My Duolingo Spanish Story! And 3 Tips for All 1st Time Language Learners
tldr; I started learning Spanish in December 2016 and, since then, I finished the Duolingo course, traveled and took electrical engineering courses in Colombia for 6 months, and am considering doing a thesis in Spanish. I've narrowed my advice for y'all down to 3 points (last paragraph).
Hi everyone! My name is Katie and I started learning Spanish about a year and a half ago with Duolingo. At that time, I was basically starting from zero. I started learning as a sort of side project during winter break. I was a softmore in electrical engineering, so time was pretty hard to come by, but I consistently put in at least a half an hour every day on Duolingo. In March, I impulsively decided that I wanted to spend fall semester in Colombia and improve my Spanish. In June, I finished the Duolingo Spanish course.
In July, I moved to Barranquilla, Colombia. I was SHOCKED. I knew nothing! It turns out that Colombian costeños speak with a pretty thick, Carribbean sounding accent where the letters s and d are often completely dropped. Ouch. For the first two or three months living there, everything was a struggle. I had no idea what I was going to do in my circuits/control systems classes. I could understand people if they spoke very slowly and carefully, though. The great thing about this time was that going to the grocery store felt like a success, having a very basic conversation felt AMAZING, and even taking a new bus route seemed like huge accomplishment. My host family was so kind and patient with me. Luckily, costeños are extremely chilled out. Like, to someone from the United States, their lack of a sense of urgency is almost appalling. People were always saying "no te preocupes", "no pasa nada", "relájate", "tranquila mamí", etc... I consider myself a pretty relaxed person, so I was pretty surprised. They have a reputation in the rest of the country for being lazy, but it's not that. It's a really good way to be. It's sort of an understanding that we have limited control of our situations and that unproductive time is not time wasted.
Fast forward to October. Something had clicked in my brain and I could suddenly talk to people. I had made a few local friends, and suddenly was learning a lot of different styles of dance, going out clubbing, doing group engineering projects. My Duolingo knowledge was suddenly IMMENSELY useful. My vocabulary was growing and all of the grammatical structures had already been built to some degree, so my brain started filling in the blanks as fast as it possibly could. I got flirted with incessantly, as I was the only blonde - mona - everywhere I went, and most barranquilleros have had fairly limited contact with foreigners. October was also the month I went to Bogotá, and I got a lot of compliments on my Spanish! It's a more international city, and, compared with a lot of people from the U.S., my Spanish was fine. I went to a gay club and a lot of shenanigans occurred, all in Spanish. I can't even explain how amazing it was.
In November, I finished up my semester. I had found a job working at a hostel in Medellin, so, just a day after the semester was over, I headed to the bus terminal and took the 16 hour overnight bus to Medellin. The next month was one of the most crazy, beautiful, drama-filled months of my life. I had a fling with a guy who I had met in Barranquilla in one of my classes. It was amazing and I was pretty heartbroken when he had to go home. But uh, I met a few other people at the hostel. There was some jealousy. I liked it a lot. I felt like a movie star or something. I had always been really cautious and reserved, so this was a huge change for me, and I think being in Medellin opened my mind and really forced me to consider other people complexly. One time I went out to a party with a group from the hostel and one guy I worked with told me his life story and ended up in tears. Being able to work, live, and connect with other people in another language is crazy, and it's an experience I'll never forget.
Finally, my trip was coming to a close in December. I flew to Bogotá to meet my best friend from the U.S., and I met him at a little outdoor market. Oh my gosh, all of the feelings from the past 6 months really hit me at that moment. For the next two weeks, I showed him all of my favorite places. We went from Bogotá to Cartagena, to Barranquilla, and to Santa Marta. He speaks Spanish because his family is from the very southernmost part of the country, but he had a lot of trouble understanding the costeño accent, especially in Cartagena. Being able to "translate" for an actual hispanohablante was really cool. Anyway, everything went as a trip with your best friend should go. He got sick, we got lost in the jungle, we got drunk and made some odd decisions. He met my new friends. I taught him how to flag down the bus and bargain with street merchants. At last, our trip came to a close, and we flew back to the U.S.
The semester after I got back, I tested out of 4 semesters of Spanish easily (I got an 78/80 on the CLEP). I took an advanced conversation/composition class and it felt like a freshman English class, but in Spanish. Now I'm taking another composition class as well as a linguistics class that is mostly made up of native Spanish speakers and Spanish teachers. I'm thinking about doing an honors thesis about a genre of music unique to the Colombian coast called champeta, because it has an amazing story that has hardly been written about in English.
As you can see on my profile, I haven't been very active lately, and I'm only level 20 in Spanish. But I think that I can say that I'm fluent -- at least fluent enough to make friends, get intimate, work, analyze literature, give tours, and possibly do a thesis -- in Spanish.
This is my advice for language learners:
- Be PASSIONATE. This is the most important thing of all. I learned Spanish by making an active effort to learn as much as possible every single day. I wanted to make friends and become a better person.
- Step out of your comfort zone whenever possible. I'm quiet. Colombia is loud, and colorful, and costeños in particular are very blunt. I was going to a place where I would seem especially foreign. But, even there, I made an effort to go where the locals went and do what they did. I was shy to the point where going to a movie with my friends seemed stressful beforehand. I hadn't been on a date since highschool. But guess what? I did it.
- You're never done! You're still learning the language(s) you started with. You'll never "finish" Spanish, or any other language, even if you finish the course, and even if you reach level 25. And, with that being said, Duolingo won't teach you all of a language. Like I said, it's a great foundation, but the instant you go to another country or even start watching a TV program in another language you will run into things that confuse you. Take it in stride. You'll never be done but that's ok.
Por último, quiero decir que aprender español es muy dificil. Pero tú puedes. Todos los seres humanos tienen una inmensa capacidad para aprender y crecer y no eres excepción. Si fuera fácil, no valdría la pena. :)
I hope this helps someone! Thanks for reading <3
I absolutely Love your story! I myself have an opportunity through my new company to go to Columbia for at least three months, I have taken 2 years of spanish twice; once from a Latina from michoacan , mexico during college, as well as my gringo teacher in highschool, Which by the way our spanish teachings in highschool are Abysmal, aside from grammar structure and vocabulary skills! My biggest frustration is every next step I take forward, as you've similarly stated, is a baby step back! Going from working with Mexicans; finally starting to develop conversational skills, understanding their accents and slang clearly, to Columbians is a whole different game! Luckily, they speak Incredulously clear spanish, I am trying every day I have the pleasure of working with them to trade conversational skills, as they're more bilingual than I! You give me a whole helluva lot of hope! From two highschools and two colleges, I'm the only gringo I've known that is making an attempt to Learn Spanish, not for an accreditation, but for the culture and new world of beautiful people I'm going to meet! I'm incredibly happy to have read that your experience you took away was that intuitive and wonderful, and I hope that I can make friends like you before my trip! Congratulations!
Wow, that's so cool! Do you know which part of Colombia you are going to? Bogotá is known for having one of the most slow, clear, "neutral" dialects of Spanish in Latin America. People tend to go there to learn Spanish. Medellin has a very fun, sing-songy accent. Coastal Colombians talk fast and drop a lot of letters, so it's a little bit more challenging. I'm glad that you enjoyed my story and I wish you the best of luck on your adventure! Let me know if you have any questions about any of those cities and I'll do my best :)
Well, Thats Awesome!! Our corporate office is located in Bogota and I'm certain that'll be where I first plant my roots! I find it very interesting and more or less amazing that you we able to immerse yourself so fast, and I have to ask, now that you're back stateside assuming you're from the states have you continued being outgoing and communicating with your newly found skills here?! And if so, may I ask where you're from? Up until this company, Literally 9 in 10 hispanohablantes I've met are from Mexico (In seattle area), what is your experience and what have you learned from them that differs from Colombianos??
I have become a lot more outgoing. It kind of freaks my friends out. I live in Arizona, and I really like to convince them to come with me to Mexico for the weekend, where we usually go out dancing, eat, meet people, and just chill out. Really, even though there are a lot of differences culturally (music, dance, food, etc.) the people themselves aren't super different. I haven't ever lived in Mexico, though, so I don't feel right about making big judgements about the people. I'll share some of the things that struck me about Colombian culture, though. Colombians from the interior part of the country are very polite and, especially in Bogota, use "usted" almost exclusively. They also tend to be super inclusive, to the point where it's common to invite people they barely know to events and gatherings. They also tend to be super, super people-centric. That means acting like you have something more important to do than talk to someone is rude, e.g. trying to hurry your way out of a conversation in order to make it to an appointment on time. It's common to show up 30 minutes late to things, and this isn't always considered a bad thing. Another thing that's rude is not greeting everyone when you go into a room. This might be the thing that freaked me out the most: people would constantly be hugging and kissing me and greeting me whenever they saw me. We have really big personal bubbles in the U.S. and that gets popped really quickly...especially if you take the bus. Colombians are super clean, though, which helps with the personal bubble thing! In some places, that means bathing multiple times per day. At lunch time, it's common to go to the bathroom to brush your teeth. Apartments and houses are often very meticulously clean, too. I know that some of these things -- namely, personal space and being late -- may be things that are more Latin American than specific to Colombia, but hopefully that gives you an idea of the cultural differences. You will probably learn a lot about soccer and to drink your coffee strong and black, if you don't already.
I found again your other story:
"My Year of Spanish -- Starting Duolingo, Moving to a Spanish-Speaking Country, and Coming Back": https://forum.duolingo.com/comment/25797455
Ich hätte schwören können, dass ich Deinem sehr lebendigen Schreibstil schon einmal über den Weg gelaufen bin.
Best regards / Viele Grüße
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Gracias chico :) Me alegra que la historia te haya ayudado. I should let you know that it wasn't all amazing, though. When I first got to Barranquilla I was really frustrated, and, since I was living with a family I could barely communicate with, I felt a little disconnected. The important thing is that I was really stubborn and eventually it all worked out!