There’s a frequent refrain regarding our immigrants that they should “just learn English.”  I know a bit about learning foreign languages later in life so let’s discuss.


I set out to learn Spanish at about age 45.  I decided “heck, how hard can it be?” so I started reading kids’ books with a dictionary at hand.  And then I took some classes. I got some tapes and CDs.  And I got a Spanish channel package on TV and starting watching an hour or two of Spanish language TV per night.

Now this was before I had kids so I could put in a couple hours of fairly disciplined study per night.  I had free time after work and I devoted that to studying.

But after about one year I still couldn’t begin to hold a conversation.  I could read albeit slowly and I could write Spanish moderately well with the help of Word spelling correction.  But I’m sure my sentences sounded like “Thank you for the place coming tomorrow with me.”

So then I realized I needed actual conversation practice so I, wait for it, started paying people to talk to me.  I put up signs at the Mexican grocery store and at churches with Spanish services.

I paid folks about $12/hour just to sit with me and have an unstructured conversation, no lessons, no vocabulary, just talking.  I figured I’d learn the language the natural way by osmosis.

Fairly quickly on I realized it was not super comfortable talking to a Latino guy, because I don’t know squat about soccer aka futbol and asking another guy from a very macho culture “so what was your childhood like?” was kind of a non-starter.

So I focused on women who are probably a bit more naturally conversational (if I had to make gender stereotypes) and with whom I can talk about pretty much anything.

I learned that the way people talk in real life is a lot different from television and very different from books.  I learned that any little shift in the accent could throw me off.  And I learned that conversation one on one was OK but a larger group with folks talking at the same time (think dinner table conversation) was extremely difficult.

Although I’m not religious, I started attending a Spanish church with folks from all over South America and I started to get more accustomed to different accents.  I could understand the preacher pretty well, but individual conversation could still be a bit confusing.

Side note: almost the entire congregation was undocumented and you should have heard the preacher tap dance around that…

At the end of a couple years I had invested a huge amount of time and effort into learning Spanish and I still couldn’t get near saying I was fluent.

Now Spanish is considered a pretty easy language to learn coming from English as there are a lot of what are called “cognates” which are words which have a common Latin root, such as funcionar which mean to “to work or function.”  Does the TV work? would be funciona la television?  But still, being able to pronounce the language properly and having command of a decent vocabulary was not happening at the end of 3 years.


From attending the Spanish church I began to meet a bunch of Portuguese speakers so I expanded into studying Portuguese which is remarkably similar to Spanish in many ways.  It has different pronunciation, to be sure, more like French maybe, and some fairly different vocabulary.  But many of the things I’d learned about Spanish could be applied, e.g. that wacky “subjunctive” verb tense which is pretty much non-existent in English.

Interestingly, the first book I read in Portuguese was a Harry Potter book and I thought, “wow, Portuguese is hard!”  The Harry Potter books have pretty complex vocabulary and sentence structures are not always super simplistic.

But then I read a Paulo Coelho book and afterwards I said, “cool, I can understand Portuguese!”  Paulo writes for about a seventh grade reading level, short, punchy sentences, basic vocabulary.  It was easy.

I continued to study and read Portuguese and can now read adult books pretty easily.  Books with a lot of local flavor like the Jorge Amado books are tricky as I miss a lot of the regional sayings, but reading translations of American authors is very easy.  I’m a big John Grisham fan in both Spanish and Portuguese.


Then life changed and I had kids.  I have two little boys and they’re a blast, but they require a lot of time and attention.  I set out a few years ago to add Italian to my list of languages but that didn’t go so well.  Italian is supposed to be a pretty easy hop from Spanish, but I still found it problematic.

I didn’t have the free hours to study with the kids in the house.  And I certainly couldn’t kick back for an hour a night to watch TV.

I worked on Italian between the cracks but after nine months I had to admit I wasn’t really making progress.  I still couldn’t read a book, didn’t have enough vocabulary, and I hadn’t gotten anywhere near being ready for conversation. I was not progressing, so I eventually abandoned it.

In summary…

Expecting someone to learn English while working a job (or two) and raising children is expecting a lot.  I am pretty focused (sometimes) and I only attacked relatively easy languages.  But to this day I probably still sound like a second grader when I speak, and my ability to successfully understand another person can depend on a lot of factors, like their accent, education, use of slang, and regional usages.

English is hard to learn.  Remember learning about though and tough and through? And beautiful and clothes and even low? The list goes on and on…

Spanish and Portuguese pronunciation are very consistent.  If you see the word on the page you can pretty much always pronounce correctly.

And then we have some really strange idiomatic things we say like cut the tree down and cut it up.  English is far from the easiest language to get onto.

Studying languages has been a tremendous experience and I’d recommend it highly.  But don’t believe those Rosetta ads that say you’ll be speaking another language in 30 days or whatever.

Learning a language is tricky as an adult and finding the time to do it while working and raising children… that’s really tough.  I’m not saying folks shouldn’t do it. It opens up your horizons enormously.  But maybe just keep the fact in mind that it’s far from a no brainer next time you’re demanding that someone get with the program and learn English.