Juan of Words

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.

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