Many foreigners live in Spain for years and never learn to speak the local language. Some say they are too old. Others won’t even try, surviving I suppose, with English and sign language. I am the first to admit that my memory isn’t as receptive now as it was when I was young, but for us who have chosen to live in rural Andalucía, not learning Spanish is really not an option.
For those who struggle with past and future verb conjugations and find Andalu’ twang hard to understand, here are a few tips on how to go native and achieve semi-fluency at any age.
- Change el Chip
To quote a much-used Spanglish expression, the first thing one must do to learn Spanish is to ‘cambiar el chip’. In other words, start with the attitude. We must tell ourselves repeatedly and truly come to believe that we will speak Spanish. Every time we say to ourselves that something is too difficult, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Learning a foreign language isn’t only a way to widen ones horizons and enables one to communicate with the locals, it is also healthy for the brain. Practicing multiple languages can keep Alzheimer’s and dementia at bay. It is never too late. My role model for continual learning is a friend of my mother in Norway, who still reads the French Le Monde newspaper every morning even though she just celebrated her 100th birthday…
- Find a new maestro
When we came to Ronda, I was recommended to enrol in a Spanish course for foreigners. Actually, nobody we know became fluent through that school, though several of the students redid the beginner course numerous times. I left after a couple of months, finding that I learned less stuck in a classroom between other foreigners than on the street.
Most foreign residents in Ronda attend a private Spanish school. It is a great place to meet the local international community, but once again, nobody we know who has taken classes there for years seem to speak fluent Spanish. At least not yet…
I am not trying to discredit the value of formal education, but one cannot achieve total immersion in a classroom. Cliché as it may sound, try to attend ‘the school of life’ as well. Begin by talking with the neighbours.
There are no better teachers than the locals. Take Monolo, who taught us the classic (and sadly dying) art of reed basket weaving. The lesson took place on his patio, didn’t cost us a cent and we even walked away with a basket as a present and offers of a future lesson in broom making!
- Slow down
We all want things to happen instantaneously. This is certainly the case for us who came from North America to the Spanish south. But when you move to a mañana culture, you have to embrace the fluidness of any situation and accept what may come.
Though Andalusians talk at break neck speeds and never seem to run out of topics, the general pace of life here is more leisurely than in northern climates. It is a challenge for some of us to slow down, and more difficult still to try to calm our urgency to speak perfect Spanish right away. But learning one expression per day is sufficient. Daring to engage with one local person per week is a step in the right direction. If you cannot read a whole book in Spanish yet, start with travel brochures or Hola magazines. The know-how will come in it’s own good time one of these mañanas. If you have chosen to come to Spain in your latter years, there is no hurry, is there?
Many of the elderly in our neighbourhood love to chat, like Mari-KiKi. Now in her late 80’s, she grew up in the mills in Ronda’s Tajo. The buildings are now in ruins, but she will gladly tell you how our town used to be. Ask as many questions as you like. The bell wont ring and she has no time restraints. And more importantly, you will be doing your elderly neighbours a social service by offering them your ear.
- Go shopping
Some people do not need much encouragement in this department, while for others the mere thought of going into stores is torturous. But do not undervalue this seemingly trivial pastime.
There are endless language lessons to be had by simply going to a local corner shop. We love and frequent all of them, though one of my favourites is Pepe’s. His store is so small that barely two clients can fit at the same time, but you won’t believe what you can find behind his counter. These types of stores are also the best to source local produce. Pepe’s vegetables come from his father’s field, which provides fabulous organic vegetables, like this Romanesque Borccoflowers, almost year round.
The smaller the establishment, the more regulars you will meet and thus, the better the conversation. Besides, by buying from these mom and pop businesses, you contribute to the local economy.
Make sure to become a regular, so the shop owner knows what you like and will stock it for you. If they do not have something, ask for it – in Spanish of course. If you are not sure which brand to get, ask again.
Ask Juan Lu at our mini-market which vinegar to use to clean windows and there will immediately be three amas de casa starting a major debate on the pros and cons of effective window washing. Soon you will find yourself joining in with your own opinion.
Brace yourself and stand for half an hour lining-up at the butchers while listening to local gossip. Though I dread cooking, my inevitable waits at the butchers have been immensely productive, expanding my cooking vocabulary significantly, while giving me a chance to catch up on births, deaths and weddings of every family in town.
- Do what you love
A magical way to learn a language is to do so subconsciously. You hear a word enough times and whoops, there it is as part of your own vocabulary. It snuck in the backdoor of your brain without you noticing or trying to capture it.
The easiest way to achieve this type of indirect learning is to concentrate on doing something you love. If you like motorbikes, join an MC club and make frequent visits to the guys at the local mechanic shops. If your special interest is sewing, you will get great ideas at the fabric store or the haberdashery, where the waits are always long and customers always want to share their craft projects with the proprietors.
When we moved to Spain we decided to try new things. My husband always wanted to learn woodcarving, so he joined a wood workshop. I took up furniture restoration and together we became members of the local Friends of the Opera. As we love hiking, we also joined a couple of senderismo clubs. Why not?
Whilst in the mountain doing what we most enjoyed, I couldn’t avoid picking up expressions about the trail, the kilometres ahead, altitude climbed, packs carried, aches and pains, lunches to be had or other trails that we were advised to do. I didn’t consciously try to learn anything, I just chugged along and the words magically lodged themselves somewhere deep inside my cranium.
- Become an amigo
To truly get a sense of belonging as a foreign resident, you need to make local friends. However, this is a to-way street. To make amigos, you yourself need to be a friend of the locals. If they see you only mingling with other foreigners, they will naturally assume that you are not interested in their lives and thus will not be interested in you.
To become an amigo, you need to become one of them. Be an active participant and a good neighbour. Greet them, ask them how they are and offer to help whenever possible.
People are generally patient with one, even if ones grammar is limited to present tense. It is the effort that counts. Enquire about neighbours’ health, and they will soon do the same in return. Learn the names of their children, their spouses and their pets. Participate in local meetings and go to church concerts. Dress up and join the local fiestas.
Help the kids in the hood with their English homework. Become member of your neighbourhood association. Volunteer your time in something you believe in. Vote in local elections. Go to church. Get a garden plot. Buy and consume local produce. Help friends and neighbours with the harvest.
Buy Christmas goodies fro the local kids to support their school trips. Attend fundraisers and walk the solidarity walks with the people of your town. The locals will appreciate your interest and eventually begin to consider you their friend.
- Realize your limitations
It is sometimes easy for those who have lived in other places to unconsciously look down at the rural population for their lack of worldliness and international savvy. The one lesson I have learned by living in small-town Andalucía is that experience is very relative. I might speak half a dozen languages and have travelled the world, but I do not know how to dance the Bulería, recite the poems of Federico García Lorca by heart, make our orange tree bloom year round, saddle a horse, identify all the different species of wild orchid in the sierra or make a fluffy tortilla. So, in the end, I certainly have lots to learn to become a true Andalusa!