GUEST POST: How to Learn Spanish When You’re Surrounded By English Speakers

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Brush up on your Spanish on the streets of Madrid

Brush up on your Spanish on the streets of Madrid


This is a guest post by Ashleigh, an American who writes about her experiences living in Spain on her her blog Spain is My Happy Place. She knows only too well that living in a country like Spain – surrounded by other English speakers – can make a person lazy about learning the language.

Here’s her thoughts on forcing yourself to learn a language, even if you don’t need to…

As an expat who belongs to an American community here in Madrid, it is often hard to truly immerse yourself in Spanish culture.  Our kids are older – in 8th and 4th grade.  We didn’t opt for Spanish school because we will be transitioning back to the United States and US schools.  They take Spanish every day but will continue to get all they need for their American curriculum.

Why Not Speak Spanish All the Time?

So while we are learning Spanish and enjoying our own Spanish adventure because we have American ties here, we are not forced to “go native” and speak only Spanish. Just like when two of our Spanish friends see one another and speak Spanish, us English speakers do the same thing.  Not only is it human nature, it is also much faster.  We don’t have time to speak Spanish poorly to one another.  We need to get our message across and move on with our lives.

So, how do you learn Spanish if you want to, but don’t absolutely HAVE to?

The Difficulties of Communication

I’ve studyed Spanish, mostly on Rosetta Stone, both before and since my arrival in Spain. It helped unlock my Spanish background from school, in terms of vocabulary and verb conjugation.  I took five years in junior high and high school and two semesters in college…hmmm, I should probably be further along in my language journey than I am, huh?

Well, I don’t believe you can really become fluent through books, courses or flash cards.  They are important building blocks to learning to speak another language, but what has helped my Spanish more than anything is having a friend who ONLY speaks Spanish…well, she speaks French too, but I don’t, so all we have in common language-wise, is Spanish.

Cheap Massages and Mari

I am not a college student. My ramen noodle days are behind me for the most part.  I’m going to be 40 this year and my husband is 41 and we have two kids and a pretty good life.  That paired with the fact that Spaniards know what is important in life…in this case, cheap massages, I get to speak with my Spanish masseuse once a week.  I know, I know…I am enjoying the good life while it lasts and remember, it’s good for my Spanish…


how to learn spanish

Ashleigh, Mari Luz and Tiff


My masseuse (and friend) is named Mari Luz and she lives up to her name; she has truly been a “luz” (light) in my life, helping me with my Spanish and inspiring me to try traditional Spanish cooking, eventually leading to my writing a Spanish cookbook with my American friend, Tiff.

Mari is a grandma, and obviously a mom and she lives in my neighbourhood, so we have a lot in common and a lot to talk about.  You could never get a 90-minute massage and mini-facial for this great price in the States, and my husband likes the added bonus of the free weekly Spanish lesson.  We joke that she is my professor as well as my masseuse.

Muddling Through

Our friendship has grown over the last two years.  I often try to think about topics I’d like to discuss with her before I go for my massage, as well as how to explain them in Spanish.  I make mistakes, but I have no choice but to muddle through, and week after week, my Spanish has really improved.

We discuss our families, our husbands, our friends, different countries, cultures, idioms, and even politics.  We still have to resort to charades or consult the dictionary she keeps in her massage room, but who cares.  I’m speaking Spanish and she understands what I’m saying.  That is the definition of communication, is it not?

We’ve become so good at communicating that she has invited me to go with her and her sister-in-law to her house in Galicia and one day my schedule will actually allow it.  It’s like an immersion course and I get to see a part of Spain I haven’t yet been to.  I’m a little nervous that I might run out of vocabulary, but what an opportunity for my Spanish!

Still a Way to Go

Sometimes I can’t believe how far my Spanish has come.  I can carry on conversations and make people laugh in another language.  How cool is that?  I have a long way to go, of course.  I’m still reduced to tears and hand gestures sometimes.

You will also see me nod and smile at a Spaniard in the grocery line or at a restaurant when I have no idea what they are talking about.  But I’m putting myself out there, willing to embarrass myself!  After all, life is too short to take yourself too seriously… and you just might make a friend!

 Have you had a similar experience to Ashleigh? Share your thoughts below…


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About Gemma Howe

Gemma is a travel junkie, freelance writer and foodie who likes to dabble in a spot of photography from time to time. A former local news reporter she is now based in London (in the one and only Brixton) and is working for Gap Daemon. During her travels she spent a year in Latin America as well as several months in China and South East Africa.

2 Responses to “GUEST POST: How to Learn Spanish When You’re Surrounded By English Speakers”

  1. Gemma says:

    This is what I found when living in France as part of a year abroad at university… I lived with my friends (all English), worked at a school (taught English) and tended to go out with fellow students (again, English). You really have to make an effort because it’s easy to get by without learning much of the language. Annoyingly though, when I did try to speak French I found people would reply in English has they were keen to practise. My advice: steer clear of the cities and big towns and head to a region where there won’t be any English speakers, you’ll be submerged in the culture with no excuse but to speak it!

  2. Gerd Scholz says:

    Indeed – making people laugh in a foreign language. That’s a good goal for me too. Thanks for the encouragement

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