Before I went to Mexico as an exchange student, I knew “a lot of Spanish.” That means, I had earned good grades during four academic years with excellent high school Spanish teachers, then tested out of 9 credit hours of foreign language classes at the university level. During college, I worked a couple seasons with Latin American workers at a landscape company, and I was glad to see that I had retained a lot of what I had learned in previous years about vocabulary and verb conjugation in the various tenses.
So when I landed in Monterrey, I was set… right?
Very wrong! There was a lot I had to learn and experience. Here are some examples:
- First off, I had a difficult time making the transition from using the word “vosotros” to using “Ustedes.” I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it would be much more practical for U.S. students to learn a Latin American Spanish rather than Castellano (Spain-Spanish). Learning Castellano is almost like teaching Mexicans to speak English using Australian or British rules of the English language. Or maybe it is even more confusing than that 😉
- It took a lot of listening and mental processing to figure out what conversations were even about. Sometimes I would be able to pick up words or phrases here and there but not really know what people were trying to say. In other instances, I would understand everything except for one crucial word, and I would ask to have somone repeat the complete question or comment because I needed the context in order to explain that one word.
- Another thing I had a hard time with was word enunciation in general. Based on my observations, in the U.S., we tend to open our mouths more when we speak, whereas in Latin America they can create entirely different sounds by keeping their mouths more closed (so now — especially in my work as a bilingual customer service rep — as a manner of turning “on” and “off” my authentic Mexican style of Spanish speech, I have begun to control the amount I open my mouth so that it sounds appropriate for the language).
- There is also that one letter I feel I will never be able to get right: the rolled “R.” I comprehend the structure of it, but because I have only begun to say it somewhat correctly in the past few years, it hasn’t sunk in naturally yet. It still feels and sounds like an “L” to me. But I have come a long way working on it; it used to be that whenever I said the word “tres,” (three) it would somehow be interpreted as “seis” (six). It was frustrating (and for this reason, I’m so glad Aron is taking time out to look at our son D (who is 3-1/2 years old), face-to-face, and show him how to form his mouth when he speaks!).
My best advice to someone trying to learn a language would be to immerse yourself in the language and in the culture that reflects the style of speech you’re looking to emulate. There are so many words and phrases that I have picked up over the years because I lived and socialized off-campus with people who only spoke Spanish. I was constantly asking questions until I learned enough about the pronunciation and meanings of phrases.
Also, please keep in mind that it’s very important to know the in-class, grammary stuff; so if you are a student, don’t neglect your homework, and be thankful when your instructors are strict, because that will make it much easier for you to learn later on 😉