When I was about 13 years old, my parents put me to study at a language school. They wanted me to learn English, but I hated English. I loved Spain, and therefore I wanted to learn Spanish. And it was in this way that I learned my first foreign language. I studied during a year and I got to the intermediate level. But I never finished the course. Consequently, my level of Spanish remained always in an intermediate level. I studied only occasionally and had few opportunities to practice.
On my last vacation, I decided to be a little more critical about my Spanish knowledge and established a small record: I’ve spoken in Spanish for 12 days.
I studied Spanish a long time ago and I never practiced with regularity. Last month I was in Spain for 12 days on vacation and finally had the opportunity to know the country that motivated me to learn Spanish and how I did do?
I had no problems to deal with most everyday situations; I bought gifts, ate in restaurants and booked a train ticket. I could also talk effortless with Spaniards.
Despite the easiness of handling most common situations or conversations of everyday life, I had some difficulty understanding some dialogues on television or what two strangers were talking about on the subway, with all the noise of the train itself and other people talking . The fact that they speak super-fast was also a factor that hindered my understanding. A simple example: I was in the cash desk at FNAC and the attendant asked “Tarjeta FNAC”? But she spoke so fast, and as if it were a single word that two simple words that I knew well, words that made sense at that moment were incomprehensible to me. Only after she repeated I understood.
The obvious conclusion is what every language student already knows. The everyday language is very different from what we learn in language classes or text/audio courses. Spaniards speak incredibly fast (as Peruvians, Chileans, etc..), they use plenty of idioms and slang, often they also cut letters or syllables when speaking. These characteristics are not unique to Spanish language. The same thing happens in French, English and Portuguese – the languages I know – and I bet many others.
So it is proven that you can only be fluent living in the country!?
NO! At least in my opinion. I think my Spanish is between the intermediate and advanced level, not fluent. But if I am not fluent I put the blame only on myself. Whereas, since I was 13/14 years I did not study regularly. I believe that with a basic combination of methods, you can become fluent in a language. My favorite three methods are:
• Listening to music
• Watch TV and movies
• Read on subjects that I like and literature
But my greatest fault was always ignore two important aspects.
The most important…
Although I have some friends from Spanish-speaking countries, I communicate very little in Spanish and when I do it is almost always through written communication.
The most boring…
This is the aspect that I most ignore when I study a language, whatever language. I.e., I have poor grammar in all the languages I know. But I think to be fluent, you have to study grammar.
BUT, being fluent is different from talking like a native.
A native speaker has “knowledge” that were naturally acquired throughout his life, which are not only idioms and slang. The repertoire includes historical understanding, cultural, geographical and even body language. This knowledge can only be acquired living in the country. So, yes it is possible to be fluent, but speak like a native? I believe only after some time living in the country where the language is spoken to sound like a native.
Therefore, any site, method or course that says after finishing it you will speak like a native is lying. Even when living in the country is something difficult to achieve, especially when the cultures and languages are quite different. Then again, to speak fluently is entirely possible in lesser time, however requires a lot of dedication and intense contact with the idiom.
And there is also a catch: a Spanish doesn’t speak like an Argentine, who doesn`t speak like a Cuban, who won’t sound like a Bolivian. I had a Spanish teacher who was not ashamed to admit that he didn’t know several common expressions in other countries. It’s impossible to know everything of a language, even if you’re a native speaker.
And that’s good, it means that we don’t need to be perfect when using a foreign language. We can accept the fact that we don’t know some words and that we make grammar mistakes. We can get rid of the fear of making mistakes and focus on doing the right.