Ask Juan: Why is Spanish so Hard to Learn?

The other day a reader emailed me with the following question: Since you are Juan of Words, what do you do when life gives you a whack in the back of the head? I’ve been trying to learn Spanish through a local community college and I’ve tried for two quarters and just can’t get a halfway decent grade.  And it isn’t for lack of studying.  It’s all I do.  I don’t have much of a life.  So, Juan of Words, how do I smack back at life?

Dear Frustrated:

Lessons in Spanish

First off, let me just say I totally understand where you’re coming from.  I’ve never had to learn a new language, at least not as an adult.  We learned English as kids in our family and, well at that age we’re all like little sponges, capable of learning and absorbing so many new things.  In high school I took French classes, but that was only because we were required to take two language classes and I didn’t want to bother with Spanish.  Little did I know had I taken Spanish in high school I might not have had to take Spanish for native speakers in college.  In any event, all these years later I can probably count to 20 in French and recite the alphabet y una que otra palabra, but that’s about it!

My subject of terror and constant frustration has always been math, which probably has a lot to do with the fact that in high school when all of the other kids were learning Algebra I was too busy “living my life” skipping school and hanging out with my girlfriend at the time.  Alright, so sometimes it was driving to the local Burger King to order two croissant-wiches and eating them in my first beat up old car by myself before heading to school!  I was a healthy sized boy!  What can I say?!

Needless to say when I got to college algebra I was completely lost.  The teacher might as well have been giving us the lessons in French!

That first go around I just quit college all together.  I stayed away from school for a good two years until I realized my teachers had actually been right, without college I was going to be stuck at a job I didn’t want.  Of course, as soon as I registered again for classes Algebra was one of the first courses my guidance counselor required.  This time I actually tried my best to learn something and still failed the class miserably at the end of the semester.  I was very disappointed, but at the same time there was a little pride in myself there too.  I had not quit this time.

That’s one thing about me.  I never like to quit, unless it’s something that I know I have to do.  Growing up the way we did, I honestly think it really is hard for my siblings and I to quit anything.  The word luchista and my mom’s catch phrase hay que ser luchistas just keep playing over and over in our heads, all of the time.

That third time around, though, my teacher was African.  English was her second language and she had to enunciate a lot more than any of my other Algebra teachers, which meant she relied a lot more on her notes on the chalkboard to teach us the lessons.  I must have gone through at least six spiraled notebooks that semester writing down every single thing she wrote on the blackboard, complete with little reminder notes for myself about why certain calculations were important.  To my surprise I actually passed the class with an A this time around and somehow managed to ace all of the remaining math requirements in my degree plan.  For a brief moment – a very brief one – I actually considered making math my major.  Then I looked at all the higher level math courses I’d have to take and decided against it.

A few years after graduation I started working for an all Spanish-language newspaper.  Remember those Spanish for native classes I had to take?  Here is when it really became apparent why they were actually a blessing in disguise.  Even though I’d spoken Spanish all of my life, it wasn’t what my editors considered “correct” Spanish… as in what the Real Academia Española would approve of.  To improve I began reading more in Spanish, watching television only in Spanish, listening to the radio in Spanish all of the time, and holding more of my own conversations exclusively in Spanish.  Before I knew it I was thinking, dreaming and living my life almost completely in Spanish!  It was really bizarre.  Sometimes I’d forget certain words in English.

Today, many years since working for this publication, my Spanish is still not perfect, but it is a hell of a lot better than what it once was.

I don’t know if this response will actually be helpful, or if it even answers the question you sent me correctly, but I hope it does.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that perseverance pays off and even though sometimes it’s hard to see that light at the end of the tunnel, if you keep plugging along, pushing yourself and accepting that it’s okay to fall and get back up, you’ll eventually get to where you want to be.  And hey, there’s nothing wrong with not having much of a life.  Sometimes our most exciting outing in a week is to Walmart.  I don’t think it gets much sadder than that.



If you’d like to submit your own question for Ask Juan, please email me your questions.  I would be glad to try my best and provide an answer.

9 thoughts on “Ask Juan: Why is Spanish so Hard to Learn?

    1. Thank you, Carla! You know you are so right… the human mind and heart are incredible. When you want something bad enough it’s amazing what you can achieve.

  1. Juan, not sure you answered your reader’s question here. He asks only why he can’t get a decent grade, but getting a decent grade is not the same as learning Spanish. I’m convinced you absolutely CANNOT excel at ANY language without some amount (a good amount) of immersion. HAVING to soak your brain in the language is the only way you won’t limp back to English. Honestly, if there is any chance in hell of getting together a study abroad, even a short one, do it.

    As for grades, that’s just memorization when it comes to early Spanish. See if you can boost your vocab memorization by listening to music in Spanish.

    Of course, the hardest part of Spanish is the darn verbs. I found (for a more analytical brain) that using charts and charts to teach myself HOW to conjugate did wonders. DOn’t buy a book about it: write a book about it. Fill notebooks with charts of verbs.

    I own a translation business (but subcontract the work out). I also have 6 full years of Spanish and am married to a Spanish speaker. And I still can’t get do more than limp through a Spanish conversation. BUT I will say my SPanish improves by leaps when we visit family in Mexico.

    1. Ah, thank you Allena! That’s the beauty of the social media community… where one lacks or drops the ball, another may come in and score for the team. Thank you for the tips. I know my reader will be just as grateful as I am 🙂

  2. I will comment as someone who learned Spanish in my 30’s and with only a little bit of class time (and I got a C-), yet today I live most of my personal life in Spanish and my company sends me to give training in Spanish in a Spanish-speaking country (very intimidating!) and I pull it off.
    The secret is that what you get from classes and books is only a starting point. People who make money teaching and/or selling classes and DVDs and computer software to learn languages aren’t going to tell you this.
    You must open your mouth and attempt to speak the language everywhere and everytime you possibly can.
    What helped me is that all through school I was made fun of. So I developed an attitude of not caring what any
    one thinks.
    (As long as I don’t get too much attention from the police, and my boss doesn’t decide I’m truly crazy!)
    Really, all the immersion programs that are so successful, the reason they work is that you are forced to open your mouth. And you can re-create that for yourself, for free, if you just make up your mind to do it.
    I did it in Dayton, Ohio so I think anyone can do it.

    1. Very insightful info, Beth! You know for me with Spanish, having grown up with it and all, it wasn’t until I had to live and breathe it at that newspaper that I was able to fully say I was bilingual in every sense of the word: reading, writing and speaking Spanish. Immersion and practice, practice, practice are really the best teachers.

  3. A few days ago I was watching a English-spoken movie with Spanish subtitles. A man said “there’ll be dancing and drinking at the party”, to which a girl answered “but neither of you do”. The subtitles were “pero ninguno de ustedes dos baila ni bebe”. A 5:8 ratio. English and Spanish just don’t mix!

  4. I agree that immersion is the best way to learn a new language, but this is not possible for everybody. You need to invest a lot of time and effort, which ia something not many people can nor want to do.

    The second best option IMHO, is to follow a self-taught system. There are many well-known commercial methods available.

    Granted, many of these are complete ripoffs, but there are two of them I always recommend: Pimsleur Spanish (the complete 3-volume, 90-lesson program), and Michel Thomas Spanish.

    These are audio CD programs, and they REALLY work to help you acquire practical fluency and an almost perfect accent.

    I’d buy both of them if possible.

    The cons: Pimsleur is very expensive. However there are some libraries where you can check it out for free.

    Also you can buy and download individual lessons online, if you can’t pay for the whole program upfront.

    Another issue is that Pimsleur is only for absolute beginners, although it helps a lot with pronunciation. Besides, you won’t learn how to read or write the language, but you can complement this with a good grammar book.

    The Michel Thomas method is very similar, albeit less expensive than Pimsleur. Both of them focus on teaching useful vocabulary you can start using almost immediately. You’ll start speaking real Spanish from lesson 1.

    They really work.

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