Frederick Arthur is a retired Latin teacher who has been living in the Spanish town of Oliva (near Alicante) for the last five years. In that time he has become fluent in Spanish, having previously spoken none. Here Fred speaks frankly to Jim Porter about how to pick up the lingo.

Jim: What do you say to those who feel embarrassed speaking in a foreign language?

Fred: Don’t worry about getting things wrong. Say what you can say. You will find the natives appreciate the effort you make to speak their language and are usually very kind.

Jim: Where are the best places to go to practise?

Fred: Put yourself near to the natives as much as you can e.g. in the market, in the shops, on public transport etc. By choice, live next to natives and not expatriate neighbours. Do not live on a conurbation dominated by expatriates. Above all, do not spend all your time in an English-run bar.

Jim: But isn’t it hard to understand the natives? They seem to talk so fast!

Fred: And you can’t expect them to slow down for you. Listen to children, who tend to speak more slowly, more simply and more clearly.

Jim: Is there any value in reading in a foreign language?

Fred: Definitely. Buy a local newspaper, rather than an English one (or a Spanish national one for that matter) and try to pick out phrases you have already learned. Reading a local newspaper will help you become interested in the affairs of your local area, and enable you to feel more ‘integrated’.

Read advertising fliers and look carefully at road signs, hoardings etc.

Jim: Radio and TV. Good ways to learn?

Fred: Listen to local radio, where you absorb unconsciously more than you may think. Watch advertisements on TV, where key words are often repeated. When playing an English DVD, watch with subtitles in the target language. Or watch a target-language film on TV, using teletext to supply subtitles provided for the deaf.

Jim: Are there any no-no’s?

Fred: Never translate a complicated English sentence in your head.

Jim: Fred, what single piece of advice would you offer mature expats starting out with language learning?

Fred: Important! You must have a positive and determined approach, as language learning does not come naturally to mature learners.

Fred spoke to Jim Porter, who also lives in Spain, in late 2007. Jim is one of the founders of Speekee, a groundbreaking Spanish language course for young children. Visit

Jim Porter