Mike Gyi

August 14, 2023

How I learnt to speak Spanish (Part 2)

A heavy realisation that I was indeed rubbish at Spanish is the theme of this post.

The aforementioned Fake English Confidence in Part 1 was in full force when I arrived in Barcelona in March 2020. I thought I'd assimilate like a duck to water.

I was wrong, again.

During lockdown I was by myself in an apartment with my friend's dog Ruby trying to work out what TownSpot was. I did no Spanish learning, I thought I'd be alright. 

The only speaking I did at that time was when I left the apartment to walk Ruby and I'd stop and chat to people in the street in 2 to 3 word sentences. I was caught up in my own world, thinking I was "smashing it" with the Spanish. 

Post-pandemic I got a reality check as I tried to get every day life tasks done.  I tried to get a leather sofa reupholstered (don't ask) and I was lost for words. It was mega frustrating. 

I'd hit a plateau and the plain sailing of the initial beginner curve was over.

I bumbled on, thinking "ahh, I'll just learn by speaking to people and eventually I'll get there".

I had no idea where "there" was, and this was naive, to say the least.

At a similar time, I was in Plaza Real in Barcelona having some drinks with fellow english natives and one of them overheard me speaking Spanish and told me:

"Your Spanish isn't very good"

Hard to take feedback. I asked for specific examples and they couldn't give any. It was super confusing, frustrating, and disorientating. A low point. 

That being said, coupled with other experiences like telling a German guy that I "didn't care about grammar", it was the wake up call I needed. 

Being a tight Northerner I had never paid for Spanish lessons. Being sometimes stubborn, I thought I could do it all by myself...for free.

I was, in fact, deluded. 

Paying for lessons was the best thing I ever did. My friend Ed and I spoke about the positive and negatives of DELE language levels for Spanish and for some reason I was allergic to them. The levels rated from A0 to C2 and they're logical to help you progress further, learning grammar in a structured way.

Just TRY put me in a box.

Well, I did get put in a box. In the B2 level box. I went to the fantastic Camino Barcelona across 11 weeks for 40 hours a week (career break) and, in reality I was a mixture of A1 to B2 levels, I was all over the place in terms of my knowledge of the language.

Initially, I had signed up for 2-weeks fully immersive with afternoon conversation classes and thought that'd do the job. I was wrong again, silly little English boy. I extended to 11 weeks when I realised I was still totally lost.

Looking back, I think self-learning tools like Duolingo can be a red herring. They're a great introduction and better than doing nothing, however nothing beats formalised learning. Sorry to disappoint.

As I mentioned in part 1, there are no shortcuts. You've got to put in the hours.

I'd say now that it's best to sit in a classroom with other students at the same level as you to practice speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

It was really hard, especially at the start. The first week I was putting the accents on letters the opposite way around.

"That's Catalan!" said one of the teachers.

I was hand-writing Spanish and felt illiterate. It was a funny experience and I felt like I was back in primary school.

To give context, the classes at Camino Barcelona were fully immersive, no English was allowed. The teachers were top notch, friendly, funny and patient. My fellow B2 students and I made big strides in the time we were together. It was an amazing experience and worth every penny.

We learnt all the grammar possible, and practiced, practiced, practiced. There were lots of exercises that came with the opportunity to soak up a stunning amount of vocabulary. I used Anki flashcards to capture and learn all the words, ending up with ~2,500 words by the end of the 11 weeks.

The key thing here for English native speakers is to understand that Spanish is much more complicated than our basic English language. There are grammar concepts in Spanish that are non-existent in English.

I repeat, there are grammar concepts in Spanish that don’t exist in English so how are you going to learn if you don't know about their existence in the first place? English doesn't map to Spanish so perfectly. This took me a long time to realise. 

There's no wonder English has become a worldwide language, due to its simplicity. The teachers at Camino Barcelona would laugh at the English natives, because they knew our understanding of grammar was basic at best. Thinking back to school we only got taught a "verb", "adjective", and "adverb", that was it. Whereas in other countries they have pure lessons dedicated to grammar in their language because it's complicated. I've heard Italians have grammar drilled into them at school as there are so many rules.

During my time at Camino Barcelona I felt like I was deconstructing everything I had learnt and rebuilding it from scratch. A humbling experience to say the least. Most of the classes I was speechless, unable to talk out of lack of confidence or knowledge.

In the conversation classes I'd say to one of the teachers:

"Pedro, tengo una historia para ti!"

He knew what was coming was "short story" full of frustrating "errrrs" and errors so he laughed a lot when I would say this.

In the afternoons/evenings the school put on activities such as Paella classes, Wine Tasting, or tours around the pandemic deserted Gothic Quarter. It was a special period and I was grateful that my economic situation at the time allowed for me to take a career break and go all in on Spanish learning.

I finished at Spanish school in September 2020 and my friend Mick returned from his summer holidays saying he noticed a big difference in my speaking. Result!!!

Was I finished there? Absolutely not. People in Barcelona were still switching to English when I would speak to them in Spanish.

I was wandering through the INTERMEDIATE-PURGATORY-INFERNO-WASTELAND and I needed to get out.

More on how I kept the ball rolling in Part 3 :-)

Click here to read Part 3

About Mike Gyi

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