Confession – My Spanish Really Sucks!

Confession time! As most of you know, I have been teaching myself Spanish for several years while living in the United States. Although I’ve made a few trips to Perú and have spent a total of 9 months in that country, I’ve never really had a full-on immersion experience where I absorbed the language by living it fully.

So when I do get the opportunity to travel to a Spanish speaking country, it’s a great opportunity to check in and see how my Spanish skills are doing in real world situations. And man, I am a bit concerned!

OK, let me preface this by saying, I have a tendency to be a perfectionist, and I can be a little hard on myself at times. AND, as you may know from reading my blog, I have had a hearing impairment my entire life, giving me an extra challenge to learning another language. It’s like an extra step of processing. First I have to HEAR something, then I have to INTERPRET what I am hearing.

Despite all my practice in a somewhat controlled environment, when it comes time to actually understanding the Spanish that I hear, why am I still struggling? I often have heard that the Spanish spoken in Ecuador is supposed to be the easiest to understand. But why does it seem so hard?

I recently went through a tough period of self-doubt, questioning if I am ever going to be able to become fluent in Spanish. And by being fluent, I mean being fluent in hearing as well as speaking. I was close to throwing in the towel.

Slowly though, I have been able to get my inspiration back, as well as my confidence. Let me share some of my recent observations.

One issue, that has become glaringly apparent to me, is that there is a huge difference in the Spanish that is spoken by the rural population and the more urbane population. For example, and this is a generalization, the people who work the land, as well as coastal fishermen, are less educated. And they tend to speak what I would call “uneducated” Spanish. The Spanish we Spanish students learn is “educated” Spanish. It’s practically a different language! You can hear lots of the “uneducated” Spanish in the cities, as many people have migrated to the cities. Likewise you can also hear “educated” Spanish in the rural areas. I would even suggest that there is a type of Spanish which is like of mixture of both “educated” and “uneducated” Spanish.

(By the way, I don’t want to sound elitist with these terms “educated” and “uneducated”. I don’t think I am a better person because I speak “educated” Spanish. I don’t necessarily think one is better than the other. Like I said, they seem like very different languages.)

I have found it consoling to know that, as an Ecuadorian friend reminded me, English has many different dialects with varying degrees of comprehensibility. For example, I am from Chicago, and although there is a Chicago accent that you hear from the South Side and suburbs of the city, I ended up with a very neutral accent. If you go to the rural areas of Illinois, people speak what I used to jokingly call a “hick” accent, or Southern accent. Actually, the majority of people in the U.S. speak with the kind of hillbilly twang to their English, associated with people from the South.

It definitely reminds me of the time I spent a year in the deep south of Florida and had a (very) odd job where I was working with garbage collectors. I couldn’t understand ANYTHING that they said, other than the f-bombs and other swear words that seemed to permeate every sentence. Seriously, it was like hearing a foreign language.

I have also always had trouble understanding people from England, but not as much as people from Scotland and Ireland. The Scottish accent in particular has to be the hardest of all. A lot of whites in America have difficulty understanding the accents of Americans of African descent, both rural and urban people. And then there’s Australia and New Zealand, not to mention Boston and other east coasters.

The point here is, that being reminded of this has made it easier for me to put a more appropriate perspective on my self-doubts about my Spanish.

Another thing I have had to be reminded of, by my Ecuadorian friend, is that the people from the coast speak a really fast type of Spanish. I was lamenting the fact that I had a hard time understanding the locals. It’s interesting and somewhat disheartening that they also seem to have a hard time understanding my so-called “educated” Spanish!

That’s another thing that I want to confess. Since most of my Spanish study has not involved conversation with others, that particular aspect of language learning has suffered, and I have been shown that it is something I need a lot of work on still. I’m not much of a talker to begin with, even in English. So conversing in Spanish isn’t a natural activity for me to partake in. But I am finding, that the more I do converse in Spanish, the more confident with it I seem to become. And being in a Spanish speaking country, there are plenty of opportunities to converse on a daily basis.

Another consolation has been hearing other gringos speaking Spanish, and hearing all the mistakes they make. Again, this isn’t a competition, or a way to put myself on a pedestal. It just helps me to gauge my progress a bit, put it in perspective, and feel less like a failure or like I’ve been wasting my time.

Besides this, I have also been consoled by the fact that I actually have met a few people recently who I understand very well, and who understand me also. And a few people have complimented me on my Spanish lately even though I have lost a bit of confidence with it.

That is what I was struggling with the first couple of weeks here in Ecuador. But I am relieved to say that the more time I spend here, and the more I converse with native Spanish speakers, the more I am able to understand, and the better I feel about my conversation skills.

Thankfully, lately, my resolve to continue improving my Spanish seems to have been kindled again. And I have been enjoying studying Spanish every day on my own, and supplementing that with all the opportunities to use it in real life situations!

The key to learning any language really well, is without a doubt, immersion in the language, culture, and country. So I encourage you to consider taking your Spanish to the next level by visiting a Spanish speaking country for as long as you can.


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