Heladerias Galore: Spanish Progress Update

I need you all to hold me accountable for learning Spanish this summer, because Lord knows I can’t. Every week, I’m going to post a Spanish Progress update, detailing how much luck I’ve had speaking with the locals and which goals I’ve met.


My primary goal is to spend all time that I’m not with fellow Americans speaking Spanish, and to speak only Spanish when in the house of my generous host mom, Gema:

This goal is going relatively well. Not perfect, but well. For one, my parents greatly prefer to understand what I’m saying when I phone them, which means I speak English for about an hour at a time in Gema’s house. Additionally, our travel group is very tight-knit, and we’re always checking the (English-speaking) group chat for updates on plans. I made a Spanish group chat for people wanting more Spanish immersion, but I overestimated the others’ Spanish abilities: to this day, 14 students still think I brought Cards Against Humanity with me. Since no one understand what I’m saying in the Spanish chat, and many of our memes and puns don’t translate well, I’m left with only the English group chat. I’ve even given in and watched some Youtube videos (mostly Jenna Marbles) and listened to some songs (mostly Eminem) in English.

Hence, I mostly just speak Spanish during mealtimes. This adds up to about an hour of intensive Spanish speaking a day, with less intensive conversations sprinkled throughout the day.

That being said, since the others on this trip don’t speak Spanish, I’ve become a sort of discount translator at restaurants. By discount I mean free, and by translator I mean accidentally ordering four times as much food as desired.

At first, I was disappointed that our host mom spoke quite a bit of English: I didn’t want to use it as a crutch. But, as it turns out, it’s a lot easier to learn new Spanish vocab when your host is bilingual. If there’s an English phrase she doesn’t know, it’s much more difficult to get it translated properly into Spanish.  Additionally, my roommate needs some extra help with Spanish, so the English is a plus overall. It’s even taught me which concepts each language doesn’t have words for. For example, English doesn’t distinguish between the walls of a house (pared) and the walls of a castle (muralla). Spanish doesn’t have a word for “crush” (as in havinga  crush on someone), but it does distinguish between melting ice (derretir) and melting cheese (fundir).


Our host mom is super nice, and it turns out that she doesn’t slow down her speech for us. But my secondary goal is to be able to talk with other random Spaniards I run into:

Rocio, Gema’s Cleaning Lady/Occasional Cook = I couldn’t understand what she was saying, either because she was speaking Spanish at a higher level or because of the sizzling frying pan (or both). To find out, I’ll have to talk to her when she’s not cooking. Problem: hearing.

“Café y Té” Waitresses = Two waitresses tried talking to me at a normal pace, but I had to ask them to speak more slowly. I wasn’t more nervous to order than I would be in the US. Problem: hearing.

Farmacía Guy = I couldn’t understand the conversation he was having with a colleague, but I understood his directions as much as I would in English (which is to say, we would have been lost without Google Maps). Problem: hearing.

On that note, another girl who was with us asked if I was Latina because my spoken Spanish was so good. Not “Are you from Spain?” or “Are you adopted?” but “Are you, the whitest person in my line of vision, Latina?” I think that just made this entire trip worth it.

Ignacio, Gema’s brother = I mostly understood what he was saying, but it took a minute to process and get my thoughts together when I first met him. Since then, we haven’t spoken as much, but I’ve understood what little he has said perfectly. Problem: hearing and speaking.

Guy at Abaníco Shop in Madrid = At first I didn’t know he was talking to me, but after he repeated himself to me once, I understood. He was teasing me for being indecisive about picking out an abanico, because I didn’t like any of them. I quickly corrected him and said I was indecisive because I liked all of them. There was a sentence later in the conversation that I didn’t understand. Problem: hearing.

Various Heladerías (Ice Cream Shop) = I understand all of them normally and speak normally. So if you’re ever in Spain, go to an ice cream shop, and decide you want to order in Spanish, I’m your gal. Problem: none.

Antonio, Gema’s Doorman: I did not understand a word of what he was saying until I asked him to slow down. Then I heard him perfectly. Additionally, I didn’t know a phrase that I wanted to use, but he filled in the blank for me. Problem: hearing and vocabulary.

A Guy Selling Books on the Street: I understood most of what he was saying. However, I had trouble formulating my questions. Problem: listening and speaking.

Random Girls Singing “The Mob Song” from Beauty and the Beast in Spanish: I may or may not have done through a phase about a year ago where I memorized Beauty and the Beast songs in Spanish… Evidently, it paid off. Problem: none.

Fruit Vender at the Triana Market: I didn’t understand every word he said, but he got his point across: don’t touch his fruit. Problem: vocabulary.

Waiter at a Cervecería on Calle San Fernando: I would have heard everything he said if not for the extreme levels of background noise. How inconsiderate of people to talk inside of restaurants. However, I did hear him better when he switched to English. I was going to try and convince him that I was from Ecuador and simply misheard him because people talk more quickly here, but I didn’t get the chance to interact with him again. Problem: noise tolerance/hearing.

Supermercado (Super Market) in Madrid: The cashier understood me perfectly, and I him. Problem: none.

Breakfast Café in Madrid: The waiters understood me perfectly and likely suspected nothing. Problem: none.

Ice Cream Vendor at the Plaza de España: I had to repeat myself to him once, but he didn’t seem to think I wasn’t a native speaker. I was wearing my full Spaniard disguise (an El Rubius t-shirt, boots, skinny jeans, and a lack of backpack/gringo pack) at this time, as well. Problem: ???

Restaurant in Madrid: I forgot how to say “check, please” in Spanish, and I didn’t understand much of what he was saying. Problem: vocabulary, hearing.

Arsenio, our Spanish Culture Professor: He seems to understand me better when I ask him questions in Spanish. He also blessed us with his dulcet tones by singing the Andalusian anthem for us yesterday, and I understood the lyrics. Problem: none.

Cajera (ATM Machine): I evidently do not understand banking terms in Spanish. But somehow I ended up with the right amount of money. Problem: vocabulary.

Vendor at a Librería (book store): We got what we each wanted to say across eventually. Problem: hearing, speaking, and accent when using the name “Ernest Hemingway.”

Watching Spanish TV Shows with Gema: I mostly understand what’s going on… It’s like when I watched the first Twilight movie. I don’t know the background info and can only occasionally make out a few words, but there’s vampires in there somewhere. Problem: hearing.

Bar Tender at “The Clan”: She understood me when I asked her for the wifi password. I normally would count her needing to repeat herself as a hearing problem on my part, but it turned out that the password was in English and I just didn’t understand her accent. Problem: none.


Going through this, I’m noticing a trend… I may need a hearing aid.


To Do List:

Convince an American tourist I’m from Spain and would like to practice my English with them (try once with an accent and once without).

Convince a Spaniard I’m from Ecuador.

Convince a Spaniard I’m from another part of Spain.

Convince a Spaniard I’m from their part of Spain.

Convince a Spaniard I am them.

Take a tour entirely in Spanish.

Ask someone to pet their dog in Spanish. A good skill to have.


Well, you all voted, and it looks like my next, detailed Spain update will be about: the food! Everything I’ve tried from various ice cream flavors to the famous Flamenquin to the excessive consumption of potatoes. I’ll even throw in my tasting of the various alcoholic drinks and wild-growing fruits I’ve found in my travels!


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