How I Became Fluent in Spanish Without Living in Spain (and How You Can Do it Too)Download audio of this article
“Con los idiomas estás en casa en cualquier lugar” (“With languages you feel at home everywhere”) – Edward De Waal
I could have sworn I was in Mexico.
Every word I heard spoken was in Spanish. Every word I could read—on the walls, on the products, on the doors—were all in Spanish.
Though I was already fluent in Spanish by then, my language learning senses were tingling; here was a real, genuine opportunity to practice my skills, and it had just fallen into my lap.
After all, I wasn’t actually in Mexico. Or Spain, or Cuba, or in any of the other dozen-plus countries where Spanish is officially spoken.
I was in New York City. In Queens, in the middle of a small, unassuming convenience store.
Upon encountering what seemed like a small chunk of Mexico right in the middle of the United States, I finally realized the importance of Spanish as a worldwide language.
Spanish, like English, is a language with global impact. If you become fluent in Spanish, doors will fly open for you.
Allow me to share my story of learning Spanish, so that it may inspire you to begin your own Spanish journey as well.
Start Focused, Stay Focused
My first experience with Spanish was in 1996.
I had seen an ad on the television for Lo spagnolo per te (“Spanish for You”), the Spanish equivalent of the course I had used to learn German a few years prior.
Naturally, I bought it straight away. These were the days pre-Internet, so it wasn’t possible to instantly pull up endless lists of Spanish courses to choose from. I had one choice, and I ran with it.
Years later, I realized that that single course had a huge impact on my becoming fluent in Spanish.
Because with one (and only one) choice available, I had no alternative but to focus. And focus can be a huge difference-maker in language learning success.
Language learners nowadays have too many options to choose from. For every language, there are dozens—or even hundreds—of books, mobile apps, classes, and courses.
This leads to what is called the paradox of choice; when presented with too many options, it actually becomes harder to make a decision, not easier.
Here’s my advice: don’t overload yourself with too many resources.
Start with one single book, course, or app, and stick with it until you’re done (or at least until you’ve gotten all of the value out of it).
Choose the Right Spanish for You
Here’s another thing you need to realize about becoming fluent in Spanish:
There’s not just one Spanish!
Spanish is spoken as an official language in twenty countries across the world, and the language is spoken differently in each location.
I’m from Europe, so the natural choice for me was to learn the Spanish spoken in Spain, also known as Iberian or Castilian Spanish.
For Americans and Canadians, however, the choice is far less obvious. Unless you have a clear reason or inclination to learn one type of Spanish, you may be tempted to learn the language from whatever people or resources are available, no matter the source.
So if you want to be really, truly, fluent in Spanish, you need to decide which variety of Spanish you want to learn, and do so early on.
The Spanish you choose to learn will impact:
- Your accent
- Your gestures
- Your personality when speaking
- Your vocabulary
- Your formal and informal speech
So I recommend that you choose one variety of Spanish, and learn it exclusively for one to two years. This will allow ample time for your new Spanish “identity” to develop, and prevent your accent from becoming an unusual mixture of influences.
Focus on Lifestyle, Not Location
When people hear me speak Spanish, they immediately assume that I’ve lived in Spain. Which is fair, because I actually did do an exchange in Barcelona back in 2007.
However, they’re usually surprised to find out that Barcelona isn’t the place where I learned most of my Spanish.
Of course, I had lots of contact with Spanish during that time, but considering that my university courses were in Catalan and my housemates were Italian, I didn’t speak as much Spanish as you might think.
The truth is, I truly became fluent in Spanish outside of Spain, in places like Rome, and Paris.
When I lived in those places, I made a serious effort to look for Spanish-speaking roommates and housemates.
When I eventually found Spanish speakers to live with, I spent as much time with them as possible.
Don’t listen to the common advice that you need to live somewhere like Spain, Mexico, or Argentina to become fluent in Spanish.
Sure, it can certainly help, but it won’t do the work for you.
The most important choices you can make as a Spanish speaker are how you learn, with whom you learn, and what you spend your time doing. That’s all.
Live Your Spanish Story, Become Fluent in Spanish
At its core, my Spanish story isn’t about the words I learned, the resources I used, or even the Spanish-speaking countries I’ve visited.
My Spanish story is really about how I constructed the new, Spanish-speaking version of myself.
I created a unique Spanish identity for myself by:
- Focusing on one resource at a time
- Immersing myself consistently in a single variety of Spanish, and
- Building a lifestyle full of Spanish culture, language, and (most important of all) Spanish people!
To become fluent in Spanish, you need to build your unique Spanish identity, and live your Spanish story, just how I did.
Of course, your Spanish identity and story will not be the same as mine; in fact, I’m sure it will be quite different.
But the real question is this:
How amazing will your Spanish story be?
Getting started is the only way to find out!
Written by Luca Lampariello