I studied Spanish throughout high school. I took a break through College and University but then went on to live in South America – Spanish became my second language.
The five years I studied Spanish at school gave me a good base to build on but it did by no stretch of the imagination make me a “Latin Spanish” speaker…this I found out very quickly upon my arrival in Caracas, Venezuela!!!
I had “more Spanish” than any of the other people I had met along the way and was now travelling with. So I was the one that got pushed to the front of the queue to ask for things, negotiate room rates and bus fayres, order food at a restaurant. We did a lot of hitch-hiking and I was the one that always had to sit next to the truck-drivers for hours (!!) Needless to say I got plenty of practice!! And I actually enjoyed it.
But in Latin America the accent is very different to the Spanish from Spain (the Spanish we were taught in school) so after a few months I headed inland to a town called Merida. I got a job teaching English which would pay for an intensive Spanish course. I also organised to stay with a Venezuelan family for a few months. I was forced to speak Spanish every day as no-one in the family where I was staying spoke any English at all!
After six months I was feeling pretty confident and could now understand a lot more. I realised that wasn’t not just about what I could speak, but it was also about my comprehension, not only of the language but of the culture as-well. Once I understood where people were coming from (the un-spoken language, and body language) it became much easier to understand them when they spoke.
I spent the next year in Colombia at Calypso Dive Centre practicing Spanish with no real intention to take any more lessons. During this time I learnt “Colombian street talk”, although I spoke simple sentences that were a far cry from being grammatically correct…I was learning so much about the culture, the music and arts. I learnt went from Open Water diver through to Dive Master with a Colombian Instructor who didn’t speak Spanish. Even the theory exams were all in Spanish. There was an assistant Dive Master from Germany on hand who spoke English but mostly we spoke Spanish.
Quito, Ecuador was a turning point for me with regards to the level of my understanding and my communication skills. I taught English at a school called Benedicts, an excellent institution that taught people of all ages. In addition to my salary and an apartment I also received one-hour of one-to-one Spanish lessons every day, Monday to Friday. I stayed there for nine months. My teacher Guille Carrion was (still is) one of the nicest, most patient people I have ever met. She had such a kind heart and taught me so much about the Latin culture, the language and the people. We worked through simple grammatical problems to the use of complex grammar and verbs with a variety of exercises and conversation classes. This was the MOST useful experience of my life and what made the difference between me sort-of understanding what was going on around me to totally having the confidence to join in and take friendships to the next level!
By the time I arrived in Argentina (18 months later) I was feeling confident with my level of Spanish, but boy was I in for a shock!!! As soon as I crossed the Bolivan/Argentian boarder I might as well have been on a different continent…I couldn’t understand a thing! The grammar was totally different to what I had learnt in Ecuador, all “vos” no “tu”, and the accents….woah, I didn’t understand anything!!!
I threw myself into the deep end again and as soon as I could I rented a room with an Argentine family in Mendoza and got stuck in. Within three months of living in Mendoza I started The Grapevine, an English language magazine. I was invited on the local radio and was interviewed for the local newspapers. I emmersed myself in the culture and made Argentine friends.
After about a year of living in Mendoza it was very unusual that I speak English at all. Spanish had become my main language.
And it was after about three years that I suddenly realised that I was fluent.
How did I realise that?
I noticed that my dreams were predominately in Spanish. I noticed that if I needed to speak in English that I was thinking first in Spanish and then translating what I wanted to say into English. One of the biggest milestones for me was actually winning an argument in Spanish…actually getting my point across, that is a great feeling a real WOW moment! I also noticed that when I met people for the first time the first conversations would be more about local matters, friends or family – less and less people would ask where I was from straight away. My accent started to disappear, I blended in more…I became more “Mendocina”. It was then that I realised – I was fluent.