Language Exchange in Madrid, Spain

Polyglot Tips N’ Tricks

¡Buenos días! Adiós. Señora. I recognized those Spanish words at age thirty-five, not many more. I could point to a familiar menu item in a Mexican restaurant — for a quesadilla, chile relleno — regard a server with hopefully arched eyebrows.

Today I live in Spain, relied on my Spanish to rent an apartment, arrange banking and utility services, settle in. I’m bilingual! Maybe not gracefully or elegantly, but successfully.

I have thoughts on how I became that way, requisition space on my personal soapbox to share them.


If “location, location, location” count most for the real estate investor, then “determination, determination, determination” mattered most in my middle-aged acquisition of español. I write confidently of a fait accompli; no other factor came close. If a class, teacher, text, lesson, web page or video series didn’t allow access to the language, I palmed figurative doorknobs until I found one that opened.

Interest helped, too. I’d rather tackle some endeavors with high interest and average ability than the other way around. It ain’t a chore if you want to do it.


Publishers flim-flammed titles like Master Spanish in a Month! when I was a kid, sell them still. A crock, of course, but I dreamed half-seriously of a similar holy grail while slugging my way through 1A classes. Some day, I imagined — with enough study, enough work — the magic keys to the Fluency Kingdom would materialize suddenly between my fingers. I would communicate as effortlessly thereafter as a native speaker.

To those harboring similar hopes, I offer news good and bad.

The good: it did get easier. The gates into the new language opened wider, allowed easier access. By B1, I could make out phrases and sentences in once-incomprehensible news broadcasts. Today, I can listen to MP3’d entrevistas from RTVE while I cook and clean. Newspapers, magazines, books: same story. The toughest sledding is behind me.

But, the bad: no Fluency Kingdom, no magic keys. What I don’t know still has to be learned. If a B1 student knows 2,500 words and a C1-er knows 4,000*, then 1,500 syllable combinations of the L2 will remain incomprehensible until looked up, digested. And if a native speaker knows 20,000+ words, well …

I have met some UK expats in Madrid with 10 years + on Spanish soil. Their Spanish romps rings around mine, but I have yet to hear one praise her own fluency. To live as a second language learner in the second language country may mean an ever-present awareness of how one’s own understanding of that language doesn’t quite measure up.

* If.  Debatable.


If the sought-after tongue is spoken in more than country, try to hear it as spoken in the country that concerns you most.

I need to understand what natives say to me; speak Spanish in return; read the language and write it. Computer resources can help me read and write. Oral skills are different, take priority. I need to listen and speak the Old School way, on my own, real time, computer un-assisted.

(“I’ll just talk to strangers through Google Translate!” think some. That means: you talk into the smartphone; the smartphone squawks at the native; the native talks into your smartphone; your smartphone squawks back at you. Rather a lot to ask of the native! In a pinch, maybe, but please ask yourself: how often do you see people conducting heart-to-hearts this way in coffee shops?)

I get better at Oral by listening to lots and lots of spoken Spanish. After landing in Madrid, I regularly watched youtube’d news clips from U.S. broadcasters Noticias Telemundo and Univision.

A mistake. Talking heads José Díaz Balart and Jorge Ramos hail from Florida and Mexico City, respectively. I don’t now need to understand Spanish as spoken on that side of the world. I noticed a significant improvement when I switched to made-in-Spain news broadcasts, or radio interviews downloaded from


AKA intercambios: social gatherings between the native speakers of two or more tongues, in which participants take turns yakking in languages. (e.g.: fifteen minutes Spanish, fifteen minutes English.) Meetup alone lists a half-dozen here, including one I started and others I haunt. Most in Madrid are English-Spanish, but no law says they have to be. I met Russians-on-the-street by dropping in on a Russian-English intercambio in Saint Petersburg.

Europe is predictably ripe turf for intercambios. I am a fan, partly to practice my yak and partly to learn cultural mores, and quickly cite intercambios as a perk to bilingualism. Expect easier sledding if already navigating the second language north of A2.

Students also recruit one-on-one partners through Conversation Exchange.


() I reached low intermediate fluency through conventional language classes. Computer tools have revolutionized language instruction, but I’d still like a teacher’s help to baby step through my first sentences in a new tongue.

That said, I’d ditch the class rápidamente if it shaped up as a waste of time. Some have. In the computer era, a class is just another tool.

() Planning to go expat? Consider clawing your way to the outskirts of B1 fluency before moving abroad for keeps.  Just my two cents.

() Expats often fear talk on telephone. I do, felt less embarrassed after meeting other expats who feel the same way. We avoid calling the bank or the cell phone provider; we visit.

() Every new word on your vocabulary list represents an effort of memory. Choose the words that rate the work at your current fluency level. You’ll use acabar a lot more often than séquito.

() Get used to your accent.

() Politicians left, right and center speak slowly and clearly. English students who scratch bewildered heads during U.S. movies can understand speeches by Obama and Trump.

() Diction, rate of speech and audibility matter tremendously. My lifetime of L1 English allow me to compensate for slurred, mumbled, accented speech obscured by background noise. In Spanish, I have to listen with both ears, and still expect to miss some or much of what’s said.

Example: at my current fluency level, much of this clip might as well have been in Mandarin, for all I got out of it. In contrast, I understood 80+% of a second clip from the same show.

() Some errors seem to grate on L1 speakers’ ears more than others. One may manejar a car west of the Atlantic; in Spain, said vehicle is conducir‘d, and natives consistently point out the difference. I reckon it grates. In contrast, no intercambio partner has flagged me on improper use of prepositions.

() In real life, essential vocabulary often trumps grammar. “Water not go drain” may be rotten English, but your knowledge of the word “drain” tells the plumber why he’s there.


Most reading-between-the-lines of this post will infer that the author is gung-ho about multilingualism. Not so.

In 2018, I think that a long-term expat in Spain wisely invests time by studying the national language, especially given that said national language is one of the most widely spoken on terra firma. Multilingualism topples national boundaries; I can exchange meaning face-to-face with strangers from distant lands in the above-described intercambios, can read Spanish press reports, understand untranslated recorded words spoken by historical figures: Franco, Guevara, Pinochet, Allende. The racers I interviewed for my great American novel may wish they could understand the words of the legendary Fangio, but can’t. The expat Spain straphanger can. I have read of cognitive benefits of language study, especially for old-croaker-aged students like me. Bilingualism has broadened my horizons, made me wiser.

But, with all that said: fat chance of convincing me of the intrinsic value of memorizing thousands of new syllable combinations for prosaic objects and actions like tables, can openers, metro stations, toilets, for waiting, laughing, sleeping, brushing teeth. I emphatically do not think that claimed cognitive benefits justify the years of study needed to chase fluency.

Further: all but the most advanced second language speakers make do with skeleton editions of their rich native vocabularies. In English, I can readily describe a walk, shuffle, skip, stroll, goose-step, swagger, stalk. In Spanish, I comfortably use only caminar.

I am multilingual to accommodate global human life as it has evolved in 2018. Past idealists promoted sensible constructed languages like Esperanto. Nice try! Hats off to you! Didn’t take, unfortunately; a few million worldwide speak Esperanto today. Nearly a billion speak English, the de facto lingua franca, and deal with its related miseries as an L2: homophones, spelling horrors, phrasal verbs.

I am old enough to pay more heed to outcomes likely than to outcomes ideal. My guess is that some type of computer-aided translation will become nimble enough for real-time chats, and that language study may thereafter become extinct.

Eventually. In the future. ¿Quién sabe cuándo? The author of one esoteric article on brain wave technology isn’t ready to give up Chinese lessons for his four year old. In 2018, I won’t close my Spanish textbooks anytime soon.


Video, Educational and News:  The SOL School of Language offers dozens of videos.  I can watch yesterday’s news at Spain’s Cuatro Noticias and Telecinco Informativos without registration. Expect a mix of serious news and tabloid fare.

Radio: Las mañanas de RNE hosts hundreds of downloadable MP3’d interviews and news broadcasts.

Books:  Intermediate students may enjoy, (a) Edelsa’s student version of Don Quijote de la Mancha, volumes I and II, and (b), SGEL’s student version of Quevedo’s El Buscón.  I’m grateful that I brought my Reference Grammar from the U.S.

Some Web Sites:

Diccionario de la lengua española. If the DLE offers one definition and an English-language translation service says something else, side with the DLE. Look for the conjugar button when entering verbs.

Linguee lets users choose between existing translations of problematic phrases.

* Former contributor Laura Lawless offers a great verbs with prepositions page.

* Retired professor Fred Jehle posted acres of excellent past course material.   (Update, 7/9/2019: If you can find those acres; the material at seems to have disappeared.)

Spanishdict­ and StudySpanish­ offer online quizzes.

* I also have used ProfeDeELE, Hispanoteca, Gerald Erichsen’s posts at ThoughtCo and — of course! — the ever-improving Google Translate.

* Update, 7/1/2020:  I now usually start research at WordReference, and favor the DeepL translator by a slight but consistent margin over Google Translate.

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