Living the Language Isn’t Enough: My Journey to Spanish Fluency

When Luke and I first decided to move to Mexico about 18 months ago, I was SO excited. I had these dreams of speaking Spanish every day, of being fluent before too long. I thought by simply being surrounded by Spanish and “living the language,” that I would absorb all of this vocabulary and understand tons.

I genuinely believed that after a year of living in Mexico, I would be near-fluent.

I’ve been living in Mexico now for about 15 months and I’m not even close to being fluent.

Instead, I’m really good at ordering food and coffee. I know how to speak to the guys at the farmer’s market and the woman at the cheese shop. I can book a bus ticket and I can ask the Uber driver to change the radio station.

But come up to me on the street and ask me a random question and I panic. The bartender at our favorite craft beer bar tried to have a conversation beyond what our names were the other day. Crickets. Trying to talk to the doorman in our apartment building about getting water delivered was a mess that ended up with both of us using Google translate.

It’s embarrassing. I can’t carry a conversation with people I see almost every day. Even if I could gather the courage to ask them a question, I most certainly will not understand the response.

becoming an english teacher in korea
I can still read this now!

Living the Language Isn’t Enough

I lived in Korea for a year and by the time I left, I could sight read words and have a decent enough conversation with someone in Korean. But it wasn’t because I simply lived in Korea. It’s because I studied for an hour every single day for 9 months. Then I was surrounded by children all day who couldn’t speak English and were so young they basically had the same Korean vocabulary level that I did.

I thought I needed to study more because I’d never been exposed to the language. I thought Spanish would be different.

I’d studied Spanish all through high school. My great-grandmother is Puerto Rican and towards the end of her life, she only spoke to me in Spanish. She completely forgot how to speak English.

I thought that all of those words would come back to me. And they sort of did. I know what the days of the week are. Numbers are firmly memorized. I remember how to say beautiful in about 8 different ways (turns out my grandmother mostly just complimented me in Spanish when we were together).

But I’m not actually improving. I’m not learning any more than I already know.

Living the language isn’t enough because often you end up in the same situations day after day and you become really good at those interactions, but what about all of the others? What about actually getting to know people beyond “buenas tardes, cómo está?”

Fumbling through the language without anything other than blank stares from well-meaning Spanish speakers isn’t going to make me fluent.

Maybe it will for other people, but it definitely isn’t working for me, that much is obvious.

So this month I’ve started to really begin studying Spanish in earnest. I’m finding vocabulary words, I’m writing them, I’m speaking out loud, I’m listening to Spanish learning podcasts and I’m reading books about how to study Spanish.

I have no idea how much longer I’ll be living in Mexico. I don’t know where I’ll go next if I do leave. What I do know is that I don’t want to look back at my time here and regret not taking advantage of the opportunity to practice Spanish whenever I want. I don’t want to regret not studying and making myself better at this language that has always evaded me.

I hope those of you that are starting to study Spanish or are considering moving to a Spanish speaking country to better your language skills find these resources and tips helpful. This is what I’m going to be doing over the next 8 or so months in order to get even better at Spanish. I promise to check in on my monthly newsletters (which you can sign up for at the bottom of this post) about whether or not I’m actually sticking to all of this.

1. Grow My Vocabulary

The number one reason I’m not comfortable speaking to people (and therefore don’t) is that I don’t know how to say what I want to say. I don’t know the words in Spanish. One of my big goals for the next few months is to expand my vocab.

I think it’s totally personal how you learn vocab. For me, I know that writing them down does nothing for me. I need to use the word, I need to say it and repeat it. I do really well with flashcards. For me, that means Youtube is a great place for me to grow my vocabulary.

I have found tons of great vocabulary videos on Youtube. These are my favorites.

  • Butterfly Spanish: I love this one – She’s Mexican so her accent and the way she speaks is especially valuable to me.
  • Master Spanish: While these videos are kind of dry, they are helpful with forming whole and useful sentences that you can memorize.
  • Spanish Dict: A helpful channel with lots of different types of videos.

I also use a few websites where I can get a full understanding of verbs and their conjugations. I usually then have to create sentences or say these a lot rather than simply writing them down. These are my favorites for that.

  • Spanish 101: This website has a lot of great vocab and grammar resources.
  • VistaWorld: This is helpful if you want to learn the most common Spanish words.
  • Memrise: I haven’t used this site yet, but I’ve read a lot of great things about it. They have digital flashcards of 5,000 of the most common Spanish words. I’m excited to get started on them.
  • 123 Teach Me: This is another website I only just discovered, but it has free Spanish lessons that I’m interested in checking out.
  • Learn Spanish: When I first moved to Mexico I used this website for grammar help. It’s really well laid out and easy to understand, especially if you need a refresher on the basics. Most of the content is free, but as you progress in your Spanish, some of the lessons require you to become a member.
mexico city things to do
I went on this tour about a year ago and the tour guide thought Luke and I were fluent in Spanish and he kept telling us little inside jokes in Spanish. We laughed anyway.

2. Do More Listening

This is a massive problem that I have. I can’t focus on what people are saying. It’s like I physically can’t listen. I really want to start honing in my listening skills. If I can combine that with a larger vocabulary, I think I’ll be able to understand so much more and feel a lot more confident when I interact with people in Spanish. Because right now I just panic and say that I don’t speak Spanish which is SUPER helpful for learning more Spanish, obviously.

For me, that means more of the above Youtube videos, but also – listening to Spanish radio, listening to Spanish podcasts, watching Spanish TV (perhaps with a few English subtitles to start). I need to start immersing myself even more than I am right now.

I recently discovered this podcast thanks to a recommendation from a fellow Mexico expat. It’s called Doorway to Mexico. It’s a little bit cheesy, but the Spanish is really helpful. Other podcasts I like are SpanishPod101 and Accelerated Spanish.

3. Learn From Others Who Have Done It (and take it with a pinch of salt)

I think being open to how others have gone from where I am to where I want to be with Spanish is really valuable. I love hearing how other people have learned Spanish in the foreigners in Mexico City Facebook group.

Speaking to other people can save you a ton of time in trial and error. I’ve experienced a lot of trial and error, but I have skipped out on a few things like taking classes because I’ve learned from other people that that may not be the most helpful thing for where I am with my Spanish.

But, I think it’s also important to take other people’s advice with a pinch of salt. Some people think they’re being helpful by saying something like, “just speak it.” Which is great except, that doesn’t really help me very much.

I also think that no one knows how you learn better than you. If you’re reading this and you’re like, no way this is not how I learn, then don’t take my advice. You have to find out how you learn best and run with it. Other people’s advice will only get you so far.

I recently bought this book, Breaking Out of Beginner’s Spanish, and it has been really helpful so far. I’m only a few chapters in and already I feel like I have a clearer idea of where to best focus my energy. The author showed up in Mexico 20 years ago without any knowledge of the Spanish language. He taught himself how to speak it and shares his wisdom on how you can teach yourself, too.

4. Get Out of My Comfort Zone

This is a big one. I need to start actually speaking Spanish. I need to get out of my comfort zone. I need to stop just being comfortable with the usual greetings and situations and actually practice the vocabulary that I’ll be learning. I need to mess up and learn from that.

Easier than it sounds. Mostly because I really hate being bad at things. I hate getting things wrong or embarrassing myself.

So this is going to be the toughest thing to do for me, but I know that if I don’t start doing this, then I’m never going to improve. I don’t want to learn Spanish just so that I can say I know Spanish. I want to be able to communicate with people, to get to know people who don’t speak English, to get a better understanding of the country that I call home.

How do you study Spanish? Or any language for that matter? I’d love to hear it in the comments or over on Facebook!

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learning spanish

17 thoughts on “Living the Language Isn’t Enough: My Journey to Spanish Fluency”

  1. Great post that pretty much sums up how I feel about my Spanish journey! I’ve been living in Spain for 8 years and I’m stuck at an A2/B1 level and can’t seem to get out of it. Like you, I know that I need to increase my vocabulary & definitely improve my grammar. I started talking to a couple of Spanish women that I connected with through italki & it’s been an invaluable experience. We talk for 30 minutes in Spanish then 30 minutes in English. To start off with it was a pretty scary experience but now we’ve been talking for a few months & we’re really comfortable with each other so I don’t worry as much about making mistakes. I’ve noticed that my confidence has improved but I’m not sure how much better my Spanish is. I’ve decided that I need a few lessons, just to give me a kick start onto the next level and then I’ll see where I go from there. I 100% agree with you – living in a country definitely isn’t a guarantee of being able to speak the language fluently.

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  2. I feel like you are speaking directly to me in this post. I’m currently trying to learn Spanish for our upcoming move to Bogota next sumer… and I keep thinking that I’ll just “pick it up”. Wrong-o. Thanks for the motivation to keep pushing myself and working on mi español! 😉

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  3. Great tips. I need to learn a new language myself now and while I’ll start with actual classes, I know there’s so much more to be done to supplement. It’s so hard learning a new language as an adult!!! But it can be so rewarding.

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  4. Well put! I’ve been living in Costa Rica learning Spanish for 2 years now and it can get so frustrating when you feel like you’re not progressing like you thought you would. But language is hard, and fluency is elusive. Definitely not something you achieve in a year or two.

    I totally agree that getting out of your comfort zone is a huge help (but also one of the hardest). Trying to converse with locals on a daily basis, beyond ordering food or asking how to get around but actually talking about our lives, has been the most helpful for me because the more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll feel with the language, and so much of it is just confidence. Private lessons have helped me a lot too if you can find an affordable teacher. Lessons aren’t so useful for vocab but they are really the only way I can learn grammar and new tenses, because i have to have someone explain the grammatical logic to me. I started with a month of immersion, and it was so helpful. Now that I feel myself hitting a plateau where u can’t get past intermediate to advanced, I’m taking lessons again twice a week. Texting in Spanish helps me too! Haha I ask people to be my texting buddy and converse only in Spanish, and I use Google translate when I need it. Anyway, great article! I totally feel you on all of this!

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    • Thanks Elizabeth! Getting out of my comfort zone is definitely something I need to work on – since I wrote this post I’ve been trying to do it at least once a day, which can be a challenge since I work from home – but I have already noticed a huge increase in my confidence!

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  5. I’m in a very similar boat as you right now when it comes to Spanish. Once upon a time, 8 years ago I was near fluent… I lived in Mexico and studied in a Spanish school. I had very few issues communicating with the people around me. Then I moved back to the US for 8 years… now I’m back in Mexico and frustrated that I’ve let my Spanish get away from me. I live with my Mexican bf, who lovingly reminds me that I’m better at it than I think I am, but I get bashful because I’m basically a beginner again and it frustrates me that I can’t say all of the things I want to say. I can understand everything, but when it comes to speaking I just draw blanks!!! I’m definitely going to be checking out the podcasts you’ve recommended! I resolve to get my Spanish back!

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  6. You basically just wrote my life story. When I headed to Central America last June, I had this idea that I would be fluent in a few months. LOL joke’s on me! What really happened is that I got so horrified about messing up that I just refused to speak it and let my friends who speak much better Spanish take over. Now I live in Costa Rica in a touristy area and most of my friends speak English which makes it waaaaay too easy to not speak more Spanish. I can get by, as far as public transportation, restaurants, etc go but I feel like I’m missing out on so much, especially friendships with locals which makes me sad.

    I really need to make daily practice a habit but I always get so overwhelmed by all of the possibilities. Thank you for this list! I’ll have to check out the podcasts and Youtube channel. Just bought the book too!

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    • haha thanks Sky! I have done the same – most of my friends speak English and I also get super overwhelmed by how many options there are. When I was learning Korean a few years ago there were basically two textbooks for English learners and one or two Youtube channels. The choices when learning Spanish are insane and it’s such a task to sift through until you find something that works!

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  7. This is so great! I love everything about this! This is also my struggle with French and wanting to move to Quebec. The thing with that though is Quebec won’t give me a visa until I’m at intermediate level and can fully converse with people. I just have been so bad at disciplining myself to actually study everyday. You have given me some inspiration!

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    • Thanks so much Lindsey! I can’t imagine the pressure to learn the language in order to go get the visa, but it’s also a great motivation! If I absolutely had to be fluent in Spanish in order to live in Mexico I’d probably be a lot more motivated to study every day. Maybe you could find a buddy near where you live that you can study with? Having someone to do it with always makes you more accountable!

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  8. You summed up about exactly where I am in my Spanish speaking experience. I’ve been in classes through school and college on an off for about a decade now, and have been toying with podcasts and games on my phone. I’m hoping to spend some serious time growing in my fluency in upcoming months! I think TV and music videos are a great way to get some less-rigid listening into the mix. Hoping to make a few friends that will let me practice my Spanish with them too.

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  9. Hey came here via Diane of Oui in France, she shared this on her blog FB page and now I’ve shared on mine. Excellent points, completely agree. I’m an expat in Italy and while I’ve been studying Italian for awhile now, it’s a never ending process and I’ve watched other expats come and go because of language issues in just three short years here!

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  10. Hey Laura! Great post. Everything you said is so true. You can’t learn a language to the point of fluency just by osmosis. Being there isn’t enough. It takes major motivation and effort. The part about having the same interactions with the same people is a trap we all fall into and it stalls our progress. We’re talking but its the same old every time. And then finding the motivation to push forward on days we’re tired or down on ourselves isn’t always easy. Keep at it! Sharing on FB!

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