegedly (lol I made an A). It’s now my second major. There was never any great desire to learn Spanish as a child but I’m so grateful that I speak it. I know it’s not exactly “twice as many” but for the ease of speech I’ll say this – with two languages I can speak to twice as many people. I can read twice as many books in their original language. I can understand twice as many songs. I can travel to twice as many countries without needing a language guide or some form of a translator. I can make twice as many friends. It’s been incredible.
For Russian I just took it cos I think it sounds cool. French I took it to learn a 3rd language – I only stopped cos I went to Mexico but I’ll start taking it again. Portuguese is required for my major (Hispanic Linguistics). It’s cool but I’m not learning it very well – so I’m definitely going back to French.
And yes! I apologize for that being so long but I’m very passionate about the importance of speaking two languages and it’s just been such a blessing for me.