See the new issue of Briefings magazine, available at newsstands and online.
The sun is setting over the Ibiza neighborhood in Madrid and I’m sitting in a tapas bar drinking Mahou, a popular local beer, fraternizing in broken Spanish with a group of fellow language students from Europe and Asia who are less than half my age. Occasionally, we retreat to English and I hope I’m coming across as the cool-uncle type. But I’m at least as old as their fathers.
In my quest to learn Spanish, I’ve left my family in New York and traveled to Madrid for a one-week intensive class at a school I found on the internet. I did a similar trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, years earlier, and Mexico City more recently.
I’ve been studying Spanish on and off for roughly two decades. In that time, I’ve attended classes at two New York–based language schools and hired a half-dozen private tutors who market their skills on neighborhood wall flyers and Craigslist. I’ve had private sessions at Starbucks cafés, Greek diners, the food court at a Whole Foods, and a few park benches on warm, sunny days.
And what do I have to show for it? A home library filled with Spanish textbooks and notes, a smartphone filled with language apps and digital newspapers, and—sigh—just middling competency in the language. But I keep going because, at least for me, it’s rewarding to tap into the spirit of people in a way that can only be achieved by speaking their native tongue. As a student at Columbia Business School in the early 1990s, I remember a professor encouraging a classroom filled mostly with Americans to learn a second language, saying that it was like “growing a second heart.”
I’m hardly alone in my pursuit. While Americans are famously inept at picking up a second tongue, technology is helping a bit. The improvements to voice-recognition technology and software have led to growth in the use of apps from services such as Duolingo, Babbel, Rosetta Stone, and Yabla. Babbel, a German company, reported that it sold a million US subscriptions in 2018, a huge jump over earlier periods.
My older brother Donald, a retiree and grandfather of four, has used several apps as well as tutors and annual visits to Italy to learn Italian over the last four years.
In addition, the availability of free web-based phone services such as Skype and WhatsApp and digital payment services have a created a cottage industry in online language businesses, many of which focus on one language. These services connect students with friendly and well-trained teachers in other countries who work for far less than US-based tutors. These days, I have twice-a-week Skype video sessions with an unfailingly cheerful teacher who works out of her home office in Guatemala City for a service called NuLengua.
My interest in learning Spanish began in earnest when I moved to New York as an adult. I was in a place where a large chunk of the population spoke the language. That meant I could use it, if I had the gumption to do so.
I enrolled in a small neighborhood language school on the Upper West Side, but I soon felt that it was more geared to selling Hispanic art and hosting cultural events than teaching Spanish. I moved on to classes at the prestigious Instituto Cervantes, which is sponsored by the Spanish government, but found its East Side location to be inconvenient.
I was also growing frustrated with learning with other students: as is often the case in language classes, the slower students impair learning for the rest.
Since then, I’ve found satisfaction in studying with tutors. I worked with an earnest Peruvian woman for close to two years before wanting a fresh approach. I then took a couple years off before finding a charming Madrid native with a big smile; sadly, she had to return home because of an expiring visa.
A bit of time passed. When I returned to language study, I found that prices had gone up and it now cost about $50 an hour to work with a quality tutor. After more than a year of paying that rate to two different Colombians, I learned that there are terrific teachers in other countries who are willing to teach by videophone for less than $20 an hour.
But teachers aren’t enough. I’m willing to start a conversation with anyone in New York I suspect might speak Spanish. Over the years, that’s meant elevator operators in my apartment building, parking-garage attendants, cleaning ladies, and countless cab drivers.
I keep telling myself that I’d be further along in my Spanish by now if I were doing this for professional reasons or if I spent a lot of time in Latin America or Spain. As it stands, I’m tethered to New York and my work has never required the use of a second language.
An exhaustive study performed at MIT and published in May 2018 confirms what we all know—it’s nearly impossible for people to achieve proficiency similar to that of a native speaker unless they start learning a language by the age of 10. The authors note that adults are still good at learning foreign languages, but that mastery is not a realistic goal.
I’ll live with that conclusion, since all I desire is to hold lengthy and meaningful conversations about life, politics, and soccer in an understandable form of Spanish.
And as a New Yorker, I’d get a particular kick out of holding my own with a native of the Dominican Republic. With their rapid-fire delivery and tendency to drop many s sounds, Dominicans, a dominant force in New York Hispanic life, seem to exist to put a Spanish student like me in his place. Maybe I need to find a Dominican teacher—or at least plan my next language immersion experience in Santo Domingo.