Plateauing in language

As an adult, when you start out learning a new language you are full of enthusiasm. Quite how long that enthusiasm will last is going to depend on many factors, including your ability to learn, a change in circumstances (not moving to Spain after all, for example), the methodology you choose, the quality of your teacher, and even perhaps the realisation that this language learning lark is just not as easy as it seemed.

I began learning Spanish at the age of 20. I had never really excelled as a language learner – my efforts with French at school leaving plenty to be desired – but I had a great fondness for the European continent; a continent I had travelled extensively in during two ‘interrail’ trips in the late ’80s (when a month-long rail ticket taking you most anywhere in Europe cost just 149 pounds!).

And of course there was Spain.

Spain was rather out of reach in those days when we took family holidays. At that time the budget flight boom was still a figment, so it was the cross channel ferry for us, and the drive down to France’s south, typically for a two-week stay in a ‘gite’. Spain, then, was just a bit too far away, but its mystique was present in my mind.

When the chance to attend university came along I had no doubt learning Spanish was going to be my decision. And I was keen!

I may have been enthusiastic but after two years of learning Spanish in England, the ‘year abroad’ – that period when you get to really taste the language you have been learning by going to live and study in a country where it is spoken – came as quite a shock at first. Let me give you an example of that shock by citing my experience with the Spanish verb ‘llevar’. The Spanish use it all the time. It’s a wonderful, flexible, verb which essentially means ‘carry’. But where in English we use carry in a very concrete way, the Spanish use llevar to signify all sorts of carrying, such as carrying weight and carrying time. I still recall being at a bus stop in 1992 and being asked ‘¿Cuánto tiempo llevas aquí?’ – literally ‘How much time do you carry here?’ but which we would translate as ‘How long have you been waiting here?’

If I think about it now, I wonder how I could have spent two years learning Spanish previously and not have even recognised that verb. But it sure made its impact when I first came across it. And impact is very important when it comes to language learning: the new word has got to go in. Therefore you must be interested to find out more, there must be desire.

Fortunately I recognised the need to push on with my Spanish learning when I arrived in the city of Zaragoza to spend 9 months. And when I am pressed on the ways in which I helped myself learn the language in that period, I tend to point to keeping a vocabulary book of my own design, a sort of vocabulary diary if you will. In it I would write words and phrases I had heard and which I knew would be useful for me, then tick them off when I knew I had them learned. One of those expressions was ‘Tener en cuenta’, to Take into account. I use that phrase a lot in English so I could be fairly sure it would be useful to me in Spanish as well. It sure has been over the years! Another tip I give: learn the vocabulary for things that interest you. Why? Because it’s easier to learn when you already have the interest as your starting point. I quickly picked up the language for weather forecasting (!) and also gained a lot of new Spanish through listening to football commentaries.

It’s difficult to say exactly when my Spanish reached a level of fluency that meant I could hold a conversation on most any topic but having spent some time considering this I conclude it was the point when my Spanish reached a plateau.

Living in Spain still, there are days when I feel my Spanish has hit a brick wall, days when I feel that fluency is a million miles away, but also days when I feel I could go on talking Spanish forever (and keep a Spaniard entertained while I’m at it!).

As far as progress is concerned, however, I must confess that I’m still on that plateau. It’s not one of mediocrity but it seems destined to keep me several steps behind thos true linguists for whom new language is a constant source of delight.

Have you reached the plateau? Have you gone beyond it? Let me know!


Jim Porter is a co-founder of Speekee®, the most comprehensive Spanish for kids learning program ever to appear online. Jim’s work includes this homeschool Spanish curriculum and this homeschool Spanish curriculum (not a misprint – he wrote two!) and this Primary School Spanish curriculum.

Jim began his Spanish learning journey in 1990. He has been a language teacher since 1994 and he lives in sunny southern Spain. He has two bilingual children. More…

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