Learning Spanish: Chris


Chris Steele (right), who is from Walsall, in the Midlands (UK), came to Spain two years ago to take a TEFL course to train to be an English teacher and had come knowing next to no Spanish "other than dos cervezas", he told us.


Chris had been in business for a number of years after college and had chucked in a job as an account manager in Lemmington Spa to come out to Barcelona. "Why Barcelona?" Well, he would have gone to Australia to live in Sydney, but getting in there was tough and he'd come to Barcelona on a weekend trip and "fell in love with it in three nights". Barcelona is a bit like Sydney, in some ways, he says - near the sea, cosmopolitan, good weather...

Not having learnt a language at school, Chris had always been a bit embarrassed being English abroad, he says, and the prospect of learning a language while being immersed in its culture - and making up for it - also appealed.

But - knowing so little Spanish - how had he got on at first, when he first arrived? "Not too bad," Chris says. "I did a two-week intensive Spanish course, which was definitely worth it though, after only that, having a proper conversation was sometimes hard, but I picked up the necessities by just being around [something that Harpreet had found harder] and people say I've picked up a pretty good Spanish accent, because I've learnt it here, on the spot."

Making opportunities for practice

But how had he gone about learning Spanish like that, we asked? "Oh, just by trying to interact with as many Spanish people as possible," Chris says. "I've tried to avoid hanging about with English people - even at the expense of being a bit lonely at times - I've deliberately tried not extended my circle of English friends."

Ex-students who he had taught on teaching practice during the CELTA course he still sees, friends of friends, two "intercambios", a conversation class with a student who has since become a friend - if you put you mind to it, as Chris has done, you can seek out opportunities to speak Spanish.

Chris SteeleMaking the most of opportunities for practice: part of the secret of learning any language

A world beyond English teaching

That does have to be a conscious decision. Chris had also made a conscious decision to "move away from the TEFL world" because, he says, "I felt it was preventing my Spanish from improving".

Chris now works in a bagel shop in Barcelona, making bagels and cakes and waiting tables. "For my learning style, it's much better to be in an environment where Spanish is spoken constantly, somewhere where you've got to be interacting all the time. My fluency has improved... and my food vocabulary has certainly got better!"

"For me, learning Spanish, being thrown in at the deep end is better, though I probably need to supplement that with a spot of grammar, because there are a few gaps I need to fill in," Chris says.

A learning environment that suits you

Finding the right sort of personal learning environment is important when it comes to learning a language. It's what the experts say* now (gone are the days when everyone learnt the way the teacher decided you should learn) but it still pleasantly surprises us that both Chris as well as Harpreet and Christa, the previous two learners of Spanish we had talked to, should actually mention the matter. Again, being conscious of the process of learning a language, making conscious decisions about it, is going to help you make progress.

Back with Chris, had he picked up learning cakes from scratch, too, we asked? "Well, it's not that complicated," he says, "it's more or less just following a recipe - but it helps if you have an aptitude for it." A bit like learning a language, in fact.

Progress and the future

But how much progress had he made, "being thrown in at the deep end"? "Well, I can more or less hold a conversation now," Chris told us. "My confidence is up, I'm starting to use the future, but I need to practise my imperatives."

Why, he has designs on becoming the boss, does he? Well, actually, yes. "My dream when I came out here was to have my own café," Chris says. That he adds, gives him an "increased focus" for learning Spanish - having what the experts call "instrumental motivation", wanting to know the language because of what you will be able to do with it - now that's a key factor in success in learning a foreign language.

And when you start thinking in terms of the future, when you start to dream in Spanish, then you are surely making progress!



*If you are really interested in what the experts say, Skehan's "Individual Differences in Second-Language Learning" (Edward Arnold 1989) is an interesting introduction to the topic. We also highly recommended "How Languages Are Learned" (Lightbown and Spada, OUP, 1999) as a very readable, fascinating account of the subject.

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From beginner to Advanced:

Harpreet | Tor | Simon | Chris | Christa

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