Frustrations of learning Spanish

“Can you pass me some of that nice, juicy cock, please?” was my first ever innocent Spanish mistake. To some people this would have seemed funny, but, unfortunately for her, and me, I was speaking to my mother-in-law.

learning spanish
I spy with my little eye, something beginning with ‘C’… But which is it? Photo by blue_quartz

“I think you mean chicken,” she said, politely; pointing out that chicken – pollo, was a tad different to cock – polla. I haven’t asked for cock at the dinner table since (or anywhere else for that matter). But, even now if there is chicken on the table, especially a big juicy plate of it, then I get bead of sweat dripping down my forehead as I focus on the correct ending of the word. I also always make sure when my in-laws come for lunch we opt for pork, or fish, but never chicken.

It’s been a long hard battle to get up to my level of Spanish (which is not fluent, nor accurate most of the time), and just recently I’ve begun to wonder whether I should get back to studying it again. I mean, after 10 years of living in Sevilla you would have thought that people would stop saying ‘you’re not from round here, are you?’ after listening to me speak more than a few lines. And I’m not just talking about grammar problems, silly accents, or rude innuendo mistakes.

When I first came to Spain I was mad about becoming fluent at Spanish. The learning curve was steep and enjoyable. I used to do everything in Spanish. I’d study every day, listen to Spanish music, only have Spanish friends (well, two to be precise), and I even used my job as a means of improving my Spanish by translating most texts and vocabulary before class. I reckon I went from A1 to B1 quicker than a teenage Spaniard sent to London by his parents with only a dictionary, and forced to live in a house full of London cab drivers.

After a couple of years the learning curve flattened out. I was able to read decent magazines in Spanish, have lengthy conversations, and not get lost when listening to a group of Spaniards chatting (which was handy round the in-law’s dinner table). I even started watching films dubbed in Spanish to make it more difficult to practise my listening.

Then after five years I think I went backwards. I started hanging out more with native English speakers, mainly because I missed the banter and humour, and no longer walked round with a dictionary in my pocket. I didn’t need to translate the entire textbook before teaching and actually stopped talking Spanish in class too. Even at home I’d speak more in English to help my wife. I don’t read anymore in Spanish because I prefer to in English, and as I don’t have loads of time to read anymore, English comes first. Even watching films, I can’t do dubbed films anymore. It’s just wrong and you lose so much by not having the original voice.

So I think I’ve reached a plateau. I’m easy, comfortable, and safe. But I’m starting to wonder whether it’s enough. Should I be pushing myself more, taking it to the next level? It would be a joy to be able to express myself more in Spanish at times, especially if it means I can stop making a fool of myself.

Like when I was with Salvador (RIP), my catechesis teacher. I was 31 when I did the classes, maybe a bit late to become a catholic, but as I fell in love with a catholic lady, I had to get baptised. To be honest I would have settled with a registry office wedding, but she had her heart set on a church wedding (as did the in-laws, and since I was still feeling guilty about the juicy chicken incident, I agreed to do the course). Anyway, so there I was with Salvador, a modernish priest, on a Monday morning just next to a church in Triana, when he asked me.

“Do you know what salmon is?”

“Salmon?” I asked, surprised he’d asked me whether I knew what a type of fish was as we were chatting about praying in church. “Sure, it’s a type of fish, isn’t it? The ones which swim upstream and jump over rocks.”

He laughed. Luckily he was a modern priest (during a sex education talk with my wife he told us that we had to ‘enjoy each other’s bodies’ as much as possible).

“No, not salmon, salmo. It’s a type of hymn.”

“Ah. What type of hymn? Is it connected with fish jumping over rocks?”

“Not that I know of.”


Let’s take a more recent example. My son started nursery a month ago, after two weeks he started eating (at the nursery, he’s been eating for ages now). By luck his main teacher was away the day that he was about to start having lunch there, so they asked my wife whether he ate normal solid food, or purée. She told her he ate solids, and away he went.

Then the next Monday, when his teacher was finally back, she asked me.

“Does Mateo eat purée?”

“Yeah, sure he does,” I said, because he does eat purée, now and then, just to make sure he gets his veggies. We wondered why he came home starving for the rest of the week, coming in and heading straight for the fridge and asking for crisps (not that we keep crisps in the fridge).

Then on Friday the teacher said to me.

“Why don’t you guys feed Mateo solid food, he can chew perfectly.”

“But we do, we have done for about six months.”


“Oh, so he’s been eating purée the whole week.”

“Yeah, when you said that he ate purée, I thought it was all the time.”

“No, no, just now and then.”

“Poor kid.”


Okay, that could have happened in my own language, but it’s still no excuse. My poor son was forced to eat slop for a week, thanks to his silly Papa. I’m sure there are other examples of when I’ve made myself look like a dingbat, but I’ll save them for another blog.

So, what about you? How do you get on with the Spanish language? Are you one of those expats who only know how to say hola, gracias, and cerveza, por favor? Do you expect everyone to speak your language? Or are you still a keen language learner after living here a long time?

7 thoughts on “Frustrations of learning Spanish”

  1. Hi Barry, great story.

    Well I’m the result of 5 yrs of spanish lessons in the Irish school system so needless to say I came out with some knowledge but not a hope of conversation etc.

    So fast forward 26 yrs and I found myself in the Costa blanca taking spanish lessons. I’ve re- learnt grammar, can read a bit but still no confidence in speaking the language. My Spanish teacher has now become my friend but she’ll only speak English with me (otherwise to her it’s a Spanish lesson and she should charge lol).

    Anyway I’m not giving up but am looking for other avenues to learn the language.

    Ps I’m missing the Craic from home and I’m not here long!

    Thanks again

    1. Hey Rachael,

      Thanks for writing and liking my story. It’s great you’re over here learning Spanish. Sure your confidence will come. I remember I used to get scared about asking for a carry-a-bag at the supermarket! I always miss the craic from back home, but you just have to find other craics (never as good) to keep you busy.

      Thanks again. Good luck.


  2. I had a similar experience with the same words. My Spanish partner and myself were helping out in a friend’s Casa Rural that had a small cafe with a terrace. The friend asked me to ask the man with a beard if he had ordered chicken? As I was already confusing these words, I walked towards him with the plate saying in my head “Don’t say polla don’t say polla” and promptly said “Is this your polla?” Needless to say great entertainment for the terrace,my partner and his friend.
    Funnily enough my partner still confuses “chicken” and “kitchen” in English.

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