One of the most common questions I get asked by clients who are taking their first Steps into Spain is how crucial it is to have some knowledge of Spanish before arriving. I always put their minds at ease. As mentioned in a previous entry, it is possible to live in Madrid without learning Spanish. There are plenty of international schools, medical facilities and leisure options where English is spoken. You can horse ride in English, visit a dentist in English, eat at a family-friendly restaurant in English and easily meet other families that speak English at home too. However, I point out that learning Spanish will obviously make life easier and will no doubt help them fully immerse themselves in Spanish culture.
Why learn Spanish?
Speaking the local language makes a huge difference. On a practical level, being able to communicate with utilities services providers, fill in paperwork, and navigate Spanish health and school systems certainly accelerates the settling in process. Anyone who has taken starters language classes prior moving to Spain can confirm how useful it was. By far the best way to learn a new language is to practice speaking it with others. With basic language acquisition and confidence, spontaneous conversations with waiters, taxi drivers and shop workers help consolidate.
Before moving to Spain, most of my clients will have learnt at least a few key phrases in order to be prepared, and they are bound to pick up on more commonly used words and expressions as soon as they begin going out and about. The next step is to venture beyond SOS Spanish to gain confidence with spoken Spanish. As Chris Haworth, the matter-of-fact Mancunian director of AIL language school in Madrid points out, “the more you use, the more you improve”.
Advantages of family learning
So how about learning Spanish as a family? Family learning has a huge benefit because communication is constant between family members at home already so the only thing that needs to be done is to switch to the new language. Encouraged by the readymade learning environment, parents and children bounce words off each other and practice their new language skills in a relaxed manner.
Each family member learns at their own pace, but they can test each other at the end of each week. Free downloadable language tests are available online from websites such as How is my Spanish and listening tests can be found on Spanish for You. I tell my clients that making learning Spanish a family activity promises to be a rewarding experience.
The myth of children picking up languages faster than adults
An article recently published in the National Geographic Magazine highlighted new research that debunked the myth of children learning a second language quicker than adults. There really is no limit of age to learn a second language – anybody can do it! Encouragingly, Dr. Karen Lichtman from Northern Illinois University explained in this New York Times article that children don’t have some secret mechanism that allows them to learn language. “Their ability to “learn better” comes from the amount of time they are exposed to the language. In contrast, adults can piece together the rules of a language more quickly than children because they have more mature puzzle-solving skills and are better at understanding rules and patterns”.
Children become teachers
By immersing themselves in a Spanish lifestyle many of my clients inevitably adopt the need-to-know language acquisition method. A lot of families seize the opportunity to let their children become the teachers. They aim to learn three new words a day and it is usually the children who excel at this task over their parents. Sometimes the parents then take the next step and work out how to put the newly acquired words into sentences. Other times the vocabulary learnt has a practical application, like writing a shopping list.
Families set aside time to talk about different topics, with popular subjects including the home, pets, what they did yesterday etc. Another fun way to learn Spanish is to record one-minute monologues and listen to each one as a family to catch the mistakes. Braver parents take the grocery list in Spanish to the supermarket and ask for help pronouncing the words when doing the shopping. Not being afraid to ask someone to repeat what they have said also helps break down barriers and increase language acquisition. Children enjoy watching their parents learn the same words as they do and finding out how to put them into context.
Family focused intensive language courses (summer school)
Our favourite Madrid-based language schools are LAE and AIL. Both offer summer schools for families seeking to learn Spanish for fun or for relocation reasons. The programs are bespoke, and families benefit from excellent one-to-one attention. Further afield, the one- or two-week residential courses offered in the university town of Salamanca by Colegio de España are among the best in the country. Another popular language school which has the added advantage of being on the seaside is TLC Denia whose Spanish for families courses have been running successfully for over ten years.
Online learning tools
Finally, a quick word about internet-based learning tools for learning Spanish. There is a pandora’s box of options out there and thus it is wise to follow recommendations. Memrise is one of the best online Spanish learning tools for adults whereas the Duolingo for kids app is the most popular and successful application for children learning Spanish. Spanish Mama Elisabeth Alvarado’s wonderful website is a treasure trove of curated lists of the best online resources for learning Spanish as a family, such as the best podcasts for children to listen to or the best Spanish songs to learn.
Dreaming of living in a different country? Get in touch today to find out how Steps into Spain can help make this dream come true.
Sinéad Galvin is an educational consultant and founded Steps into Spain (a boutique educational and relocation consultancy located in Madrid) to help families find the right school for their child in Madrid. She uses her professional and personal experience of Spanish schools, the Spanish education system and the Spanish way of life to ensure that parents are knowledgeable and informed about what to expect and can secure the best school for their child.
Steps into Spain will take stock of your children’s educational needs and overall family requirements (housing, paperwork and general settling in). Our trusted and expert service is provided to families who are moving to Madrid from abroad. And also, to families who already live here and need some extra guidance and support.