There are three things Spanish speakers, or language experts, don’t tell you right away.
For sure, these points may be relevant to other languages, but since my experience mainly applies to Castilian, I will just focus on curious aspects of learning Spanish.
Your Spanish doesn’t progress linearly
Today, when I take diagnostic tests in Spanish and solve Cervantes Institute’s DELE (Official Spanish Diploma) practice material, I qualify for C1 (advanced level) and this is more than enough for me.
But then why, it happens that when I order food at a bar and the waiter forgets to bring a knife, I struggle to ask for one? Was it cuchara or cuchillo? It’s such a basic word that a beginner should know it. Here I am, doing a ScrumMaster course and passing my exams in Spanish, reading the Spanish constitution to know about the Article 155 (a big deal for the Catalan Independence discussion), and yet I hesitate to distinguish a fork from a spoon. What’s going on here?
CEFRL (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) lists six degrees of competency:
A1 (Breakthrough or beginner)
A2 (Waystage or elementary)
B1 (Threshold or intermediate)
B2 (Vantage or upper-intermediate)
C1 (Effective operational proficiency or advanced)
C2 (Mastery or proficiency)
Here the assumption is that a language learner completes one level and moves to another. While I find the production of CEFRL a great success, not least because we can now talk about language development more concretely, I still experience that you can be pretty fluent in general but then get stuck with a simple word when least expected. Likewise, your speaking and listening skills may easily reach to C2 but your writing might get stuck on B1 level. Hands down, I see that happening in quite a number of cases and looks like it’s normal.
There’s a cultural hierarchy among variations of Spanish
Spanish spoken in Peru or Mexico is just as authentic and correct as Spanish spoken in Spain. However, a few months after I moved to Spain, as my language abilities progressed, I noticed that some Spanish speakers from Spain looked down on people using Spanish from elsewhere. Among friends, they made jokes about particular words used outside of Spain and funny accents. In formal occasions, I sensed that not having a mainstream Spanish from Spain caused disdain, as though the person who was speaking a “non-Spanish Spanish” was not as educated as any other person in the room. Actually, something similar is going when it comes to Spanish spoken within Spain. Castilian from Madrid is standardized, and therefore people take it as refined and correct while Andalusians speak incorrectly and sound “different”. In short, there seems to be a cultural hierarchy among variations of Spanish that, in the context of Spain, places Madrileño Spanish at the top, and puts Latin American Spanish at the bottom.
Learning Spanish Can Mess Up Other Romance Languages You Already Know
Having lived and studied in Italy for over three years, I’ve mastered Italian and attained a DALI (Diploma Avanzato di Lingua Italiana) certified C1 level. Italian was natural to me already, and as a matter of fact, seven years after leaving Italy, when I stopped by Rome and Trieste for an event, I just went back to using the language on a daily basis as though I’ve never left the country.
Knowing Italian helped more than you could imagine when I started learning Spanish. For example, I never was an A1 learner. I started from A2, and understood what I read and heard more than a regular A2 would do. When I spoke or write, I was using Italian words here and there without realizing, and mixing up vowels (e.g. “lingua” instead of “lengua). Quickly, it happened so that Italian became a fake language in my head, an incorrect form of Spanish, whose use I had to reduce. As my Spanish advanced, my Italian disappeared. Today, I keep understanding Italian texts and dialogues. But on rare occasions when I attempt to speak Italian, I hear Spanish coming out of my mouth.
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