No Pain, No Gain: My Spanish After Two Years In Spain

This morning, it came to my attention (thank you, expatsincebirth), that today is the European Day of Languages – the perfect opportunity for posting an update on my linguistic toil.

So, I’ve been living in Spain now for two full years. The official anniversary was September 14th. My main reason for moving to Spain was to learn to speak Spanish properly, which had been a dream of mine since my teenage years.

Where am I in this process? Well, in short, not where I’d like to be.

After two years, my command of the language is at a point I thought I’d have reached after year one.

There’s one overarching reason for this: lack of exposure. This may sound ironic, considering that I’m living slap bang in the centre of Spanish-speaking country. But the reality is that I work at home on my own pretty much all day, reading and writing in English. Most of the people I see socially want to practice either their English or their German, for at least some of the time, which is only fair (and fun!), seeing as a shared interest in language learning brought us together in the first place.

I do feel frustrated much of the time about my slow progress, but, as I have to keep reminding myself in order not to lose heart, I am making progress.

My latest milestone: I’m reading grown-up books!

About six months ago, I started reading novels, which is something I wasn’t brave enough to tackle up until then. Having to look up every other word is just not an enjoyable experience, and I think it’s better to wait until you can comprehend at least 70-80% of standard written material unaided.

On that note, I still remember reading my first book in English, I must have been about 17. It was Charlotte’s Web (by E.B. White). It’s an iconic classic children’s novel, and I struggled like hell. I understood just about enough for it to make me cry, though I think I was already crying out of frustration before I got to the sad bit. I didn’t touch another book in English for several years after that.

CharlottesWeb

In my humble opinion, e-readers are the greatest invention of all time ever. And it will stay this way until they start making Nutella in squeezy bottles.

Now, I don’t want zillions of comments about the sanctity of paper books, so save it, people. I love ‘real’ books just as much as you do. But for language learning, the e-reader is a gift of the heavens. It lets me download books in different languages, there’s no waiting around for deliveries (which always come when I’m soaping myself down in the shower, and then I’ve got to waste hours in Toledo’s post office, where one lone middle-aged sour puss dawdles away the days until her retirement behind the counter, while one pointless uniformed oaf just stands in front of it, with pretty much the same objective. Why is Spain in the middle of an economic crisis? Spend one afternoon in that post office, and all becomes clear. Periodically, they run out of stamps – and this is the main PO of Castilla La-Mancha’s capital city!!!).

OK, end of pet rant, and back to e-reader fangirling. A swift download is only the start. The true miracle lies in the power of the integrated dictionaries. (Move over, talking burning bush in the desert.)

I bought my Spendle (actually, it’s Amazon’s Kindle, but Spendle is so much more apt, sigh…), and the gadget came pre-loaded with dictionaries in five languages. These are monolingual ones, though, and so aren’t of much use in languages where proficiency is still lacking. Luckily, bilingual dictionaries in the world’s major languages are cheap, so a Spanish-English one for five bucks was my first purchase.

Now all I have to do when I  collide with an unknown word is to point at it accusingly (frowning is optional), and the translation pops up. Oh my, what a marvel compared to thumbing through a paper dictionary – a practice abandoned sometime during the late Cretaceous period, I realise! – but I remember those days only too well.

What have I read?

El Esclavo de la Al-Hamrá, by Blas Malo Poyatos: An historical novel set in Spain and North Africa in the fourteenth century. I made it to 38%, then aborted the mission. It wasn’t so much that I found the language too challenging, but I just didn’t care about any of the characters. And I can’t get through a 464-pager just for the sake of accumulating vocabulary about the smells of the souk and bloody medieval clobberings between Moors, Jews and Christians.

Suicidio Perfecto, by Petros Márakis: Who-dunnit set in Athens. I’m not an aficionado of crime novels (which is unheard of for a German – they are famously obsessed with their “Krimis”), but this book was on my book club reading list, so I bit the bullet. The plot wasn’t too convoluted, and I found it engaging enough to keep dragging my weary fingertips across every fifth word until I got to the last page. Hurraaah! Success!!!

Maldita, by Mercedes Pinto Maldonado: May the Lord Of The Rings strike me down, this is the kind of tosh that I detest with every fibre of my being. We’re talking damsel-in-distress romantic effluent. BUT for language learning purposes, it was surprisingly useful. Straightforward plot, simplistic characters, you knew exactly what was going to happen next, and to whom. We both made it to the end – me with the utmost relief, and the damsel duly rescued, married and with a bun in the oven. Phew!

La Tumba Perdida, by Ares Nacho: Discovery-thrillery-egyptological lore. Replete with grave robbers, mummies and royal incest. Set in the 1920’s and 1300 BC. I started this last week, am really into it right now, and confident I’ll last the distance.

For language assimilation purposes, as I’m working my way through those books at glacial speed, looking up absolutely everything and highlighting the new vocab and certain sentence constructions, which strike me as useful. The e-reader lets you do that, oh yes! Once I’m done with a book, I’ll go back over the highlighted matter and transfer it into my notebook. A bit labour intensive, but totally worth it.

Apologies for the length of this post! Anyone care to share their foreign language reading exploits, hits and misses? Would love to hear about it 🙂

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68 thoughts on “No Pain, No Gain: My Spanish After Two Years In Spain

  1. bevchen

    I LOVE Charlotte’s Web. Just had to get that out there.

    I am capable of reading almost anything in German, but struggle to find anything that sounds interesting and isn’t a translation from English!

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  2. Anna

    I think what helped me with different languages is watching movies and TV shows I have already seen but dubbed into those languages. No subtitles – those arent always synched up well. But just listening helps you learn conversational skills and trains your ears. As for reading, I actually prefer more formal literature – like a history book. There will be a bunch of recognizable words/concepts, but at the same time it well-structured, clean, organized writing.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Am watching The Big Bang Theory dubbed. It hurt a lot in the beginning. But now I’m getting used to it. The trouble with that is, though, that they still say very ‘American’ things that no native Spanish speaker would ever come out with.

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      1. ottominuti

        I know that feeling! In Italian you can read the lips of the American actor saying “Great!” and hear him say “Grandioso!” which no Italian would ever say in a normal conversation. Once I watched Sex and the City in French and I was shocked. They translated everything literally but in French you just…can’t swear that much. It sounds like language porn. lol!

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      2. ladyofthecakes Post author

        YES! That’s exactly it. It’s just weird. I can walk into a room and, without looking at the screen, listen for just a few seconds and know for certain whether it’s something dubbed or an original Spanish film, just by the things they say.

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  3. Ashley

    Congrats on being able to get through entire books in Spanish! I don’t have the patience. I love to read, and I probably read about a book a week on my Kindle in English, but I absolutely hate reading in Spanish! I consider myself pretty fluent, but I’m much better at listening and talking than I am at reading and writing.

    That being said, I can’t find many Spanish-language books to download for free on Amazon, even though there are a ton of free books in English. Have you been paying to download Spanish-language books, or is there a tucked-away part of Amazon that has a list of free ones?

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  4. pollyheath

    Congrats on reading age-appropriate books. That’s always an exciting step in language learning!

    I (stupidly) went crazy and slogged my way through “Crime and Punishment” in Russian. It wasn’t my first book in Russian, but it was definitely really far over my head. I’m still not sure how I feel about doing it…

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  5. ottominuti

    I love e-readers too, so much easier! Isabel Allende’s books are perfect for learning Spanish, I read a couple of them when I was in my hispanic phase, a few years back. I taught myself French partly (before coming to leave in a French-speaking city) through the novels of a very controversial modern author called Michel Houellebecq. He writes a lot about sex so that at the beginning I could enunciate all the possible dirty words all while being unable to sustain a long conversation:-) (My husband was kind of embarrassed when I made him the list of French words I knew). I don’t remember which was the first book I read in English but I think it was a short tale by Oscar Wilde at school (The prince and the swallow if I am not mistaken) but I do remember that The Piano was the first film I watched entirely in English without subtitles (and I watched it everyday for a month, I was 16…). Concerning German, I could never go through any book, too tiring. But if you know one which is over simple (as I love shopping and that sort of literature) I’ll be happy to give it a try.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      I love Oscar Wilde 🙂
      I’m totally out of touch with German lit, though I’ve recently started reading German books again. Am on the hunt for some good authors myself!
      Paradoxically, I’ve not tackled Isabel Allende yet. I think I read one of her books last year (in English) and didn’t like it much. I have read many others of hers that I liked, though. Will def give her another go, and this time it will be in the original version.

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  6. Katherine B16

    That’s the thing that stops me reading books in Spanish and especially Catalan because I have to stop and look up words. In French I won’t even bother because of that horrible passé anterieur tense that’s only used in literature. I love watching films though and in all three languages I’ll watch with no subtitles!

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      I didn’t know that about French. German also uses a past tense in literature that’s not used very much in the spoken version, but I don’t know how these compare.
      I think you’ve just got to push through the pain threshold, it’s certainly worth it in the end. I’m still very much in the thick of it, ouch 😉

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  7. Jackie Cangro

    I’m so impressed! I understand what you mean about the frustration of trying to read for “pleasure” in another language. I tried reading a crime noir novel in Italian and promptly gave up about 3 pages in.
    Have you ever tried the side-by-side stories? That is where English is printed on one side of the page and Spanish is printed on the other. It saves time in having to look up the specific words and any colloquialisms are easier to grasp.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Yes, I’ve got a couple of short story books like that, German-Spanish, which I’ve read, but I wasn’t counting them in, as I was considering them more of a learning tool rather than ‘proper’ books.
      I’m also past the point now where I need that kind of thing, phew! As long as I don’t try and read Don Quixote in the original, that is 😉

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  8. El Inmigrante

    Como hablante nativa, tengo mucho admiración para cualquiera que lea un libro en español/castellano. Así que, ¡no te sientas mal!. Aprender un idioma no es solo tedioso y difícil, pero también hablarlo con fluidez lleva mucho tiempo. Soy profesora de español y lo que te puedo decir es que si yo no hablara español, no tendría ni la paciencia ni el valor de aprenderlo jajaj, es muy difícil, pero no imposible. Sigue adelante con tus esfuerzos y ya verás los resultados.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Gracias por el ánimo 🙂
      Voy a consegurilo, tengo mucho tesón, y también soy muy cabezota cuando me propongo algo en sério.
      Además, lo he alcanzado ya una vez con lo el inglés, y así tal, no será imposible hacerlo una segunda vez.
      Seguiré leyendo tú blog!

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  9. Debbie

    As one who still enjoys reading good children’s books in English e.g. Michael Morpurgo, I wouldn’t feel too embarrassed at taking time to get to adult books. My Spanish is a bit hit and miss, extends to Marie Claire in castellano and Time Out magazine in catala. And there lies part of the problem – I have a house just south of Barcelona, visit for max 20 days a year and when I’m there I end up speaking a mix of castellano and catala – in the same sentence! One of my favourite books ever is Time Traveller’s Wife – I bought it in Spanish and didn’t get beyond the first page. But the Kindle approach sounds ideal. I am now downloading a selection of books and dictionaries. My French is better than my Spanish and I do try to read a few books in French each year, especially before I go out there as it helps get me into the swing of the language. I will let you know how I get on with the Kindle approach.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Catala and Castellano are so similar… so that would be very confusing.
      Let me know how you get on with the Spendle 🙂 I’m not touching paper books in Castellano just yet, but soon I’ll be up for those, I reckon.

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      1. Debbie

        I immediately downloaded a French dictionary and “Chourmo” by Jean-Claude Izzo in the original French. I have to say I think it’s brilliant. Normally I’m too lazy to look up a word unless I’m really stuck, I just muddle through on context. But it’s so easy on the Kindle! So now I know that “beur” is an African born in France, whereas my guess was just a “bloke”. I’m hooked already! I am so glad you wrote this post.

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  10. completelydisappear

    Totally agree with you on e-readers! I still love paper books and I have ton of them in my own language. However, Kindle is absolutely useful when I want to read English language books because I can instantly download them into my Kindle. I think I’ve read almost 100 books (English language) in 1 year after getting my 1st Kindle compared with one English book a year when I didn’t have it and I had to buy them at book shops. So e-reader pay an important part in my English practice. Moreover, it is so easy to carry everywhere especially when I travel abroad. So I completely love it! (Ha… I would stop my fangirling here 😉

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  11. יונתן קסר

    I agree entirely – I love my e-reader to pieces. (I own a Nook. Couldn’t bring myself to buy something from Amazon.) I’m definitely reading more again now, and not just because I can get something from the county library at 2 AM. Okay, that and the fact I can’t get late fines…

    I’ve yet to actually try to tackle something modern and fiction written originally in Spanish yet… but I’m having a good time with translations from English. Could always try that as well. 😉

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  12. polyglotfun

    I love how you’re measuring yourself by reading “grown-up” books. 🙂 This reminds me of when I was first learning Portuguese in 2008. At that time, I started reading the book O Alquimista (The Alchemist) by Paulo Coelho to see how much I could understand from having only known Spanish before. Unfortunately, I read so slowly (probably took me over a year) that by the time I finished, I was already an advanced Portuguese speaker. So the experiment failed pretty spectacularly. 😛

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  13. Jennifer Avventura

    Any post with the word Nutella in it, is okay by me! I haven’t the patience to read books in Italian and how I’ve tired. I also have a Kindle and there are a few books in Italian but I just can’t get into them – maybe if I had an Italian dictionary on the Kindle it would be better, but hey, one thing at a time right? I’m still thinking about how we can get Nutella into squeezy bottles! 😉

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      There’s a facebook campaign, did you know?? I think the problem is with the consistency. You’d have to make it much runnier to have it work with squeezy bottles.
      Just download that dictionary already, sheeeesh!!!!!

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  14. con jamón spain

    ‘lack of exposure’ sums it up – same problem with us – although we’re two years behind you and aren’t taking formal Spanish lessons (yet). Great tip about the Kindle/dictionaries/translation. Maybe that’ll be the thing that gets us moving. And we’ll probably have to start with children’s books.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      I guess it’s just too tempting to exist in your little English microcosm 😉
      I’d recommend you do take lessons to get all the basics covered. Once you’ve familiarised yourselves with the grammar structures, it gets much easier. And yes, it’s a total pain, but when you build a house, you gotta lay the foundations right.

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  15. expatsincebirth

    I like this post – and thanks for the update about your linguistic toil! I know the struggle when you want to learn a language, want to be able to read grown up books, have a conversation etc. in that language asap and then just don’t “get there” as fast as you want(ed). You need a good reading-list from some people who did the same. I know, someone else did mention children’s books before and I can only say that I learned Dutch thanks to those books (and songs etc.). I did read all the books in our local library and then went on to the next shelves. I had the chance to meet really good librarians: they gave me the right hints about what to read. Maybe that’s an idea? – As I’m learning Spanish as well right now (veeery slowly…), I would be very interested in a reading list. 😉

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      1. ladyofthecakes Post author

        Did you just see my reply to expatsincebirth? I’ve listed my three fave podcast services, which have helped me no end with understanding the Spanish that is actually spoken in Spain.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Well, you are very experienced in all of this, so kudos to you 🙂
      I’ve got the local library registration form sitting in my in-tray, and it’s still blank. I need to fix that asap.
      I can’t come up with a good reading list in Spanish, but I can give you some recommendations for podcasts:
      newsinslowspanish.com – excellent, excellent, excellent. Gives you a weekly news summary, grammar, and expressions. You’ve got to pay, but it’s totally worth every penny.
      spanishpodcast.org – this is a free resource, and it’s been of great help. I love listening to the podcasts and reading the transcripts at the same time.
      notesinspanish.com. Love those guys! They charge, but it’s worth the money.
      Looking forward to your upcoming posts 🙂

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      1. expatsincebirth

        Thanks a lot for those podcasts! And here are some good reads (recommended by a native speaker): Como agua para chocolate, Laura Esquivel (I saw the film many years ago…), a “must read”: Crónica de una muerta anunciada, G. García Márquez, La piel fría, Albert Sánchez Piñol, La sombra del viento, Carlos Ruiz Zafón. That’s just the beginning 😉 – But maybe you already read these?

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  16. barbedwords

    I’m very impressed you can read any books in Spanish and will be even more impressed when the Squeezy Nutella hits the shops (it’ll be a big seller in Italy, I can tell you!) My Italian after one year is pretty much where I hoped it would be after one month, so you’re doing a lot better than I am!

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      It’s taken a lot of effort to get there, I can tell you… plenty of prev posts documenting my frustrations, but they don’t even scrape the surface of what it’s really been like. Of what it’s still like…

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  17. restlessjo

    Sounds like you are making a pretty determined effort with this, though if you live in a country, why wouldn’t you? I don’t have a Kindle or any of the gadgetry but it sure makes sense when you put it like that. I have a very lethargic attitude to my chosen languages (well, actually, Polish chose me :() but it would be entirely different if I lived there.

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