Thursday, February 13, 2014


Progress and measurement

Sometimes progress feels hard to come by for foreign language learners, especially those who do not live in a country where their target language is spoken.  I have been fortunate to have an annual event to measure my Spanish progress, our yearly trip to visit my in-laws in Panama.  Thinking back on these trips gives me gratitude for my in-laws, who have been tremendously supportive of me in my Spanish learning, and grateful for the opportunity to travel and be immersed in the language and culture, which of course is very helpful!

When I think back to our first trip to Panama in 2007, I had just 2 semesters of college Spanish and some solo study under my belt.  With the in-laws I could greet and ask some basic questions, but I mostly relied on my wife for translation.  This was of course very tiring for her, and luckily through subsequent trips I have managed to attain fluency and no longer require someone to translate. 

The bulk of my learning happened at home: listening to Spanish podcasts, reading grammar and vocabulary books, enjoying Spanish media, and jumping on every opportunity to practice speaking.  I also had the incredible fortune of a mother in law who visited for 3 months after the births of our 2 daughters, and during these visits did not use her English.  Progress was hard for me to measure day by day, but our yearly trips created a great yardstick for comparison.  

This year, I received many compliments on my Spanish from our relatives in Panama.  I also felt that I incorporated natural and colloquial expressions into my speech.  I understood nearly everything and, with very few exceptions, almost never had to ask a speaker to repeat.   I also managed to note a lot of mistakes in my speech, most notably a lot of problems with subjunctive tenses.  I love mistakes, especially when I notice them, because that means I know what I need to work on, I’m already aware of a problem, and I know what resources I can turn to for improvement in that area (Book: Spanish Subjunctive Up Close).  

Now I know not every reader has the good fortune of being able to travel to Latin America frequently, but there are other annual events that could be used as a measuring stick for your Spanish learning.  A local Latin American festival is a great place to mingle and converse (If you are in Pittsburgh that could be the Latin American and Caribbean Festival at Pitt).  Many cities have Spanish language groups on   Even a bi-monthly trip to your favorite Mexican restaurant or grocery store can be used to measure your progress, you might even get the confidence boost of a compliment from your waiter!  You’ll also notice the places you lack in your conversational skills, and will be able to make a study plan based on what you find.  Buena Suerte!         

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