What does it take to be functional in a language?


that's the adventureThere’s a classic language joke that I share with my upper level English students.

What do you call someone who speaks three languages?  Answer: Tri-lingual.

What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Answer: Bi-lingual.

What do you call someone who speaks just one language?

                 Answer: a US American.

As a rule, Americans speak English, only, and are often very poor at grammar.

Full disclosure: I did take a language in school: Latin. It’s helped me with grammar and root words, but not with speaking. I wish I’d learned languages when I was younger, when it was easier for my brain to wrap around new vocabulary and my tongue to easily twist to new sounds. But I’m not going to learn any younger.

Mexico is my 5th consecutive foreign country to take up residence in (for those who are counting, there’s Vietnam, Turkey, Spain and Russia). In each, I’ve made an attempt (relative to my length of stay) to learn the language. In most countries I’ve taught English as a way to support myself. Spanish, however, is the first language I’ve set a real goal to become functional in. Notice I didn’t say fluent. That’s too much for me to imagine right now. I can envision learning the language well enough to function on a day-to-day basis.

So here’s what I’ve learned: It’s pretty amazing what you can do with just 55 words in a language. Honest. I start with 30 nouns (choose things you use every day. I start with food words & objects I use at work), 5 adjectives (pretty, happy, good, bad, sad), 5 verbs in simple present tense (want, need, say, walk, do), 4 adverbs (more, slowly, fast, not) and, MOST IMPORTANT, a handful of polite words (please, thanks, hello, goodbye, I’m sorry, excuse me.). You can get by in simple transactions like buying groceries or just walking around. Obviously, you will do a lot of pantomime and pointing. You’ll certainly look pretty silly most of the time. Get over yourself. You’ll still have to order food off a picture menu or point at street food, but you won’t starve. You’ll almost certainly be clueless as to what people are saying around you. Yes, they could be saying that you’re a stupid foreigner. You are. Get over that, too.

The next words to know are some simple phrases like, “I don’t speak very well.” “Please speak slowly.” “I don’t understand.” “I don’t know.” “What is that?” “How much does this cost?” and “Where is the bathroom/store/bank/pharmacy/hospital/post office?” PRACTICE THESE UNTIL THEY FALL OFF YOUR TONGUE EASILY. You will use them a lot.

But it gets better quickly. If you can learn the sentences above and double your vocabulary to just 100 words, you can now probably order in a restaurant without pictures, buy easy access items in a store, and ask very simple directions. And whether you realize it or not, you’ve been introduced to the structure of the grammar. Look at the sentences you memorized. Is the verb in the middle (like Spanish) or at the end (like Turkish). Does the structure of a sentence change when you ask a question (like English) or can you just add a question mark (like Spanish). At the end of a sentence, does your voice go up (like Turkish, English or Spanish) or would that change the word (as in tonal languages like Vietnamese)? Do the adjectives come before the noun (like Spanish) or after (like English). Are the words pronounced as they are spelled (which is true in most languages) or not (English). You’re learning, even though you may not know it.

I believe that if you can stick with it and up your total vocabulary to 1000 of the right words, you can be functional. Those words need to include simple present and simple past verbs, time words (today, tomorrow, next week, yesterday, year..), plus you’ll need to know numbers, days of the week, months of the year and direction words (left, right and straight). You’ll need the question words (who, what, when, where, why, how) and pronouns (he, she, it, we, they, you, this, that). With these words, you can function. You probably can’t negotiate a better home loan, discuss the finer points of poetry or defend yourself in court, but you can do most everyday things. With just 1000 words you can go about your business with little difficulty.

So that’s my current goal in Spanish: to be functional. It would be nice to be fluent, but I just can’t see that far yet. I hope, if I work hard enough, that I can be functional at the end of a year here. I take two classes a week and sit in on two classes that are a level above me. I’m a third of the way through a beginner’s book. There are three books and I expect to complete them in that time. I am also working through DuoLingo’s website, though at a very slow pace. I practice on my students and in the street daily.

And it’s working, though slowly. Every week, I can understand more of what my Spanish speaking students and co-workers say. Every day, I learn new words. With each conversation, I can remember one or two new words that I need to use to better communicate. It’s slow. It’s tough, but I’m learning.

I’m sure my life looks messy and disorganized from the outside. It is certainly less stable and predictable than when I had a condo and a cubical job. But I do have goals and a bit of a plan. Just a bit.


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I'm a professional vagabond. I quit my cubical job in January 2014. Since then, I've hiked the Appalachian Trail, The Camino, and taught English in Vietnam, Turkey, Russia, Spain, Mexico and Peru. I'm exploring the world and you can come too!

5 thoughts on “What does it take to be functional in a language?”

  1. That’s a really helpful idea for navigating the language. I never thought of it like that. I was surprised at how much of my German came back when we went to Germany several years ago, especially considering I was never fully proficient in it like I was with French. I think you’ll be much more proficient than you think you will be when it’s all said and done. You can’t help but absorb the language when you’re there.

  2. Love this!!!! So good to have someone give an idea of direction when learning a new language. I’ve never thought about learning a new one but this is definitely motivation and direction if I were thinking about it. Thanks for being such an inspiration!

  3. Keep at it Beth.

    I started learning Spanish in high school, continued in college and spent a summer in Mexico studying. Unfortunately, after I left college I rarely used my Spanish, purposly. But as I lived in NY for a good while afterward, I was constantly exposed to the language, even if it was just evesdropping on a conversation on the subway or in the local convenience store. But to my suprise, even 35 years later, I can still understand Spanish on a basic level. They used to tell me that you have to learn to think in that language. Outside of Mexico, I found that impossible to do. However, I think what helped is was constant exposure to the language. When I can switch to Spanish language tv, or radio at any time, it helps me retain what I know.

    So although this may not help you now, I believe that you picked a good language to learn.

    Keep up the good work.


  4. I imagine most people have a goal (whether they say it out loud or not) to speak a second language. And most never do. YOU are doing it! Have fun with it.

  5. I love it!! I really wish I had learned a foreign language when I was much younger too. I did learn a bit of Haitian Creole when I was going to Haiti on mission trips. I really should focus on Spanish now because some of the people who call office ask if anyone speaks Spanish. We have one agent who does and a few who can get by. I might have to refer back to this particular segment to help me learn the words that would help most! You think your life might look messy from the outside, I think it looks adventurous and exciting!!

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