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Learning Spanish in Tenerife

This is a particularly hot topic in Tenerife where the British and Irish are involved and there are many differing views on the issue.

It is universally considered prudent (and beneficial) to attempt to learn the language of your adopted country of residence. A failure to understand and communicate can naturally cause all sorts of problems, ranging from incorrect orders in shops and restaurants to more serious legal problems that can cost and arm and a leg. Being able to communicate also invariably opens doors to better social interactions, cultural integration and the opportunity to explore places otherwise inaccessible by a typical foreigner.

As most residents in Tenerife will be aware, there is a large percentage of British and Irish expats who speak little or no Spanish and instead expect everyone to speak to them in English. In Spain, there appear to be three main factors that contribute towards this problem.

1. Ability

The majority of British and Irish are not accustomed to learning languages and rarely speak any language other than English. The vast majority of us studied nothing more than very basic French at school, most of which was from textbooks and did not involve oral practice. Teaching of English grammar has also been historically limited in all but the best schools, the result of which is that it is more difficult to learn a new language when you don’t fully understand the grammatical structure of your own mother tongue English. Furthermore, without exposure to languages from a fairly young age, the brain has increasing difficulty in learning a new language the older the student becomes. Whilst the above factors could be considered ‘excuses’, they are a reality for a large number of expats taking the plunge in a foreign country.

2. Motivation

Sadly, there are a hardcore of Brits, particularly from the older generations, who appear stuck in Colonial Britain and genuinely believe that the whole world is obliged to speak to them in English. Whilst this is slightly more acceptable from tourists, it is rather more disrespectful for an expat to take this attitude with their gracious Spanish hosts who have generally opened their arms to foreigners of all nationalities.

Others are more respectful of their local hosts and will try to use the odd word or phrase. Some started taking classes but gave up immediately after scratching their heads in baffled confusion.  Many retirees in Spain are particularly resistant to learning, perhaps feeling that they are too old to go back to school and learn something that they perceive to be an almost insurmountable task at their age.

The situation is compounded by the tendency of some Spanish, particularly in the tourist areas, to insist on speaking English regardless of the foreigner’s level of Spanish or willingness to try to speak in Spanish. We have heard of numerous instances where expats speak passable, good or even fluent Spanish, but on detecting a British or Irish accent, a Spaniard feels it essential to reply in English, which is often worse than the expat’s Spanish. Perhaps some do this out of the desire to practice their English or simply because they think it is polite. The reality is that it simply serves to dissuade some expats from even trying to improve their Spanish.

We are not advocating that the Spanish follow the French method of denying they even understand English for the first 5 minutes of a conversation despite the expat clearly trying but struggling to speak the lingo. However, perhaps somewhere in the middle would be more beneficial and motivational to all parties concerned.

3. Necessity

A minority of expats have discovered that they can survive perfectly well without actually learning more than “una cerveza por favor” (“a beer please”). Some have lived here for 20 or more years and speak virtually no Spanish whatsoever. Many live within expat communities that largely communicate in nothing but English. All major businesses and organisations in Tenerife have English speaking staff. You can go to solely British or Irish bars, restaurants, shops and businesses. You can watch British or Irish TV via satellite or the internet. You can buy your favourite imported products and drinks. You can even call out a British or Irish tradesman when required. You can buy your daily British or Irish newspaper. Whilst all of the above have their place and serve as an occasional comfort to the homesick tourist or expat, it seems sad that for many, they represent an entire way of life at the expense of embracing the local culture, language, food and wine and making new friends.

For those wishing to learn or improve Spanish, there are a multitude of resources. However, most experts agree that it is important to embrace a combination of sources rather than just relying on one.

For beginners, a good textbook is essential. It provides a proven structure to learn the basics and typically includes practical exercises to help remember each lesson. In addition, a good dictionary is essential (and particularly useful when confronted with a new word whilst out and about!). Some also recommend investing in a third type of book, namely a grammar guide. This can serve as a quick reference when trying to form verbs, particularly irregular ones.

The internet is a veritable cornucopia of information and resources for learning Spanish, offering various free and paid options. One of our favourite resources is the linguee.com search engine. You insert a word or short phase and it provides a range of contextual translations sourced from thousands of articles all over the internet. For instance, if you want to translate very short phrases, e.g. “In my humble opinion” or “as the crow flies”,  it will usually offer several variations, whereby you can read the original context in English and then decide which Spanish translation is correct to use in your chosen instance. A dictionary or translator can rarely provide that contextual information accurately.

Google Translate should be used with great caution or even skepticism, on the basis that it translates most words and phrases literally and can cause some hilarious errors and misunderstandings.

TV, movies and cinema are also an excellent source for learning Spanish. Whilst beginners might struggle to follow the conversation, Spanish TV can be entertaining or amusing just to watch and even beginners will learn some basic words and phrases fairly quickly. Adding subtitles in either Spanish or English can also help those who have trouble following full-speed Spanish conversation. To become totally fluent in Spanish and to understand its cultural application, we believe it is fairly impossible to reach a proficient level without watching TV regularly.

Newspapers can be a good source for intermediate to advanced Spanish students. However, given that Spanish newspapers tend to use their own jargon and paraphrasing like English newspapers, we don’t recommend newspapers as a particularly good source for beginners.

Perhaps the best resource of all for learning Spanish is actually speaking Spanish! Strike up conversations wherever and whenever you can. Whilst you obviously have to reach a basic level to have a meaningful conversation, there is nothing more rewarding than when you successfully make it through your first short conversation in Spanish, perhaps in a shop, bar or restaurant, without having to break into any English at all. This can often be the motivational tipping point that persuades an otherwise demotivated student to take their Spanish to the next level.

Needless to say, having a Spanish partner will work wonders for your language skills, particularly if neither of you speak each other’s language fluently when you meet. There is perhaps no more fun way of learning the language than doing it with somebody you love.

Finally, regardless of your chosen method of learning, staying motivated is key. It is all too easy to hit a wall of progress and simply give up. However, try changing the source of learning for a short period to regain your motivation. Tired of your textbook? Why not go and watch a movie in Spanish at the cinema. Struggling to understand a TV show in Spanish? See if there are English subtitles you can activate to assist you. Fighting to make head or tail of your Canarian neighbour’s horrendous accent? Find someone who speaks clearer or slower Spanish with whom you can practice or who can teach you some Canarian slang to give you a head-start for the next time your Canarian neighbour pops his head over the fence.

Those learning the national ‘Castellano’ (Castillian) Spanish will also soon realise that both pronunciation and phrases (particularly slang) can substantially differ between the Spanish mainland and the Canary Islands.

The most noticeable difference is that most of the Spanish mainland utilises the soft ‘c’ and soft ‘z’ (e.g. Cerveza is pronounced THER-BETHA), almost like talking with an English ‘lisp’, whereas in the Canarias, as with most of South America, it is pronounced “SERBESA” with a hard ‘c’ and ‘z’. This can prove confusing when you hear a word for the first time, as you can’t automatically discern whether the relevant letter is a C, Z or S. However, this is usually just a matter of practice and association until you begin to recognise the relevant daily words.

Finally, be aware that it is easy to reach a learning plateau. Some will achieve a level of good conversational Spanish whereby they can survive in every daily scenario, but they never actually take their Spanish to the next level whereby they can express themselves in more detail or understand jokes, slang and cultural nuances. Even when you reach a basic level of competence, try and keep learning and growing. When learning Spanish, the final 20% can be almost more rewarding and useful than learning the initial 80%.

We wish you the best of luck in your quest to Speak Spanish!