Speaking Spanish in Spain: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Duolingo

TL;DR: Duolingo helped me increase and maintain a broad vocabulary, and proved all of my worrying needless. For best results, use it before you travel to a country that speaks a different language.

Spain from space, with a blue "you are here" marker in Madrid. East is toward the top of the photo, so the islands of of the UK & Ireland are in the top right.

 Speaking English in Spain (remember this for later)

Getting ice cream in the Plaza Mayor in Salamanca, we sampled a “Nata, Caramelo, y Nueces” flavor. “Cream, Carmel, and …” we didn’t know the last word. Some sort of nuts. But what kind?

Plaza Mayor in Salamanca. Outdoor diners with vibrant purple table linens are in the foreground; the prominent, central bell towers in the background.

We asked the server how “nueces” translates to English. He didn’t know. He went and asked a coworker, came back and told us:

“Nuts?” And then, because the English pronunciation of “nuts” just didn’t sound right to his ears, he offered an alternate pronunciation:

“Newts?” And he shrugged.

We laughed and thanked him, and we ordered that flavor still not knowing what we were eating. Days later, we figured out that “nueces” translates to “walnuts”.

 Duolingo: My Troubled Past

"La fiesta no existe"—street art from Salamanca, Spain. Black text on tan-colored sandstone.

I signed up for Duolingo when it first entered beta. I loved the idea:

I stuck with it for a year or two, first brushing up on my rusty Spanish skills and then exploring German. And both experiences felt a little sub-par to me. Not totally annoying, but I started to doubt its approach.

Why did I get to German Level 9 and still not know how to ask how to find the bathroom?

Why did I have to repeat stupid phrases like “the bird plays with his strawberry”? Couldn’t they find sentences that made sense, and that might actually get me somewhere while wandering foreign streets?

Lisa Yoder on a street in Barcelona. Photo is highly stylized with bright greens and yellows

Why did their translated documents read worse than a Google Translate version? Might learning through translation serve people poorly? Would this whole idea even work?

I tweeted at them and wrote a big long comment on one of their blog posts. The comment received many up-votes, but no response from Duolingo. They could have just said, “Dude, language acquisition experts work for us. Stop yer complainin’. We know what we do.” and I would have been pretty happy. Even better if they’d actually justified their decisions to me (some other commenters came up with some pretty good explanations, but I wanted to hear it from Duolingo). Instead of answering my questions, though, they occasionally retweeted @ShitDuoSays, rubbing salt in my wounds.

So I dropped out. Rather than learn language in a way I didn’t understand, I chose to not learn it at all.

An abandoned series of lots in Salamanca, from above. Obtaining this shot required climbing more steps than seemed reasonable.

 Pre-vocabulary Conversation

My mom tells me that when my brother was a toddler, he longed to have a conversation with my grandfather. But he didn’t know many words, yet.

They sat on the front stoop together, in silence. A car drove by.

“Car,” said my brother.

“Yep, yep. That’s a car.” Said my grandfather.

A truck drove by.

“Truck,” said my brother.

“Yep, yep. That’s a truck.”

 Like A Baby

After 4 days in Spain, I was actually able to understand bits and pieces of what was said to me. For breakfast on Wednesday, I understood when the old man mentioned “tostada con tomate” (tomato toast). But after the meal I went inside to use the bathroom, and the old woman asked me something. I comprehended none of it.

“Lo siento,” I said. “Hablo como un niño.” I speak like an child [sic].

“Como niño!” She said. And made comments I didn’t understand, and waved me toward the bathroom.

But that was wrong. I should have said, “Hablo como bebé.” I speak like a baby. Like the dude saying “newts” because “nuts” sounds wrong. Like my toddler brother trying to have a conversation with my grandpa.

The whole time we were in Spain, I babbled and babbled to Lisa in Spanish. Since she’s fairly fluent, I constantly asked her how to say new things.

“How do I say ‘right, left, or straight’?”

“How do I say ‘in the shade’?”

I could almost hold toddler-like conversations about my thoughts on the food we were eating, or even why I find Mumford & Sons just ok (if I remember correctly, my explanation involved a lot of motions, onomatopoeia, and Spanglish).

But as soon as I tried to talk about what we did yesterday, or what we could do tomorrow, my vocabulary ran out.

“Car,” I said.

“Yep, yep, that’s a car,” replied Lisa.

“Truck,” I said.

A street artist in Salamanca, sitting in a ring made out of parts from old bed frames with his outfit and face painted to look like they're woven from the same metal. A metal toy truck is in the foreground.

 A Remedy

I dove fully into Duolingo while we were in Spain. Just within the week there, my morning & siesta sessions of Duolingo reinforced vocabulary that I had tried to use while walking about. It helped my Spanish listening skills.

Had I done so beforehand—perhaps if I had stuck with it, since I first joined Duolingo years ago—I might have actually been able to talk about the past and future.

Duolingo told me, while there, that I could now understand 53.1% of real-world Spanish text—and that seemed accurate! The signs around me were starting to resolve themselves, like a magic eye puzzle popping into 3D. I was finally joining the in-crowd (Spain and most of the Americas), the people who can see the sailboat.

 Do I need more?

For those of us who spend most of our time surrounded by English speakers, who can’t work true immersion into our lives, can Duolingo alone teach a language sufficiently?

Lisa Yoder with a look of surprise, unexpectedly caught in the surf of a larger-than-average wave while on a beach in Barcelona.

For the past six weeks, since I returned from Spain, I’ve continued pressing into Duolingo. I set the “coach” to hold me to getting 50 eXperience Points each day, and have stuck to it consistently almost the entire time.

It startled me, just days after returning, how much less it feels like I learn. When in a country that speaks the target language—when hearing it from every passer-by and reading it on every sign—I could feel myself growing more fluent. I felt the words becoming easier to recall. But now, even with 50 XP or more each day, I feel like I’ve learned very little. Even though I can now speed through reinforcement lessons on topics that remained far beyond my reach while in Spain.

If I really want to learn a language quickly, I think I’ll need to find resources beyond Duolingo. I may subscribe to ; puntoycoma, a magazine for Spanish-learners that we discovered in Salamanca. I’ve loved diving into the written part, and it also comes with an audio portion which I look forward to exploring. If you aspire to learn or maintain Spanish, you may want to check it out.

Other than that, I’d love suggestions. How do you learn or maintain your Spanish? Are there websites that recommend materials for various languages and skill levels? @ me if you know of any.

 Parting thoughts

It struck me while in Spain that with only four languages (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese), I could communicate with anyone in the western hemisphere. With Duolingo and an additional resource or two, learning three new languages seems like a perfectly achievable three-to-five-year plan. By then, hopefully they’ll have added Mandarin and Hindi, allowing me to communicate with most of the eastern hemisphere, too.

Come join me! You don’t have to learn Spanish—Duolingo offers a large and growing number of language courses. In addition to gaining some in-crowd, magic-eye-seeing satisfaction, I find that learning new languages helps me think about the world differently, and even helps me remember people’s names better (though I still have a long way to go!).

Perhaps the best reason to learn? It’s just plain fun. Especially—I’ll admit it—on Duolingo.

Follow me on Duolingo for some friendly, motivating competition.

Lisa Yoder standing and looking out a window in Casa Lis in Salamanca, Spain. The window itself is heavily decorated, with mostly bright green leaded glass and flowers of red and yellow leaded glass below a clear portion that can be gazed through.

 
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