Living in Spain has made me realise that acquiring really good Spanish will be a steep learning curve. Years ago, when I went to Mexico for a week I learned some basic phrases. I bought the Berlitz tape and phrase book. I have used their books for a large number of languages. In about a month you can cram your head with all the basic phrases of any language. The tapes work well, provided those you meet give textbook answers when you ask the way, etc. The phrases remain in your head long enough for your holiday but gradually fall away across the years.

After visiting Spain to look into buying property I had to sit down and start to learn the language properly. The estate agents I met told me I would do all right if I came to Spain and started learning there. Bad advice, of course. I spent a year of lessons and worked through a few different CDs but wish now I had done much more.

I bought the Michel Thomas set of CDs and these at least gave me confidence to speak the language. I stopped listening to them after a while though as I began to find the students who got it wrong on the tape were as memorable as those who got it right. I rather wish I had met Mr Thomas as he sounded a colourful character. I think his recipe for learning would work well on a one-to-one basis for those who could afford it. Other students are of course the problem for those who go to classes.

I signed up for a series of classes in Battle with an artist friend of mine. Laetitia was buying a flat in Nerja at the time and had travelled extensively in Spain, There were eighteen of us in the class to start with but the pupils fell away quickly. One moved to South America to nurse and another to Spain. Most of the others left because they couldn´t hack it. What became obvious immediately was that average British people don´t understand grammatical terms at all. We were using a BBC book for the class. Jose, our teacher, struggled. Both Laetitia and I had learned other languages and so were more able to cope than some of his students. We pretty soon found that we were being held back. We were relieved when the dunce of the class left. He was an elderly man who asked endless questions about the differences between a verb and a noun and couldn´t understand the answers that were given. At least the class was able to move forward at a snail´s pace without his questions. By the end of the second term though, there were only three of us left learning and the education centre decided to close the class down.

I had a good knowledge of grammar before starting to learn Spanish. I had learned French, Latin and Greek in school. I also learned to analyse the use of grammar from teaching English to foreign students. Spoken Italian was acquired later through travel. I once learned a tiny amount of Welsh – much more difficult for me than Ancient Greek so I gave up on that one. I also learned basic phrases in Arabic, Japanese, German, Turkish and Modern Greek for travelling although all but a small selection of words has slipped away now. While the Italian was at a much better level that has merged into the Spanish. Many words are so similar (e.g. numerals) that I can no longer remember them as the Spanish version springs first to mind.

Rightly or wrongly my experience with classes in Battle made me feel I would rather use other methods of learning than the conventional ones. Before actually living in Spain I made the assumption that I would be a fluent speaker in a couple of years or so. I had bargained without the Englishness of the Costa Blanca. There was only one Spanish couple in the street we lived. They were very pleasant but hardly ever available for a chat as they worked such long hours. Most of my conversation, if it can be called that, involved buying vegetables in the market on a Saturday or a few groceries from Mercadona.

I had enough Spanish in place to understand what was going on at the parents´ meetings or make a basic police report when mugged. That was more than some ex-pats, but considerably less than I had hoped for. Every time my son brought homework I sat and worked through it with him, learning a few new words in the process. Spanish school books are costly. I am surprised how few parents think to get some further value out of them by using them as a learning resource for themselves. For his first year at school my son was a little behind. Early in the second his form teacher took me aside and said he was really pleased with the way his reading was coming on. I felt more able to relax once his early struggles were over. There were so few Spanish in the school that it was tempting for the English kids to play only with each other. While waiting at the bus stop I sometimes asked a couple of Spanish boys the words for certain ordinary things.

I also learned some good fighting vocabulary from playing Spanish versions of Pokemon games on my son´s Gameboy. These words (mostly about kicking and punching) proved incredibly useful when it came to dealing with bullying problems at my son´s school and also for karate lessons later on. Karate came about because of the bullying. At first we attended English-run classes in it but eventually joined one in a Spanish Gym. This has proved to be very useful for learning Spanish. The other pupils were mostly Spanish or Eastern European. Our only means of communication was in Spanish in this environment. It´s easy enough to participate in an exercise class by following movements, etc. I knew many of the basic words involved, body parts, etc. and soon learnt words not usually included in phrase books – press ups, stomach crunches, etc. Spanish karate classes are run in a more legal way than the English version. We all pay for yearly licences which give us insurance for injury, etc. The most testing times linguistically were examinations which happen every few months. We have to learn many Japanese terms for combinations and sometimes have to explain these in Spanish. I was going through a similar process to my son in school – learning a subject in Spanish rather than just going to a Spanish class. I went rather blank in my first exam and explained to the teacher that my Spanish was ‘mierda’ and my Japanese was even worse and could he repeat things. Everyone laughed and I relaxed after that and passed.

My son also started attending chess classes taught in Spanish. Gradually, his extra-curricular classes gave him the edge over most of the English boys in his year. Most of them shut off from Spanish the minute they left school, going home to talk English with their family and sit watching British TV. I also found it possible to hold real conversations in Spanish in these environments. There was an unfortunate by product in my case. I have talked Spanish to so many Eastern Europeans that I am now left speaking Spanish with a Russian accent.

Every year we attend a karate course in Barcelona. The main tutor is Japanese but his words are translated into Spanish as most of the people there are either Spanish or Catalan. We learn moves for about six hours a day and spend the rest of the time eating and socialising. For a few days we speak little but Spanish.

About two years into my time in Spain I started another hobby – rock-collecting. At first this was a solitary interest until we attended a mineral fair and found a society we wanted to join – the Asociación Cultural Mineralogista de la Sierra de Cartagena. We telephoned and were told to meet one of the members in Caja Murcia in Cartagena. Fortunately, for my Spanish, Pepe who worked as a manager there, did most of the talking. I simply nodded, tried to look as if I understood everything and put in an occasional word. For the first year or two we were not very active members. When we moved to Cartagena we started to go on all the trips. Best of all was a weekend in Pantoja, Again it was an opportunity to talk nothing but Spanish. We have made a few good friends there and are now on nodding terms with almost every mineral dealer in Spain. We helped on a swaps stall at the La Union Mineral Fair at Easter and went for some mass lunches with a good cross-section of them.

My interest in minerals led me to read books on the area I now live in. There were no books on the Sierra Minera in English so I had to read these in Spanish. I hope to be the first person to write one on this interesting area in English.

Pepe´s Spanish is definitely refined but I see another side of the language as we live in the fishing quarter of Cartagena. Fishermen are not known for their delicacy in the language department and I am certainly well-up now in Spanish swearwords. I also seem to have acquired a vast number of synonyms for penis and cannabis – indeed I now know more words for these in Spanish than in English. My vocabulary is great in some areas and deficient in others – if it´s mineral names, obscenities or fighting terms, I´m the one to ask…

I read La Verdad online principally because it has so much local info on Cartagena. You can always find out if your neighbours have stepped out of line. I usually look at other papers if I am in a cafe, too. I sometimes buy glossy magazines. I like Muy Interesante and Muy Historia as they come up with some unusual facts. I also enjoy magazines like Historia and the Spanish version of National Geographic. These often come with a free DVD to watch as well

After the first year or two in Spain I started to watch films in Spanish in the local cinema. The cinemas are incredibly good value at 5 euros or so. It was easier than I thought it would be. I usually forget what language a film is in while I watch. Apart from Spanish films I watch many dubbed American films as well. Purists would scoff at this but I find it worthwhile, in part because it means I can discuss all the blockbusters as they come out with Spanish film-loving friends. If I like a film I can always buy the DVD and watch it in the original later. I also buy loads of secondhand DVDs from a Videoclub in Torrevieja. The owner sells them at rock bottom prices – 8 films for 20 Euros, I have found some gems amongst these – things I would never have thought of watching otherwise. I am very keen on Alex de la Iglesia´s films.

I sometimes go to the theatre also and don´t find that too difficult. We are lucky in Cartagena that there are a lot of free or cheap events to go to.

When my husband gave me an ipod one Christmas I started to download Spanish podcasts. I like the comedy ones best. Alex Salgado´s Arradio ones are some of my favourites. I don´t get all the jokes at first but after two or three times listening I do. This made me realise that I could probably cope with stand-up comedy as well. This is the toughest test possible of Spanish as many punchlines are delivered at breakneck speed. The comedian might have a regional accent also. I am comfortable with Murcian as I live there but find Andalusian speech a little tough. It´s very rewarding though and much more fun than the Spanish lessons I went to years ago in the UK. Spanish comics are very good at thinking on their feet. If a mobile phone goes off in the audience, they seize it and have an impromptu conversation. One of the funniest moments came when one was faced with an extremely drunk Basque heckler who objected to jokes about Basques. The comic gave him the mike to say his piece. The guy was so paralytic he put the mike in his ear so the comic quipped that he must be the only man in Spain who could give a blow job through his ear…

The area I have lived in for almost two years is entirely Spanish but that has not rendered me fluent. My son spoke Spanish like a Spaniard before we moved here. That was in part because he came here early enough, but also because he has consistently had 5 hours a day at school in term time plus some extra-curricular activities. Perhaps we simply expect too much too soon. Yesterday, I had about twenty conversations in Spanish but I am still not fluent. I shopped in Upper (could have managed that on about a month´s Spanish). I ate some tapas (likewise). Then I had to go around all our neighbours looking for a lost cat – descriptions, etc., conversations in general about pets (one of my neighbours has about 11 different ones including chameleons, another is a cat lady). Guess this was more than I could have done in former Playa Flamenca days. In the evening I had to push my son and Spanish friends off a the top of a slope on their skateboards. I honestly feel Spanish is a lot harder than Italian, for instance, or French for that matter. Maybe we all expect too much too early. My husband, who tries to avoid talking/learning Spanish wherever possible has been carrying a book called Spanish in Three Months for years. We have told him he should sue or get an hoja de reclamacion. My husband has learned other languages and has a brilliant mind but I believe his attitude springs from having been an airforce child. He was born in Cyprus and spent some of his early years in Singapore before moving to the UK. Consistently he felt himself to be part of an elite British colony that kept itself to itself and didn´t mix with the “natives”. I am treading a different path.

I still have my ghastly Russian accent and I still have a phobia of the subjunctive and anything desperately complicated in the way of grammar. Every day though brings more understanding. I suspect it will be many more years before I consider I have mastered Spanish and yet more years still before I can tell a joke as well as a stand-up comic or be mistaken for a Spaniard instead of a Russian.

© Fiona Pitt Kethley