Beyond Mañana

Real Expat Life in Spain

The Two Year Rule, or Learning Spanish vs Learning to Survive in Spain


An interesting phenomenon I have observed here, after talking to a range of expats who have been in Spain varying lengths of time – as well as people living as expats in different countries elsewhere (although mostly Brits).  Quite a generalisation I would be the first to admit, and the critical time may vary a lot between 1 and 5 years, but it’s basically this: However good your initial intentions, many people find that the amount of Spanish they master in their first two years of living here, that’s about it. That whatever level you reach in that first two years, that’s the level you stay.

Of course this doesn’t have to be the case, and if you are aware of the situation you can take specific steps to counter it, which is why after 4 years here I have just restarted some regular Spanish lessons.  For me it’s a scary realisation actually, because my Spanish really isn’t that great, after those 4 years.

What I am pretty good at though is getting stuff done in Spain.  I know what I don’t know, by and large – roughly where the embarrassingly large gulfs in my knowledge are.  I know what I don’t need to know, and what I have avoided as it doesn’t interest me or apply to me.  I also know when and where to get help.

After a couple of years, at least this is my theory, you have done most of the stuff you have to do to get by – you have filed your taxes, maybe bought a car, survived some minor medical or dental emergencies and dealt with an inevitable chunk of bureaucracy.  You know which phone shop speaks enough English to meet you half way, you know what online translation software is quickest and most accurate to use during livechat support calls, and you have all your official files labelled in English.  I know if friends and family visiting from the UK hear me blathering away in a restaurant, they are afflicted with the wonderful delusion that I speak Spanish – said illusion then abruptly shattered when they ask me if I can ring the car hire company for them and sort out some technical mess, and I have to say, oops sorry I don’t know how to do that, never having needed to find out.

In fact after a couple of years you know so much that people ask you for advice – in the current climate especially with such a churn of the expat population, being an experienced old hand is very much a relative concept.  And what you pass on when they ask isn’t your knowledge of Spanish, it’s your hard-won experiential knowledge of how to sort things out and make them happen: who to get help from, where is the best place to do whatever, and so on.  Every time you cross off a ‘first’, even something negative such as paying a speeding ticket online or dealing with a plumbing emergency, you feel a sense of ‘right, done that, I can do this!’ and move a little further along the line.  So what if you’ve forgotten all that lovely grammar you were doing in the evening classes way back when, this is you here now living in Spain and you are doing OK, right?

But your neighbours and Spanish friends aren’t impressed by your novelty any more, if they ever were, and they will stop making any effort to educate you further and repeat those awkward going-nowhere exchanges with your limited Spanish and their limited English.  You are just those people who still don’t have much to say.

So, it’s up to you.  Want to get by, keep strategizing? Or really learn? I know what I want, so I am going back to school.  Yes I can get things done, most of the time, make things happen.  But I know it’s not what I want from my life and friendships here long term.

And I also know that these systems and mechanisms can fail and let me down, the day my dictionary app fails or the nice lady doesn’t work in that ayuntamiento office any more, I will be back to square one.  And the application of such strategies is so limited and dependent on external factors that this is the big thing, what happens in an emergency or crisis?  For me, for my family, I want to be able to respond effectively to whatever life in Spain, in all its richness and occasional bafflement, brings my way.

That means I really have to learn Spanish properly.  Maybe even a few words of Valenciano one day… now THAT is a scary thought!

  • Richard

    Great article, and as I too have been here for four years, I must brush up on my own Spanish!

  • Al Doughty

    It still amazes me how many ex-pats make no effort whatsoever to learn the language. We are guests here and it is an essential – how many back in their own country would complain about ‘immigrants’ speaking no English? The hardest point is the ‘Wall’, we all hit it at some point, but it passes. I have lost count of the number of times I have spoken what I thought to be good Spanish only to have the locals burst out laughing or look at me blank, as though I am dribbling idiot lol. But just hang in there, most will try to help and correct you. Great piece.

  • Steve Hall

    I have lost count of the number of times I have spoken what I thought to be good Spanish only to have the locals burst out laughing or look at me blank ….. I could not lose count of the times that locals have laughed at me. Never, not once. They have been uniformly sympathetic with me. Surprised you say that, Al. Very.

    • Casslar

      I’d agree, compared to my own bilingual children whose hysteria and sarcasm knows no bounds, I generally find pretty positive reactions to my attempts to speak Spanish… not always the reaction I actually wanted, due to completely failing to get across whatever I was trying to communicate, but generally it’s kindly and encouraging. Just the odd funcionario from whom you get the stonewall ‘you are not speaking my language perfectly, therefore I do not understand you one iota and will make no effort whatsoever to meet you half way or hep you out. Ordenador dice no’

  • Sarah Farrell

    Great article and so true. Many towns provide free Spanish and Valenciano classes and the take-up is great at the start of the year but many people drop out. I have to confess I am now taking the second year course for the third time, lol!

    • Casslar

      I think it definitely helps to do over, reminds you of how much you have forgotten! I feel like language learning is a case of forever filling in the gaps in my knowledge (currently a very leaky net)

  • Jessica

    Ooh, interesting post! I rather hope it’s not true as I’m coming up to my 2-year mark total in Spain. I speak very good Spanish but it still needs a final push. Having a friend who corrects you nicely is really helpful.

    As for Catalan (I’ve lived in Barcelona for a year and a half)…well, I’m still on the basics, but I’m working to improve!

    • Casslar

      I think simply being aware of it stops it being an automatic truth – and it sounds like you have achieved more in 2 years than many do in ten times that!