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The challenges of learning Spanish

Alex S. Interview: A man who lived in more than 4 countries of Latin America

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Alex, American by birth and Peruvian by heart, He is 32 years old, a World Bank consultant and a great friend of mine. I have the pleasure of meeting him since 2015 when, with two other friends, we worked together on a project for the Ideas for Action contest organized by the World Bank.

Thanks to his personal and professional career, Alex has had the opportunity to live and work in more than 4 countries in Latin America. He has been speaking Spanish for almost ten years and in this interview, he tells us what it means for him to learn the language.

Alex, thanks for accepting the interview, you will help a lot of people who want to start studying Spanish. In the first place, how did you decide to study? Did you have any particular purpose with the language?

Rolando, first of all, thanks for having me. I decided to study Spanish because, during a semester abroad in Italy, I learned that languages open doors. They allow you to interact with people from different contexts with whom you wouldn’t be able to communicate with were it not that you have a common language. You can’t expect everyone to speak English, so that’s why I wanted to study a foreign language. Spanish is a language that many people are exposed to in the United States given the large number of Spanish speakers and the close proximity to Latin America. I studied in Elementary and High School with Latin Americans and remember being fascinated by where they came from, what their culture was like. When I decided to do Peace Corps in Latin America, I was told that I needed proficiency in Spanish. That is why I made the decision to leave my job at the time to go to Argentina where I studied Spanish and worked at a local NGO for a total of about a year and a half.

"...its hard to say that it took me x months or x years to learn Spanish. I feel like I’m still learning to this day."

Tell us how that process was. Did you take classes at a school or did you have private lessons? Approximately how long did it take you to learn it?

I took Spanish classes in high school but remember not being very interested in the class. Perhaps it was that I didn’t realize the potential of speaking another language mixed with the lack of good Spanish teachers. I am slightly embarrassed about it now, but I actually copied my sister’s homework during my senior year of high school (we were in the same Spanish class). Then, after college, and after about two years at a finance job, I went to Argentina. In Buenos Aires, I spent a month taking Spanish class every day at an institute. Then, I spent a few months teaching English and practicing my Spanish with Argentina friends. From there, I went to the University of Buenos Aires to take classes for another 2-3 months, taking classes every other day, I believe. So, its hard to say that it took me x months or x years to learn Spanish. I feel like I’m still learning to this day.

From your experience, what are the main challenges for an English speaker to learn Spanish?

For one, the accent. Spanish speakers have different accents depending on the country they are from. For example, the Spanish accent in Honduras is very different from that of Mexico and that of Nicaragua in spite of all three countries being very close to one another. Secondly, learning vocabulary. Initially, there is an urge to Spanish-ify an English word if you don’t know the word in Spanish. Its important to read the newspaper, books, watch the news, listen to music to learn new words and then put them into practice (even if you may sound foolish doing so!).

"Even a native speaker going from one Spanish-speaking country to another will be perceived as speaking a strange Spanish."

After having lived and visited different Latin American countries, do you think that Spanish is the same in all the countries where it is spoken? Did you find some differences? Did any of them seem a little more complicated than another one?

As I said before, there are many differences between Spanish spoken in different countries. I wouldn’t say the language spoken in one country is more difficult or complicated than another. But, they all have their subtleties and its important to listen and be humble. Even a native speaker going from one Spanish-speaking country to another will be perceived as speaking a strange Spanish. For example, its very easy to note a Spanish citizen in a Latin American country – they stick out because of the way they talk. That’s not a bad thing, its just the way it is. I actually find it fun and interesting to learn new dialects of Spanish and its always fun conversation to say “oh, instead of chevere like they say in Peru, in Nicaragua they say tuani or in Honduras they say que pinta!

What do you like most about Spanish? Do you have a favorite word or expression that you like a lot?

I feel like Spanish allows more flexibility than English for some reason. There is also a lot more reading between the lines. I feel like in Latin American countries, people don’t say exactly what they mean like they do in the US. You have to read exactly the way they feel and what they mean based on the words they use. Its kind of a guessing game until you get used to it. For example, “ya” in Peru can mean “okay” or “sounds good.” It can also mean “stop it” (i.e., ya pues!). It can also mean, “right now.” Its funny to hear it in so many contexts until you find yourself saying it in all of those situations!

In terms of my favorite word, sadly, I like the word “huevon.” Its kind of like “dude” in English, but depending on the context, it can also mean something much worse. I made the mistake of using the word too liberally a few times and have upset some people. But, that’s the way things are when learning a language. It’s all about trial and error.

"Spanish allows more flexibility than English. [...] You have to read exactly the way they feel and what they mean based on the words they use. Its kind of a guessing game until you get used to it."

Finally, for people who want to learn or who are starting in the language. What advice could you give them?

Read a lot. Read things that are a little more advanced than you think you are capable of reading. It will be frustrating, but that is how you learn words in context. At the beginning, I would read the newspaper every day. I read Harry Potter in Spanish (my first book). But, it’s super important.

Secondly, go outside and talk to people. Don’t be embarrassed. Be yourself and just go out there and talk. Be it a bar, café, store, etc.

Third and most importantly, make it fun. I remember my very first Spanish teacher in Argentina put the Soda Stereo song “En la ciudad de la furia” on in one of my first courses. That is how I discovered Gustavo Ceratti and Soda Stereo—some of my favorite music to this very day. Music is a passion of mine and learning Spanish has allowed me to enjoy a whole new set of artists and genres. So, find what you love, and find some way to relate it to Spanish, or whichever new language you are learning.

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