If you are learning Spanish and think that only nonnative speakers face challenges with the language, I can tell you that native speakers in the US face similar obstacles. Growing up in a Hispanic household meant speaking Spanish 99% of the time. What I knew about Spanish had been emulated from my parents. Although that seems like the perfect way to learn, learning a language requires visual, auditory, kinesthetic, reading and writing methods. I spoke Spanish the way I heard it. I had no idea about the grammar rules that were a part of the language, and the challenges that I would face due to them.
The challenges of being bilingual
One of the greatest challenges Hispanic children in the US face is when they leave the comfort of their predominantly Spanish-speaking homes and step out into the “real world.” Kindergarten, first grade, or any other social setting outside their family circle teaches them that kids speak a different language. Going from speaking Spanish every day to everyone who enters your home, kid or adult, to speaking English to the various new people you meet, can be disarming. It’s not just the language that changes, but the context, the methods, and the customs as well. 17.9 million of the Hispanic population in the US is under 18 years old. Because of my own experience with the Spanish language, I am certain that of these 17.9 million, the children who are learning Spanish are learning it at home, from their family members, the same way I did. Once they start school, their Spanish language learning takes a back seat to the English language.
Transitioning from having Spanish as my native tongue to looking at it as a “foreign language” was interesting. As a child, every experience is a chance to learn something new, so speaking English instead of Spanish at school wasn’t hard to do, but it was different. My parents had occasionally spoken English at home and we had neighbors and friends who preferred speaking in English. This helped me to familiarize myself with the language. But entering the “real world,” also known as elementary school, taught me to look at Spanish differently, to look at it as a foreign language. I couldn’t necessarily tell my classmates or teachers something in Spanish and expect them to understand me. English was the primary language. If I wanted to make friends, I had to speak to them in English.
Fulfilling a foreign language requirement
In middle school, I actually got to use my Spanish speaking skills and knowledge. The public school I attended in Long Island, New York, for example, required students to take a foreign language after graduating elementary school in fifth grade, and pass a state examination to graduate from both middle and high school. This was good news to me though: It meant taking Spanish class for an easy A.
Easy A’s indeed. From sixth grade to ninth, Spanish classes were easy. I felt confident enough to get an A. I received top grades for all the work, but there was one thing I struggled with. In grades ten and eleven, the rules and the grammar stopped my easy A’s. I understood what I was doing because it was natural, but not why I was doing it. Present perfect? Subjunctive? Preterite indefinite? I didn’t know what these meant. I hadn’t learned how to read and write in Spanish at home, but from grade six until I graduated high school, Spanish class was a way to physically transcribe and read what I had already learned by speaking the language. I had to try harder to understand the grammar to properly translate English into Spanish. It was like having to learn Spanish all over again. I’m not going to lie: Grammar and I didn’t get along that much in high school, and it was an even bigger challenge in university.
A Salvadorian in Madrid, Spain
Studying international business and marketing led me to take classes in Spanish while studying abroad in Spain. One class involved reading passages in Spanish and analyzing them in essays, presentations, and discussions. I also took another class where we translated movie scripts. Because my Spanish developed from my Salvadorian background, there were different ways of referring to things. I had to learn the terms used in Spain. Reading more advanced vocabulary, struggling to pronounce them, and trying to understand the meaning was difficult. Knowing Spanish since I was a kid helped make reading and writing easier, but when I wrote essays or translated I didn’t feel comfortable. I had to ask others to read over my work and point out any grammatical errors. My professors commented that the content of my work was good, but still I received papers marked up with red grammar edits. I, a native speaker, still struggled with Spanish grammar.
Facing it head on
Losing points due to grammar was nothing compared to how nervous I got when my family members, in the US or El Salvador, asked me to fill out applications in Spanish or write letters for official matters, like traveling. I decided to put more time and effort into bettering my grammar. I asked my professors and classmates more questions. I read articles, usually simple ones that explained the rules in a clear manner. My grammar abilities were like that of the tortoise’s in the race against the hare: slow and steady. And slowly, but surely, with every step I took to improve my skills, I got that much closer to the finish line, that much closer to bettering my grammar skills.
My grammar skills now
Fast-forward to today, I can’t say I’m fully confident with my grammar. I still make mistakes and that’s okay. I’ve realized that grammar is just one of those challenges that I will occasionally have to deal with. Even if you think you’ve finally learned every rule there is to learn, there will always be an exception. To be completely honest, I think being a native speaker actually made it harder for me to learn the grammar rules. I thought I didn’t need to understand them because I already knew how to speak properly. I assumed the rest would come naturally.
Improving your grammar
Native speaker or novice, no matter what level, Spanish grammar can be a headache, but in the long run learning it and learning it right will truly benefit you. If it’s hard and tedious, don’t give up. Keep trying. Your patience and perseverance will pay off and you’ll learn to face grammar the way I did. Take it from a native speaker who has been there! And if you need a few simple, but helpful refreshers on grammar rules, check out the Diáfano blog!