My Four Stages of Language Learnin

When I first arrived in Spain (way back in January 2008), I thought I knew how to speak Spanish. I was wrong. I knew some Spanish, knew Spanish words and verb conjugations, but speaking Spanish with a native is a whole ’nother ball game. The following admission may place me hopelessly in the Facebook generation, but I clearly remember one of my first Facebook statuses upon my arrival in Toledo. “Kaley no puede hablar español. Para nada.” Now, I won’t be as harsh on myself as I was then, but it was kind of true. My Spanish was classroom Spanish, not colloquial. Nowadays, I can safely say I have a rather decent grasp on the language. My recommendation? Echáte un novio/a español/a. (Get a Spanish boyfriend/girlfriend.) Best way to learn a language, no doubt about it.

But seriously now, I was thinking the other day about how I’ve progressed since I started studying Spanish back in 2002, a wee little high school sophomore. And I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve progressed through four distinct stages. They are as follows:


  1. Literal translation of English words to Spanish ones. This is when you match every English word to a Spanish one. “Oh, hello = hola and green = verde.” It’s easy stuff, but involves lots of memorization because there are myriad ways to say things in English and Spanish is the same.
  2. Literal translation of English phrases to Spanish. “I was sick because of the food I ate.” Easy peasy, right? Just say “Estaba enferma porque de la comida que comí.” –> That right there? Literal translation. Also completely incorrect.
  3. Fluency. This is the point where I began to really understand the language, to grasp when to use por and when to use para, to understand why the subjunctive is necessary (it used to baffle me), to know when a verb would be irregular…all things I could never have dreamed of at the beginning of my language learning. It’s a great stage. I recommend you try to get there.
  4. Literal translation of Spanish phrases to English. This is the part where I start say things like, “You have reason” or “It is green, the purse” to my mother and I have to smack myself on the forehead to remember how silly that sort of thing sounds in English. Why do I do this? Why is my brain betraying me? Perhaps I’m surrounded by those Espaneesh people and they are quietly, stealthily invading my thoughts and, now, my speech! Those little devils.

You ask, where am I right now? Good question. If I had to say, I would say I’m a mixture of 2, 3, and 4. I’m working on staying in stage 3, but keep slipping into 2 and 4. I think 4 is a natural consequence of 3 and I therefore embrace it. I’m working to stay out of 2 completely, but it’s harder than it sounds. Learning a language is a never-ending process.