The importance and challenges of learning Spanish


Everyone should learn at least some Spanish if you plan to live here. As expats, we came here to experience a new culture—and language is an important part of that culture. And while frustrating at times, it is both fun and satisfying to learn another language. You will, however, discover a few roadblocks on the path to learning.

It is surprising how few expats speak much Spanish, and how few foreigners are fluent. Even many of the men who marry Nicaraguan women speak little or no Spanish. (So much for pillow talk and intimate conversations helping the learning curve.) Many expats who do speak Spanish are limited to the present tense or simple conjugations.

One of my greatest disappointments living here has been my lack of fluency in Spanish after six years of calling Nicaragua home, though I know much more now than before. My wife and I are still taking Spanish lessons once a week, but comprehension has been the greatest problem. We have accumulated more Spanish dictionaries (picture and word), encyclopedias, grammar guides and other reference materials than most universities in Managua.

For us, learning Spanish has been slightly more difficult than becoming a nuclear physicist. Assuming you have a background in math and science, you could become a nuclear physicist in two to six years. But for an older expat, it takes much longer than that to become fluent in Spanish. Many times, during corporate projects in my former career, someone would state “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to do this”. Well, I would venture that being a rocket science is easier than learning Spanish.

To begin the process of learning Spanish as a second language, you need to set high goals for yourself— like wanting to have a meaningful conversation with your neighbor’s three-year old child. This is what we call a moving goal since the child will be six by the time you reach a three-year-old level of proficiency.

The first step to speaking Spanish is to buy a good English-Spanish dictionary, which will distinguish you from the expats who refuse to learn. There is a dizzying array of dictionaries available. Right away you will discover there are Spanish-English dictionaries and English-Spanish dictionaries. The latter is for English speakers to learn Spanish. Yes, they are different product entirely.

You will need to balance practicality against a comprehensive source of information. A small pocket dictionary is easy to carry around, but it will have far fewer words in it—and never the words you are looking for. The voluminous dictionaries are comprehensive but, due to their weight, must be left on the coffee table and require 30 minutes of page-flipping to hunt for a single word. Also, for older expats, you may want to consider buying a dictionary with larger print. We discovered the best solution was simply to buy 10 different dictionaries and now we can never find any of them when we need to look for a word.

Since this is the 21st century, you may want to try using a dictionary app on your IPhone, IPad or Android device. We tried that, but if you don’t know the spelling of a word you get totally lost. Then there is the app where you just point your device at a Spanish sign and it comes up with the equivalent English translation. Cute, but hardly effective! I do use a couple IPad apps that act like flash cards to reinforce verbs and their conjugation.

OK, we have set our lofty goals and purchased our dictionaries. Now on to the lesson plan. The experts tell us the best way to learn another language are:

Have a Latin lover

I approached this concept with an open and academic mind, but my wife had a violent reaction to the idea. People in the know call this the “horizontal dictionary.”

Watch telenovelas (Spanish soap operas)

I tried this for a while and I could grasp what they were saying without understanding the words. Some of the episodes got me excited but I discovered it had nothing to do with learning Spanish.

Total immersion

This is the best way by far. Upon first coming to Nicaragua we did a two-week immersion in Estelí. Four hours of class each morning with homework that took several hours each day. The family we stayed with forced us to continue using Spanish. We learned more in two weeks than in a year of regular classes. It was intense and that was the only teacher we have come across that was fully trained to be a language teacher. Had we done that for the first six months we would be completely fluent.

Find a native to teach you Spanish while you teach them English.

Sounds good and I tried it but you must be highly structured, i.e. one hour only English then one hour of talking only Spanish. In reality, it becomes a mix and neither student learns much.

Take regular classes

This is what most of us end up doing, and something we still do. Unless you are taking many hours of language class each week, this method helps more with maintaining your current level of Spanish. It is also the most expensive. Most teachers want at least $5 an hour and most want double if teaching both of us. You have to search for a good teacher since most are young ladies without any formal training. I know many friends who keep their teacher because they did not want to hurt their feelings by asking for another teacher.

CDs, DVDs, online courses

I’ve tried a lot of them and some are better than others. Some are very good for just learning the basic rules and verbs. But to really learn another language, you must converse with a native speaker.

I have run into many frustrations trying to learn Spanish. One was discovering that Nica Spanish was different than Castilian Spanish, Cuban Spanish, etc. This discovery invalidated half of my reference books and CDs. We had a group of volunteers from Spain and our Nica friends could not understand them. This really raised my confidence level when two Spanish speaking groups could not understand one another. Nicas use the informal Vos verb form and most Spanish reference books do not even acknowledge that verb form exists. So be sure to buy the Central American version of Spanish CDs and DVDs.

Sometimes I suspect my Nica neighbors are trying to sabotage my efforts at learning. Many of them tend not to use verbs at times. For example, I have a friend, Ivania, who sometimes runs up to me and simply states “enojado?, feliz? or triste?” (mad, happy or sad). I spent many weeks memorizing the 501 most used verbs and the mysterious differences between ser (to be) and estar (to be), so I expect everyone to use verbs.

Our major problem is that when we hear something, we must translate it to its English equivalent, think of the response, translate that back to Spanish, and then try to speak it. And that’s assuming we still remember what the original question was. My wife Amy is much better at comprehending what people are saying while I still just hear mumbo-jumbo many times. My strength is that I understand the rules of English and Spanish grammar better so I can form more correct responses assuming the Spanish speaker can wait two minutes while I formulate the response. So we do make a better team than tackling the language individually.

We have been told it usually takes 5-7 years of immersion before we can begin thinking in Spanish instead of translating everything from English. You cannot translate Spanish to English literally, which is probably true for most languages. For example, we say “I am hungry” while they say “I have hunger.” This may seem minor, but it means you cannot just translate the words and get the same meaning for the sentence. Please remember, I am not a linguist and these are merely my perceptions on learning another language. I now have much more respect for people that speak multiple languages. I shudder to think how many times I heard someone in the United States make derogatory remarks about a Latino speaking halted English. I wish I had that much mastery over a second language.

People will tell you Spanish is easy to learn because so many words are the same or similar to their equivalent in English, but that is what makes it difficult because you tend to fabricate non-existent words by adding an “o’ to the end or just pronouncing it differently. People will also tell you that in Spanish you always pronounce the letters the same unlike English, where vowels are pronounced in many different sounds depending on the word. That may be but in Spanish the “h’ is silent but the “g” has the “h” sound only when preceding “e” or “i” while “j” normally has the “h” sound. And don’t forget every language has a lot of foreign words in it and then the rules do not apply.

You can’t do anything about the nouns, you just have to learn them. It’s the verbs that are the killers. In English there are basically three forms of verbs: the infinitive, the past tense and the past participle. I drink a beer, yesterday I drank a beer and by tomorrow I have drunk another beer. All of the other forms simply add the same old auxiliary verbs. I will drink, I would drink, I have drunk, I had drunk, etc. A few oddities like I drink, we drink, they drink but she drinks, adding the “s’ in third person singular. Spanish speakers must learn all of the irregular verb forms of English and I never realized there were so many since we take them for granted.

But in Spanish there are 15 forms of each verb, plus the past participle and gerund. Within these 15 forms the verb has six styles to indicate who is the speaker or originator of the action. In English we would say I have, you have, we have, she has, they have while in Spanish you say yo tengo, tu tienes (informal you), nosotros tenemos, ella tiene and ellos tienen. And here they use the vos form also, so each verb has up to 90 spellings for a single verb.

In addition, adjectives must match in gender and number and nouns may be masculine or feminine with corresponding articles—suddenly you have quite a lot to learn. One of the other oddities is that saying a Spanish sentence may be different than the spelling. For example, if a word has a final syllable that sounds the same as the first syllable of the next word, you just drop one of similar sounds. This creates a smooth sounding, more efficient sentence, but one that is more difficult to comprehend. We’re not looking for sympathy, but it has proven to be a challenge to learn Spanish and I’m not as patient now as I was when I was younger.

Do not be discouraged. You can learn Nica Spanish, or “Nicañol.” My major problem was I waited until I was a crotchety older man before trying seriously. Some days I’m just not in the mood to speak or hear any tongue other than my native language. I have been known to be unruly in Spanish classes and even correct the teacher just because I feel ornery. I know when I’m ornery because I then start saying things like “you young whippersnapper, I was studying grammar rules before you were a gleam in your father’s eye.” Class usually goes downhill after that.

Some final tips: Classes are much easier in the early morning than in the hot afternoons. Learn the verbs and the subjugations on your own and use class time for practical application and conversation. Have the teacher come to your home, so if you get frustrated you are close enough to the refrigerator to grab a beer or a drink. Learning with your wife is difficult; it requires excellent social skills and is a good way to ruin a marriage. Good teachers give you homework. Poor teachers tell you that you are making excellent progress and speak Spanish well. You should change teachers every few months. Always interview the teacher before starting a series of classes to ensure you are compatible. After all, you are paying for a service.

Good luck, I hope your road to Spanish is smoother than mine.

Darrell Bushnell moved to Nicaragua six years ago with his wife Amy, who has the Centro D’Arte art studio/gallery on Calle Calzada in Granada. Darrell keeps busy writing a Granada community newsletter called Nica Nuggets and manages the website for expats living in Nicaragua or thinking about it. 



  • Mike

    My first Spanish lessons came by surprise in the Bar Santin in Cozumel, Quintana Roo, just before Christmas, 1982, when the Peso fell on a Sunday afternoon from less than 50 to a dollar to 149.
    The US was in a bad recession and I was out of work, but I had 25 one hundred bills in my shoe and it was winter back home. I figured I was good for months. My pessimism was unwarranted.
    My Spanish was so poor I preferred restaurants with photographs on the menu, and I went for Cozumel for no particular reason. I found the Bar Santin around the corner from my hotel, and I went every afternoon for a couple hours with a book for a few beers (15 cents apiece). I kept to myself, since I couldn’t speak to the half dozen regulars who seemed always on hand.
    One afternoon the owner brought me the first beer and said, near as I could then figure, “I know you don’t speak much Spanish, so we’re going to teach you,” while waving his arm at the usual array of afternoon drinkers.
    Over the next several weeks a half-dozen locals spent two or three hours every afternoon with me over beers around a big round table, taking turns picking up the tab.
    By the end of the sessions I’d learned enough Spanish to get hired selling condominiums in Acapulco. I wound up staying in Mexico another seven years. I’ve been visiting various parts of Latin America a couple times of year ever since, although I haven’t yet been back to Cozumel which I understand is no longer a fishing village with a population of 5,000.
    Every country has an identifiable manner of speech, of course, but even Nicaraguans themselves know their own language is unique. Most I’ve met are amused by the idea.

  • Jorge Greco Rodriguez

    Folks! Spanish is sooo easy, you read it like you write it, all you need is a good teacher(being a good teacher is a gift)

    • Erik Jota

      “Spanish is sooo easy, you read it like you write it,” Everybody says that about their first language. Mine is an obscure European one. I find it easy as ABC. People from other countries who try to learn it, break their tongues. I agree that Spanish grammar is not too complicated, but why the hell those different types of past tense?

  • de Las Sombras

    Ahhh…. you forgot the ‘best’ spanish teaching tool…. Spanish Porn with subtitles!!!

    The ‘conversation’ or dialogue is usually simple and fairly straight forward (not referring to the more guttural (foley?) sound effect)… and certainly more interesting than telenovelas or the clips on Rosetta Stone.

    After all isn’t Spanish the ‘language of love’… ummm or was that Italian???

    • Erik Jota

      Always handy when buying vegetables at the market.

  • Dr. John L. Minnella

    Great article, very funny and sooo true!

  • Dr. John L. Minnella

    Brings back to my mind memories of the terror I faced in 1993 as I was admitted to practice as an attorney before the Corte Suprema before hundreds of others and kept praying that no one say or ask me anything! I’ve managed to get by in Spanish over the years and find Nicaraguans so understanding of my “Espanol primitivo”! A good “va pues” as we depart always helps!

  • Robert Smith

    Bravo! Right on as usual. It was very reassuring to hear from someone else with the same issues that I have been facing. Misery loves company. But as I read, I began to wonder how many years did it take for us to become fluent in English? Certainly more than 6 or 7 … probably closer to 20 or more. Some in the U.S. never achieve it at all. One more tip: Don’t be embarrassed to try. At first I was reluctant to speak in fear of sounding stupid. The world is full of stupid people, why should I be the exception. And remember, never laugh at someone with an accent. It only means that they speak more than one language.

  • donna tabor

    Many years ago, I gave a dying woman a Benadryl —the only “gift in my purse that would help her at that point. I told her daughter to “give her this it will help her “morir”. I MEANT to say “dormir”! Needless to say, I don’t pass through that barrio anymore.

  • Martin Nelson

    Thanks, Darrell. Just a wonderful article! I lived with a family for six weeks in Managua in 2005 while studying at Viva Spanish school all day emersion school … and I still struggle after all these years. But I now have a wonderful network of Nica friends there. My best Nica friend speaks only Spanish but she knows the limits of my vocabulary and we’ve evolved a sort of Spanglish. I’ve learned some shortcut like substituting the verb to go (ir) for the future tense. E.g. I am going to write a letter (yo voy a escribir una carta). The subjunctive tenses still baffles me. Thanks again.

  • Ken

    One of my Spanish teachers mentioned that each verb has around 280 possible constructions depending up person, tense, and mood (that finicky subjunctive).

    My own arithmetic, which is surely faulty, just counted 259. Remember that there are 6 practically possible “persons” if we have both tu and vos but exclude that formal one only the Pope uses (Yo, tu, vos, usted, nosotros, ustedes), 4 basic tenses (present, 2 pasts and future), the infinitive, participle, conditional, and imperative forms, plus the compound tenses (have, had, have had, have to, and progressive constructions.) Whatever all these forms add up to, you can then almost double them because most of them have subjunctive counterparts.

    In practice, although I’m hardly a good guide since my Spanish is terrible, you can probably be conversational (not fluent) with five persons (forget vos, they will understand tu, although you need to be alert to vos when listening), six tenses (you really ought to have a sense of the two past tenses as well as both conditional and imperative) a couple compound tenses, and a smattering of subjunctive, perhaps only in present tense. If my count is right (and it may not be!) I think this requires knowing only about 45 constructions for each verb. Fortunately, most follow rules and there are only two basic sets of verbs, so remembering 90 different endings will probably get you through 80% of daily verb life.

    Sadly, this is actually the easy rocket science part of it–the stuff you can study and memorize. The hardest part, at least for oldsters, is probably hearing and reproducing the sounds. Next to this is the problem of conventional and sloppy daily usage, slang, and so forth. Then too, you need to remember that nouns are constantly expressed in diminutive form, so you can forget what the dictionaries say, you will hear them in diminutive.

    Once again, my Spanish is terrible, so I’m not preaching, only commiserating.

  • Kelvin

    Well, that establishes one thing Ken, you don’t know when you are preaching or not!! :)

  • NicaMom

    Great article! I took 5 years of Spanish in junior high/high school, and I’ll never forget my final exam senior year: conjugate hablar, comer, and vivid in every tense. (For some reason I was remembering 23?) Present subjunctive was the worst for me. Then I went on to major in it in college, studying works of José Martí, Rubén Darío, and Miguel de Unamuno, and writing analytical papers on Topics ranging from Pinochet and Franco to Antonio Gaudí and García Lorca. It wasn’t until I studied abroad for a year in Spain that I quit translating in my head and realized that the best way to learn it was not to try to translate everything but to express myself using vocabulary I knew. Then I began dreaming in Spanish and that was a bit disturbing for me the first few times, but more so when I would dream that the non-Spanish speakers in my life were now speaking to me in Spanish. But by far the best way to learn is to practice. And for me I know I always speak better after a few beers or a couple glasses of wine. :)

  • mark druce

    Great article! I have studied Spanish in college, but the only time I really spoke it and read it like a native was when I lived in Miama for 3 years back in the 70’s, and went to school in Laredo, Texas.

    I still retain most of the grammar rules and vocabulary and can cary on a simple conversation in the streets, airports, restaurants, and shops. I have used it well to teach English to TESOL students before I became disabled.

    I can understand most of the literature books I read in Spanish and read it silently to my self, because I do it slowly. I am like most adults in that I am afraid to make mistakes.

    I am taking Spanish classes for no credit just to refresh my Spanish, and continue to practice reading books in Spanish, as well as writing poetry in simple Spanish. I also listen to Spanish music most of the time.

    I hope to eventually become more efficient in Spanish as I spend more time in Central America (2-3 months per year) for the next 2-3 years as I get my Masters in TESOL and Special Education.

    I hope to move to Nicaragua if it does not become a little U.S. and volunteer to teach become a part-time volunteer helping those without the assets to get a fair and proper education. Those being abandoned by the present Nicaraguan state of mind to become another state of the U.S. just like Costa Rica is.

  • Erik Nelson

    Ken, I disagree with you about the vos verbs. They are at the heart of Nicaraguan Spanish and the present and imperative are easy to learn—much easier and more regular than the tú verbs.
    Whether to make subjunctive verbs any kind of priority—that’s a personal decision. You can do just fine without them. One the other hand, I know the subjunctive well enough to produce the correct form with only a little hesitation. This gives me confidence that what I’m saying is what I really want to say. And it’s no small part of the beauty of the Spanish language.
    For me the difficulty with Nicaraguan Spanish is that so many people speak rapidly, don’t enunciated clearly, and have almost no experience in communicating with foreigners who aren’t totally in command of the language.
    Great article. Brings back memories of my own struggles.

    • Jacob

      The commands are made easier with the “voseo” form of the verb, simply drop the final “r” and put emphasis on the proceeding vowel. Vení vos!

  • Maria

    Really love your post! We’ve seen this problems daily with our students, exactly as you have said… As you live in Granada (Nic), I proposse you to improve your Spanish in Granada (España), close to Alhambra, Cathedral, Albayzín and Sacromonte. You’ll be surprised how you are able to learn Spanish with… tapas!

  • Peter

    Here is how I am learning spanish in Nicaragua. I spend a few hours each day studying books and online courses.. then a few hours each week having my tutor tell me how much of that is not accurate and why. In my opinion, you have to start with just flat out memorization. You need a strong base of nouns and basic verb conjugations before you should start learning ´real nica spanish´.. otherwise you will be learning the exceptions to the rules before you learn the rules, which is just chaotic.