I began learning Spanish at university fifteen years ago. My four year degree course included a year abroad in Spain, and it was in that period that my Spanish language skills started to come on apace – proof, if it were needed, that there’s no better place to learn a language than in a country where it’s spoken. I had started learning from scratch, and two years of learning Spanish at university had done little to prepare me for the feeling of being ‘in at the deep end’ when I got to Spain.
By the time I arrived back to university in England, I had a achieved a minor level of fluency in Spanish – I could express myself reasonably well – but by this time it was clear to me that mastery of the language would probably always be out of my reach. Not only would a truly Spanish accent be virtually unattainable, I had also noticed that vocabulary learning was a slow old process. This was a time when I didn’t have children. Fifteen years later, with a young son immersed in the Spanish language and culture, I would see just how quickly children can learn a foreign language – and achieve total fluency in about one year.
Moving to Spain with children of preschool age is complicated enough. So it will come as welcome relief to those of you who plan to do the same, that you needn’t worry about your child’s ability to learn the new language. It will happen naturally. No teacher required!
In the year my family has lived in Spain my son Joe, now four years old, has learned Spanish at a rate which leaves me gasping in amazement. His spoken skills are a joy to behold – his accent is perfect, though naturally he lacks a lot of vocabulary still – and his understanding is even more impressive. Joe spoke no Spanish at all before we moved here. Aged three, he was still getting to grips with his English, so how would he respond when faced with a new linguistic challenge?
In the first weeks it seemed he wasn’t learning any Spanish at all. That was a bit of a worry! However, my untrained eye had failed to notice that he was taking in what he heard and storing it for future use. He was being a sponge, just as any other child of his age would be.
It was important that Joe was able to start school early on. That got him maximum exposure to the new language. Naturally, second language acquisition is speeded up with the total immersion experience that school entails.
So, little by little his first Spanish words began to filter out. In the beginning it was a trickle – much as a baby starts speaking its first language through isolated words, that’s how it was for three-year-old Joe learning his second language. I heard him start using the words for ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘up’, ‘down’, ‘mine’ etc. Then he started to form short sentences, making himself understood more easily. Interestingly, it was around this time (about five months on) that his schoolteacher commented on how he had settled down much more in the classroom. He had become much less nervous.
How difficult it must have been for him at school during those first weeks. It’s hard enough getting to know a new set of little friends, but when they’re speaking in a foreign tongue as well, the challenge is doubly hard. My wife and I are proud of how Joe handled himself. And now, one year on, we can see just how much he is enjoying school. Dropped in at the deep end when we arrived in Spain, he could ‘sink’ or he could ‘swim’ – and like any child of his age, with typical resilience, he swam!
Jim is one of the founders of Speekee, a groundbreaking Spanish language course for young children. Visit www.speekee.co.uk