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July 25, 2011 13:41:40 | in Expat Life

A formula for learning Spanish in Peru

By Larry J. Pitman

To be happy living as an expatriate over an extended time requires many skills and personal qualities, but, to me, the most important of all has to be language. If you have read my column in the past, you will know that I am a strong believer in learning Spanish as a necessary part of living happily in Peru. Of course, the same advice would apply regarding English to Peruvians living in the United States.

In short I believe that to have any hope of understanding a foreign culture and participating, even at the marginal level to which expatriates must function, it is important to have some competence in the language. The big questions which we must ask are: “How can we do this? What is involved?”

Language is a major problem for us expatriates, and I ran headlong into it immediately on arrival in Peru. Actually, I was overconfident. I grossly overestimated my competence in Spanish. You see, I had studied the language more than six years in high school and at university, but many years ago. I had a solid base in grammar, but my listening and speaking skills were far from adequate.

Family gatherings were a torture to begin with as I sat frozen and mute trying to figure out the right verb tense to use so that I could make a comment in the discussion. Talking on the telephone was even worse and usually I would just hand the phone to my wife when someone who spoke Spanish would call me. After a year of this, she got tired, and then handed the phone back to me. “Now it is time that you do it,” she told me.

From then on, I had to do everything for myself on the telephone and, actually, it was the best thing that could have happened. I had to do it, and I did. One day a year later I realized to my surprise that I could understand what people said to me on the telephone, and they seemed to understand me. It was a revelation. I was progressing, and since it happened over a period of time, I hadn’t become aware of it.

From this experience I learned two important things: first, to learn a language you must use it; and, secondly, it is necessary to have some sort of benchmark so that you can measure your progress. Even after five years in Peru I find myself frustrated at times with my Spanish. Someone speaks to me, and I can’t understand them; I watch a television program or a film, and I don’t understand everything and so on. Until recently these experiences would make me feel discouraged. Then I started looking at my successes as well as my failures.

So, now I understand that learning a language is a process. Within that process there will be ups and downs. What I need to do is keep working by talking to people, reading articles, listening to programs, and one day I will understand. The most important thing I learned, however, is to acknowledge those successes and to be patient with myself.

In that regard, let me share a recent success. Usually films in Spanish are difficult for me. The other day, though, I was watching “Batman” in Spanish, and I suddenly realized that I understood everything they were saying. When something like that happens, we need to pat ourselves on the back, and give ourselves credit.

So that is my formula for success: be patient, be persistent and enjoy your triumphs.

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# Pamela Robles says :
25 July, 2011 [ 02:23 ]
Thanks, Larry. It's encouraging to know that someone else is experiencing the same ups and downs in the process of language learning. I've been here five years, too, and I keep thinking I should be a lot more fluent by now than I am. However, I'm going to follow your advice: "be patient, be persistent, and enjoy your triumphs."
# Michael Connolly says :
26 July, 2011 [ 08:02 ]
I share your original feeling of "over confidence" in language skills!  I thought I was "fair to good" in overall skills........until I fell in love with a lovely Peruvian lady!  It was then that I began to realize how little I do know!  But, like yourself, I am working on it!   Saludos desde Seattle!
# Marcello says :
26 July, 2011 [ 09:48 ]
Thanks for the encouragement Larry.  The phone, TV and my mumbling landlord are the hardest things for me to understand here.  I stopped beating myself up for not being more proficient in Spanish after being here for 3 years.  Sometimes I surprise myself and sometimes I'm disgusted with my language skills.  But I'm not giving up and I can't wait to have the "Batman" experience you had!
# g says :
26 July, 2011 [ 10:17 ]
What a nice article! I will try the same advice regarding English language.


# Luis Legua says :
27 July, 2011 [ 11:36 ]
Hi everyone,A formula for learning spanish in Peru,
I totally agree with Larry, and patience is an important ingredient to learning a language, however, you have to go crazy! (in a good sense). I mean a TOTALLY positive mental atittude through the whole learning processs, Let me tell you a little bit about my own experience; I am peruvian and  a qualified spanish teacher, I traveled to Brazil to marry Marta, I had studied translation from spanish to Portuguese, (now you might be thinking portuguese and spanish are so similar! you might be wrong), I literally crammed my brains, I studied day and night, asked questions, I was never afraid to talk to people and ask them the right way to say things.
If you have any other questions about learning feel free to contact me.See my other posts
Luis Legua

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