Spanish – The ‘Easy’ Language?

I remember so many times in high school and college when friends would tell me they were “just” going to take Spanish since it was the “easy” language. I bet you’ve heard that at some point too, right?

Now that I’m a Spanish professor, people have gotten a tad more polite. They may not call Spanish easy, but I have been asked multiple times how to learn Spanish quickly… Yeah, about that…

Both of these questions or inquiries stem from a similar idea that learning Spanish will be an easy or quick process. It’s an odd dynamic because I don’t know that anyone thinks German, French, Arabic or Mandarin will be “easy”, but Spanish somehow has this false reputation. In my blog today, I want to take a second to think about where this idea of Spanish being the easy language comes from (and just a warning but this gets deep quick).

Spanish – Su elegancia fundamental (Spanish and its Fundamental Elegance)

Some reasons Spanish is (wrongly!) thought of as “the easy language” include:

1.The ubiquity of Spanish in the United States today: Spanish is everywhere in the United States today, which is a truly beautiful thing. However, just because a lot of people speak it, doesn’t mean it’s easy! Case in point there are easily twice as many speakers of Mandarin Chinese than there are of Spanish, and no one would say Mandarin is easy!

2. “Easy” translations: Spanish has a lot of words that line up very well with their English equivalents. (Yo = I, Casa = house, Computadora = computer, etc.) Especially in the first year or two of Spanish, this can lead us to thinking we really only need to learn the language word-for-word. To a small extent that is true, but it stops working somewhere in Intermediate Spanish. Technically, Spanish sentence structure is pretty different from English, it’s a lot more flexible and sentences tend to be longer. It’s better, in the long run, to treat Spanish as a foreign language and spend time really working (and thinking!) in Spanish.

3. The traditional exclusion of Spanish as a language of science, art, and higher learning: This is where it gets a little deep, and frankly, pretty sad. For a long time in “the academy” (universities and other areas of higher learning), intellectual life took place in Latin, Greek, French, English, and German. As universities and academic departments shifted over the 19th and 20th centuries, language learning lost out to more practical considerations. I mean sure we still recommend Latin for aspiring doctors and scientists, or French and German for the aspirant philosopher but learning a language for the love of it and for the doors of thinking that it opens? Well… we just don’t do that as much anymore. (Sadly.)

The interesting thing is that just as the other languages began to decline, Spanish blossomed! The flourishing of Spanish is great for so many reasons, but it also obscures the fact that few people sought out Spanish as a language of erudition and learning. Instead, it was a pragmatic means to an end – a way to talk with clients or patients, with family members or employees, for finding a job, etc. That’s not to say that these are “bad” reasons, they’re great actually. But reasons like this may blind us a little bit to the philosophy, elegance, and complexity of the language itself.

Spanish is the language of Borges, Cervantes, Mistral, Castellanos, Neruda, Picasso, Guayasamín, Cisneros, and many other famous writers and artists. Learning it will open doors and broaden your world to beauty and knowledge… it’s far more than a useful tool for ordering tacos… (although it does come in pretty handy there too.)

One more secret….

There are no “easy” languages.

I’ve seriously studied four languages in my lifetime: Spanish (20+ years), German (7ish years), Brazilian Portuguese (6 years), and Quechua (1ish year). And NONE of these languages were easy. Sure there are some things that are easier than others (Portuguese for example only has four real verb forms rather than the 6-7 we have in Spanish (including the vos.)). But that being said, there are also no real “secrets”, and shortcuts and hacks can help, but they can only take you so far.

In the end, studying any foreign language takes time and consistent effort. Think of it as training for a marathon: you do a little bit more every day but in a measured and planned way and in the end you become capable of doing something extraordinary. On the other hand, if I decide to run a marathon then go to train once or twice and think that will be enough to prepare me for a major race… well it’s not going to be pretty!

The point, here, is that our expectations matter a lot whether talking about marathons or language learning. If you go into this experience thinking it will be a challenge but one that can be met with hard work, curiosity and a sense of humor, then you will find success and make so much progress on your journey. If you think it is easy, then when you meet adversity or your first real (or metaphorical) test, then there can be quite a shock.

I use a lot of metaphors for explaining language learning: for some people it is like a physical skill, requiring practice and consistency. For others, it’s a set of increasingly complicated math problems. For me, the most important thing – the thing that kept me coming back through AP Spanish, good and bad teachers and so many other challenges along the way – was the beautiful doors it opened for me, the friendships, the novels, the places it quite literally took me (Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, and beyond).

If you’re reading this and getting ready to start (or to re-start) your Spanish studies. Good luck to you! I hope this journey is an elegant and inspiring. Just don’t expect it to be easy. The good stuff never is.

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