Language in Bloom

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Where did you learn to speak Spanish?

The title of this post is one of the most frequent questions people ask when they discover I’m fluent in Spanish. I have yet to find a simple response to this question for two basic reasons: 1) my phases of language learning have taken place in various locations/contexts, and 2) who said I was done learning? I still learn new words and phrases every day, and I am constantly taking in new information about history, culture and current events in Spanish-speaking countries.

Since my guess is that this question is really eliciting information about my credentials as a Spanish speaker/teacher, my usual response is a quick summary of my educational background and my experiences abroad. Those are the salient aspects of my language learning journey, the ones that I expect people want to hear about and the facts that give me credibility as a language professional. But the whole story encompasses more than just my circumstances and my educational background.

In addition to my personal difficulty in developing a concise response, this question (and its many variations) is indicative of two inaccurate beliefs about language learning, which contribute to so many people describing their past language learning attempts as “failures.”

Reasons why this question reflects flawed notions of language learning:

1) It assumes that there is one perfect space or context in which to learn a language. There is no “one size fits all” program or methodology. Language learning success comes in as many forms as there are individuals who wish to acquire another language. There are levels of effectiveness, certainly; extended complete immersion in another culture will always be more effective than studying a textbook in isolation for one hour a week. However, sometimes complete immersion is simply not an option, and this does not mean that people should just give up if they are not able to live in another country for an extended period of time.

2) It assumes that fluency is a concrete end point to language acquisition. Thinking of language acquisition as a skill that has a concrete end point (fluency) is untrue and unhelpful. Since we learn languages in order to communicate with other people, communicative skills should be the goal, not fluency.

There are many ways to learn and many ways to practice a language, no matter where you live or what your prior experience is. In upcoming posts I’ll explore various ways you can learn languages and explore diverse cultures right here in the Northern Shenandoah Valley. For those who may be reading this blog from afar, many of the tips and articles I’ll post can be adapted to your location. I hope to show all potential polyglots that although learning another language may be challenging, it can be an enjoyable and successful journey by using resources that are accessible locally and online. ¡Que lo pasen bien!

Polyglots: what are some of your favorite language-learning tips?

Potential Polyglots: what are some of the reasons you want to learn another language?

Valencia, Spain: One of the many settings for my language-learning story

Valencia, Spain: One of the many settings for my language-learning story


*this post originally appeared in Shenandoah Valley Language Services’ blog

Written by

Tammy Bjelland
Language lover, teacher & coach.

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