From the beginning of my Spanish journey I have had a terrible habit. Actually, I didn’t even know it was a bad habit until someone pointed it out to me. This bad habit has had a major hindrance on my ability to learn and understand Spanish grammar. I was memorizing lots of vocabulary, conjugating verbs correctly and my pronunciation had improved tremendously; but, there was still one big problem. I could not stop thinking in English! Let me give you an example of what my brain wants to do: The new house was painted blue and received new shutters. My bad habit wants to me translate that as: La nueva casa fue pintó azul y recibió nuevas persianas. Of course, this is not correct, but my brain sure wants it to be. Probably because it’s easier that way, my brain has to do less work if we simply put the adjectives in front of the verbs, and mi cerebro (my brain) can be rather lazy at times, we’re working on that!
For the first 15 years of my life I knew nothing but English grammar. When I made the decision to begin learning Spanish I was a blank slate. Well, more than a blank slate, I was a brand new slate that hadn’t been taken out of the box yet! I knew nothing of Spanish grammar and had put no thought into the differences there might be between English and Spanish. Looking back now, I don’t think I thought there would be differences. My young, naïve mind just assumed we would learn lots of new words and we would swap out the English works for the Spanish ones. It was going to be a piece of cake! Ah, aha, how wrong I was!
Naturally, anyone starting to learn Spanish is going to think in his or her native language. The important thing is to slowly transition your thoughts into the new language so there is less confusion, especially when it comes to grammar. Let me take you back to when I first learned of my bad habit. I was talking to an older classmate, who had done incredibly well in all of her Spanish classes. She was helping me with some homework and after I had made numerous mistakes, she stopped and looked at me, “Amanda, stop thinking in English! You must think in Spanish when you are speaking Spanish.” For some reason, I remember this moment so vividly. Think in Spanish.
This was a turning point for me, and one that I think about often. For many American learners, the English language is all we have known from the beginning and it can be difficult for us to let go after so many years.
We are comfortable here, it makes sense to put the adjective before the verb, we want to continue to do this, it’s natural! However, if we want to be a part of the beautiful world of Spanish, we have to let all of that go. We have to drudge through a world of discomfort, embarrassment and vulnerability in order to a part of the colorful, fast and rhythmic world of Spanish! I think we can all agree, vale la pena!
As time went on and I learned more about Spanish grammar, I began to learn more about English grammar as well. Geoffrey Willans, an English author and journalist, once said, “You can never understand one language until you understand at least two.” I love this! His statement has become my reality. The more I learned about Spanish the more I learned about English and began to have a greater appreciation for both. This is when my real passion for language began, once I began to understand that learning a language is so much more than just speaking differently, it is the door into a whole new world, a new culture, new traditions and customs; the list of opportunities and experiences than become available to us as we learn a new language are endless. Understanding this window of opportunity helped me to release my grip on the rules of the English language and welcome the chaos that is my Spanish. “One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.”‒Frank Smith