Mike Gyi

July 28, 2023

How I learnt to speak Spanish (Part 1)

It all started back in 2013 when I lived in London. Pre-Brexit London was full of Spanish people and the architecture office I worked in, Squire and Partners, had a large Spanish contingent, it was all kinds of fun.

Whilst working there I decided to plan a 5-month trip to South America, leaving in March 2014. This was to take a break from Architecture and decide whether it was the right career path for me as I was having doubts. Also, it was to go out and see the world, have fun, and learn about myself along the way.

Daunted with the prospect of solo travel, I wanted to at least learn some words in Spanish so I could get by on the trip. Plus as a matter of respect, I felt it important to learn the basics. This is where the journey started.

My first steps (2013)

Gabi and Elena, two of the Spanish contingent, kindly offered me classes during lunch. With Elena I learnt phrases like "Soy de Liverpool" so that I could say I supported Liverpool FC to spark conversation and smiles. She also taught me basic directions like "izquierda", "derecha", and "¿dónde está el baño?"

Gabi helped me translate a spreadsheet full of "connectors" that were phrases you could use to connect sentences together. All of this was very helpful and coupled with my English confidence, I felt like I was making great strides and I'd be fluent in next to no time!!!

I was so so wrong.

Learning a language for the first time is extremely hard. You make quick progress in the first phase, learning new words, muddling through conversations with a smile, then you hit a wall. I only realised this much later.

Here's about the point where I should give a shout out to Duolingo as the Owl really has been the OG for a lot of us language learners. It seems most people have given it a shot at some point. For me, that was in 2014 when I opted to travel by bus from Brixton to work in King's Cross so that I had an internet connection, more commute time, and Duolingo's green owl to keep to company. I was learning a lot, almost 2-hours a day of duolingo'ing. I was unstoppable!!!

They say it takes 10,000 hours to master anything and I feel like to date I'm on ~6,000 hours of Spanish, and now pretty much semi-fluent. So those 2-hours a day are still useful today because you've just got to put the hours in, but they really were a drop in the ocean.

There are no shortcuts, it's all cumulative. You've got to put the hours in. 

South America (2014)

As expected, this trip was all kinds of awesome. I'd also taken my mate Michel Thomas along with me to hone my speaking skills. Michel Thomas was well-known for teaching famous people to speak different languages with his unique method. I felt like a celebrity teacher was all I needed.

So, armed with my Michel Thomas method audiobooks, I made great strides in getting words out of my mouth. His method really works and I can highly recommend his audiobooks for any language. Since then I've done his Italian + Japanese - all fantastic.

I spoke as much as I could throughout the 5-months and had a personal mission to reach my destination in Bogotá, Colombia, speaking Spanish to some friends I'd met in London.

My English-speaker confidence struck again, did I really think this would be possible? Of course I did.

I arrived at the bus terminal in Bogota, phoned my friend Alejandra, and said in a very baby sounding accent:

"Hola Ale, estoy en el terminal de autobus"

"Speak English, you idiot" She replied.

I let out a big laugh and complied. It was a good leveller.

During that trip, my other Colombian friend Cami patiently spent a good hour with me in a bar teaching me the past tense. Cami and I still laugh about this moment today as she lives around the corner from my house in Barcelona and is a great friend along with her partner Ivan. I remind her that she "taught me the past tense!" and laughter ensues.

The London years (2014-20)

In true Mastermind style, I'd started so I had to finish. Also, I enjoyed speaking to others in another language, it was so much fun. I realised that it opened up a whole new world of humour, culture, and more people to relate to.

During the next 6 years I kept learning more Spanish with no real agenda or structure. I think I used Duolingo a bit, went to Colombia in 2016 for another month, spoke to my friends Ale and Cami over WhatsApp, and simply spoke to any Spanish speaker who would listen.

For some strange reason, I also used my bike commute to practice trilling my R's. I could never roll my R's and have since learnt that this is called being "fat tongued" in Spanish and lots of kids in Spain have to go to to a Speech Therapist when they're younger to train their tongues. My speech therapy was on my bike, riding down the banks of the River Thames to and from Battersea. A strange thing to do, but there you go.

Finally, in the Colombian district of Elephant y Cali in South London there was a legendary salsa nightclub called "La Distriandina" which I went to a handful of times with friends to enter into the Latin world once more. This helped me stay connected to the world I had felt most connected to.

Little did I know at this point that I would end up moving to Barcelona in 2020 and I would receive the severe wake up call that every English native speaker needs when they think they're doing "pretty alright" at speaking Spanish. 

I'll save this gory detail for part 2 though. Until then, chao!


Click here to read Part 2

About Mike Gyi

UX/Product, ex-architecture, ex-TW, community addict, building https://www.townspot.uk