Yes, you read the title correctly. I did teach myself to speak and write Spanish over the course of two years. By teaching myself, I mean that I did not sit in a classroom or have any tutor. All I had was my Spanish-teaching computer programme, an English/Spanish Dictionary and Conjugation phone app, and a close network of 4 native Spanish speakers whom I could call for help.
It wasn’t until last month when I had a 73 mins conversation with Ariana, a member of my Spanish network, that I realised how far I had come. Ariana is from Venezuela and she knows very little English. Our conversation was entirely in Spanish. We talked about everything from the weather, to the political crisis in Venezuela, to Donald Trump, to my job.
At the end of the conversation I looked at the call duration on my screen and I was wowed. It was then that I soaked in how far I had come.
I’d wanted to speak Spanish from the age of 11. My father came back from a business trip from Equatorial Guinea hauling along some bottles of Spanish wine. I couldn’t help noticing how some of the words on the bottle labels were similar to French.
I already speak fluent French, and plus my English I figured learning Spanish would be a breeze. Well, it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Nevertheless, it has been and is still is an amazing experience; one from which I have learned a number of life lessons; nine of which I want to share with you.
1. Slow and Consistent Progress Is still Progress: As a matter of fact, if you ask me, it is the best type of progress. We underestimate the value of slow gains a lot. Especially our social media-driven generation where we follow people who seem to have all going for them. We want so much to have everything and to have it so fast that when we don’t, we get frustrated.
A consistent 1% improvement every day is still an improvement. The beauty of that 1% is that it adds up. A consistent 1% improvement every day adds up to 365% at the end of the year. It has taken me just a little over two years to be where I am. I wanted to finish my course in 9 months. I realised that the more I rushed the process, the more I forgot and the less efficient my speaking and writing were. I ended up going back to read whole chapters I thought I had mastered. Not everything in life has to be rushed. Give time to the things that deserve it.
2. Surround Yourself With The Right People (& know their value). Ever heard of ‘your network is your net worth?’ Right. Truth is, your net worth will never improve if you don’t know the value of each of the members of your network and how they can, each in their own way, make you better. If you go to the wrong person for advice, you only end up losing value.
My network consists of Raquel from Spain, Lizett from Mexico, Ariana from Venezuela, and Melissa from Colombia. Each one of them helps me in their own unique way. Raquel is a school teacher and she is strict with me. She corrects my every written mistake and pronunciation. She is also a very resourceful person and sends me all manner of links to learning resources. Ariana is my go-to person when I want to converse without having to think too much about my mistakes. Lizett speaks good English and is my go-to person when I don’t want Raquel’s strict diligence. Melissa has a thick Colombian accent and she is the one I talk to when I want to practice my listening. Each one of them helps me in their own different valuable way and all combine to make me better.
3. Always have a system and A Method To Every Major Undertaking. It is important to have a find a method and system that helps make you productive and efficient with any long term endeavour you take. The higher the stakes, the more time you should take in finding that system. Sticking to and trusting that system is also important. Thomas Oppong in an article pointed out that “everyone has a number of goals, but it’s a commitment to a system that makes the difference. Systems are the foundation of deep and great work.”
Over time I realised that my optimal time for studying was between 5 pm and 7 pm every day. So I would stay in the office after work to study. I own a notebook where I wrote down every verb I came across and I kept my weekends for conjugating these verbs into all the Spanish tenses. I had three different notebooks serving different purposes and I used three different colour pens. Blue for English, Black for Spanish, Red For headings, and Important side notes. I found my system, stuck with it and the efficiency made me progress.
4. You’ll Gain More If You Challenge Yourself More: We have to learn to live without looking at the benchmarks of others around us. Raising our own bar and setting challenges for us is the best way to get better. But we have to be able to do that with consistency. If we do not keep asking more for ourselves, we will remain stagnant.
When I finished my study programme, I could have folded my hands and be happy with what I had accomplished. But I knew that was not enough. I was not satisfied. I decided to go in for an Advanced Spanish learners’ exam which I intend to take next year. I’ve given myself the challenge to ace the exam. I’ve subscribed to 5 different Spanish podcasts, I listen to Spanish radio stations every day, I watch my shows with Spanish subtitles, I read my news in Spanish, I even changed my TV subscription so I could have a Spanish-speaking Channel. I’ve memorised over 200 Spanish verbs and can conjugate each of them in all tenses.
All these didn’t happen at once. It’s the result of more than 2 years of learning and constantly challenging myself to get better and better.
5. Don’t Be Afraid of Failures, They Are Your Friends: The moment you set failure as a barrier is the moment you bury yourself into something that will be difficult to extricate yourself from. You either win or you learn something new. You cannot learn if you do not make mistakes.
My greatest difficulty is in speaking. I write Spanish far better than I speak. Speaking requires that you think on your feet and since I do not speak Spanish daily I have some difficulty with it. But I don’t let that stop me. When I’m conversing with anyone from my network I talk and make mistakes as much as I can, correct myself, and then start again. I know I can only get better by correcting myself over and over.
6. Take relish in the value of each undertaking. Too often, when we undertake something, we care more about the result than we do about the process. That’s why sometimes we fixate on our failures than on the process. Every journey has a treasure of lessons that we can see only if we decide to look for it. Michael Simmons in this article wrote that “the value of an activity isn’t just its immediate result, but also in the underlying principles at play. The principles you learn in any situation are often more valuable than the immediate results, because you can apply them for the rest of your life across all areas to make better decisions.”
This experience has been and is still a journey of self-discovery. I’ve learned to make a decision and stick with it, I’ve learned how to be more self-disciplined, I’ve learned my hidden strengths, I’ve learned to celebrate my little triumphs, I’ve learned about systems and methods and a number of other things about myself that I, perhaps, wouldn’t have.
7. There is no such thing as Perfection: And chasing perfection is the worst thing you can do to yourself. I’ve been speaking English since I was a child and I’ve not mastered the language completely. I don’t know all the words in the language. Nobody does. I’m not sure I’ll come to know Spanish and master it as well as I do English or French. But that’s OK. I’ve made my peace with it. I’ll keep trying to get better. I’ll not try to become perfect. That will only live me raving mad.
8. You’ll never know what you can achieve unless you give yourself a chance. One of the simple truths I’ve learned about life is that if you really, really want something, you are going to get out of your way to get it. Losing weight, stopping an addictive habit, getting out of an emotionally unstable situation; you name it. It all starts, however, with giving yourself a chance to.
I’ve wanted to learn Spanish for years. I kept putting it off until the day I decided that I was going to act on my desires. And when I didn’t find any school around me where I could study, I went on the internet, found myself some resources and got to it. Just me, my computer, and my phone apps. I gave myself a chance and the results followed.
9. Never stop Learning: I’ve come to realise that knowledge and wisdom is the greatest gift you can give yourself. Acquiring knowledge opens your mind to many things you didn’t notice before and your manner of thinking changes radically. It has a snowball effect too. Knowledge pushes you to learn more. Don’t take it for granted. The most important thing you can do for yourself today is to invest in yourself by knowing more about the world around you. It is no doubt the best investment you can make in your life. But it takes you to be open to acquiring the knowledge in the first place.
I’ve been on a roll these last months and I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction work. Which is something I never did before except for scholarly articles and blog posts. I recently read the book “Why Nations Fail” by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. And I have four such books lined up for the next 3 months.
I hope my experience with learning Spanish inspires you.
Gracias por leer. (Thank you for reading).
*** August 2020. My network has increased. I have now added to it Pablo from Chile and Adriana from Peru.