A lot of people jump into Learning Spanish as their first second-language because they’ve heard, somewhere down the line, that it’s relatively easy. Others, on the other hand, get started because of reason pertaining to return-on-investment, given the sheer number of native speakers there are around the world (the second most-spoken language) and the number of economies that feature Spanish as their official language.
No matter the motivations of the learner or the background, most are likely to bump into a few difficulties Learning Spanish at least somewhere down the road to fluency. Whether they tell you this or not? That’s a different story entirely.
I know that at least in terms of my own experiences, learning Spanish has presented several challenges (and continues to do so). The humbling nature of still feeling like a beginner when caught in the speed and dialect of Andalusian Spanish, or attempting to focus in on something highly technical explained on television, is something that can help ground you and keep you motivated in even the darkest of times.
As for the most difficult aspects I’ve found after around five years of study? Well, there are a quite a few of them. What follows is an outline of the main ones and my thoughts on how you might best tackle them.
Whatever you do or wherever you get stuck, remember, the key to succeeding at anything in life is consistency. Plug away long enough and you will see results.
The same goes for each of these.
—- Subjunctive Tense —-
I remember the Spanish subjunctive tense seeming like an unlearnable nightmare. A nemesis I was never going to a get a grip on and something that caught me in a cold sweat simply just thinking about.
It’s difficult because it’s unlike anything in English (my native language, obviously). And, given its hypothetical nature and understanding the correct context in which to use it, then you also have to think about how to conjugate the verbs correctly on top of that.
Starting out understanding how the future is open to chance helps. Using the word cuando for example, meaning ‘when’, can either signify that you’re going to talk about a hypothetical situation that hasn’t happened yet (when I go) or something habitual (when I go – I always go). Working to understand that concept, the difference between the contexts and then which one carries the subjunctive tense of the verb, is the best starting ground from which to venture out on.
The same goes for keeping in mind phrases that express emotion. Like using quiero (to want) – which means just because you want something doesn’t necessarily signify you will receive it. Hence turning to the subjunctive mood to say something like quiero que sepas (I want you to know).
On top of that you also have the task of remembering the subjunctive conjugation of irregular verbs too. Like caber (to fit) for instance, which goes to quepa in the present subjunctive mood. So “I wish that it would fit” for instance, which, erm, clearly relates to some rather sweaty DIY, would be ojalá que quepa.
To get on top of this I’d recommend getting a good grammar book (Gramatica del Uso) and ploughing through exercises while also actively building flashcards for them in an SRS-application like Anki. The constant drilling and exposure to examples really helped me get a better grip on it and better understand when, why and how to use it.
Another great site that helps explain it is Ejercicios de español. Running through exercises like this, and constantly repeating them until you begin to notice the patterns, is how I eventually got on top of it.
—- Accents and Dialects —-
Another big difficulty when it comes to learning Spanish, at least in terms of speaking and listening, is that of accent and dialect. Having studied and lived predominantly in Spain while learning the language (apart from a short stint in Mexico) I’ve become pretty well accustomed to the rhythms and cadence that Spanish speakers use.
That said, there are still plenty of regional dialects and accents that trouble me. Andalusian Spanish, as mentioned in the introduction, is one such region that can cause problems for me given the way they use diminutives, colloquial language and appear to make a lot of cultural references. Madrid too, due to the lo, le and la-isms prevalent in the day-to-day language, that even Madrileños themselves don’t always appear certain about which to use, can throw you off too.
Obviously Central and South America have their own set of accents and dialects that are contained both at a local and national level. And although I can’t say too much about these, given my lack of experience speaking Spanish in these areas of the world, I’ve noticed that I find it somewhat easier to follow and understand Colombian and Mexican speakers due to the slower pace at which they tend to speak.
Dialectically these regions alter parts of the language too. For example in Colombia people will use what’s considered the formal register in Spain (usted) despite being in a situation or relationship of familiarity. In Argentina they use vos (in English: you) instead of tu (like they do in Spain).
You also have to get used, as previously mentioned, to strange colloquial sayings depending on what region you’re in. In Andalusia, for example, they have a peculiar fascination with a guy called Manolo. And seemingly throw him into conversations whenever they deem appropriate, i.e. tengo más hambre que los pavos de Manolo (literal translation: I’m hungrier than Manolo’s turkeys, figurative translation: I’m super hungry).
There are also certain vocabulary items unique to countries also. In Colombia, for instance, they say pelo crespo to mean ‘curly hair’ and not pelo rizado, as they would in Spain. There are many examples for this and obviously it would only make sense to you to learn the dialect and the vocabulary of the part of the Spanish-speaking world that most interests you.
My approach to learning was that I simply wanted to know everything. In doing so I expose myself to media from a whole range of countries in the shape of novels, films and TV shows and Google the hell out of anything I’m not sure about or have ever heard before.
I suggest you do the same.
—- Writing —-
Unless you’re studying Spanish Literature at University level or work in a Spanish-speaking organisation that requires you to constantly send emails full of delicately composed prose, you’re probably going to find writing in Spanish a lot more difficult than say speaking or listening (which, as a learner, you’re prone to spend way more time practising).
Hearing and speaking a language is one thing, being able to eloquently write in it, just as I still find even in my own native language (as you can see), is pretty difficult. Quite simply, as I found in my Spanish classes and constant red marker on every assignment handed in, it comes down to lack of practice.
To combat this I’ve developed a daily habit to try and at least write something in Spanish each day with an eye to receiving corrections from native speakers.
To reinforce the habit I set a timer to twenty minutes. I then spend half of that time copying something out from an online Spanish newspaper or blog (I mix it up so I get exposure to different styles, forms and dialects) much in the way Benjamin Franklin did to learn to write better. And then the other half composing something myself, on a random topic, and then posting it to the notes section of Learn a language online in the hope of receiving corrections (which almost always happens in the space of a couple of hours – a testament to the amazing community there).
Such a strategy really helps to reinforce my writing and push through the difficulty I’ve faced improving in that area of my learning.
—- Speed —-
Finally, as a learner still challenged by this, I’d argue that, just as it would be in other languages, speed is one of the biggest difficulties to learning Spanish. Speed in the sense of your own expectations to learn but also the pace at which native Spanish speakers speak.
Addressing the former, I’ve already mentioned that I’ve observed a tendency across Spanish-speaking countries for the pace of speech to be somewhat slower in certain places. For beginners to the language, I think I’d recommend learning from Mexican or Colombian resources first, because they tend to be slower and clearer than what I’ve experience European Spanish speakers to be.
Of course you can get better and refine this skill all around by simply exposing yourself to the language as much as possible. But to really get good at listening I’d recommend reading alongside audiobooks, doing lots of active listening exercises and listening to podcasts and YouTube videos at slower speed (yes, you change this in the settings just as you can speed up videos and podcasts). I’ve already written a lot about my thoughts on improving listening here.
Now back to the other difficulty presented here. That of managing your own expectations.
This you really have to tackle outside of actively learning the language. Perhaps through developing personal and reliable habits and positive self-talk as well as setting your expectations low to begin with so that you don’t get blown out by your lack of commitment.
Learning Spanish involves a lot of work. Make no mistake about it. You can’t just expect, by exposing yourself to it, that you’ll learn by pure osmosis. You’re going to have to concentrate, work hard, work actively at expanding your vocabulary and do a little, yet consistently, to raise your skills in all areas of speaking, reading, writing and listening.
The speed at which you learn depends entirely on you and the amount of quality hours you dedicate to learning. You can raise that quality by having a particular goal in mind each time you step up to practice; perhaps by learning a certain number of new words, or redacting something you listen to, or maintaining a conversation on a more technical topic for a couple minutes longer than you would usually.
Whatever you do, understand that it’s a journey.
And like any journey it’s full of ups and downs. Victories and defeats. Difficulties and hardship. Just as it has been for me.
Stay humble. Put in the work. Stay motivated. Make friends.
Then you’ll get to where you want to go.