Tiny Triumps

Over the past week, I’ve had a few small moments worth celebrating in my Spanish Learning adventure:

  1.  I understood a joke my yoga teacher made in class, and was among the first to giggle. A win for mindfully listening to the teacher and catching the humor. 
  2. I dreamt in Spanish. Okay, to be fair, I had a dream where I said one sentence in Spanish. I asked a person “¿Que idiomas hablas tu?” which translates to “What languages do you speak?” I’m not even sure they answered in Spanish. But still. One sentence more than I’ve ever dreamed before!
  3. I was able to translate a short conversation for a friend. While in Ibiza, the bouncer wouldn’t let us into a club. I understood and translated the explanation: my friend wasn’t allowed to have his bag.  

Am I approaching conversational? Not really. 

Am I making progress? Yes. Measurably!

Other budding events include:

  • eating lunch with the Spanish teachers at school (they are patient and incredible, and talk and practice with me)
  • understanding random snippets of peope’s conversations on the subway and at the gym (eavesdropping on a foreign language takes talent)
  • gearing up for Spanish class to start again in two weeks

¡Tengo mucho aprender! Pero para ahora, estoy feliz. 

The Beginning of School: A Summary


  • I found my pool.  It is near my school, has seven beautiful 25 meter lap lanes, huge gorgeous windows that let in tons of natural light, and an entire area dedicated to hot tubs, water massages, and saunas.  Bonus: I learned hot tubs are a great place to practice my Spanish.
  • On my walk home from school, I discovered a hole-in-the-wall pastry shop that sells fresh bread, quinoa cookies, and the most amazing sesame & anise seed crackers. Fantastic and dangerous.
  • My students are hilarious, amazing, and insightful.  To get to know each other, we wrote “Where I’m From” poems.*  Hearing stories from kids with vastly different backgrounds and nationalities was utterly cool.  When we did an author’s chair, my eighth grade students made connections that surprised and intrigued them. They noticed small details and personal moments written by their classmates felt universal. 


  • Tonight, as we sat down to dinner, my roommate found black bird poop on our kitchen table. And on our kitchen counter.  Those beautiful floor-to-ceiling windows-doors we have?  Yes, turns out we need to close them when we leave for work.  It looks like the pigeons have been enjoying our apartment even more than we have.
  • I lost a really nice water bottle that I splurged and spent 40€ on.  “Why did you spend 40€ on a water bottle, Lauren?” you ask. Because I was sick of using plastic water bottles, and this one was a backpacking water bottle that looked really cool and seemed perfect for everyday use and use in the mountains.  Guess where it never made it.  You got it, the mountains.

Notable Moment:

When introducing the out-of-class reading expectations for my eighth grade Humanities course, my students asked, “Does reading in a foreign language count?” 

This question was entirely wonderful and – considering the student demographics and my position as a Humanities and ELL Teacher – rather ridiculously caught me off-guard.  Reading in multiple languages was never something I had considered for a large group of students before. 

After thinking about it, we decided that our reading time requirement (two hours per week outside of class) needs to be in English. We are studying and working to improve our English reading and writing, after all. However, we all agreed that all the reading we do is important part of our literary lives, so for our 40 Book Challenge, books in any language count and should be recorded.

Looking Ahead

Moving forward, I’m interested to see the other amazing questions, challenges, and unanticipated situations that arise in class. This is exactly the perspective I am hoping to gain while I am here.

*These were based on the poem “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon.  I first experienced using “Where I’m From” Poems as a beginning-of-the-semester activity in Hip-Hop Ed, a multicultural education course taught by Prof. Gloria Ladson-Billings at UW-Madison.

To learn more about Prof. Ladson-Billings work, check out her blog, Black & Smart, her book, Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children, or one of her many academic articles, ranging from Culturally Relevant Teaching to the Education Debt.

Con Tiempo y Paciencia

Right now, I am a bit confused, by basically everything. The language is new. The public transportation is new. My grocery store, which I finally found, is new.

To be fair, I am living in a major city in Europe in 2017, so as far as culture shock goes, I have it pretty easy. In fact, I think I am experiencing more city-shock than culture shock. I have never lived in a big city before, and let me tell you, there are many differences between the city and the suburbs, or even between a big city, and a mid-sized city, like Madison.  

One of the biggest challenges for me in this new place was finding my grocery store. Food is very important to me. I am used to having a car, driving to the store, filling up the cart, and then loading up my car and driving home. Here, in the city, I no longer have a car. I walk almost everywhere, and, when I go grocery shopping, I can only take what I can carry.

Two weeks ago, I found my grocery store. This was no small feat for me. Out of the dozens of markets, fruit stands, and meat shops everywhere, I needed one place I could call grocery-store home. One place I could go if going to a million different little shops wasn’t going to fit the bill that day. One place that was within close-walking distance, was well-priced, and had good hours. And I finally found it: Condis Life.

At my new grocery store, I couldn’t wait to buy fresh fish. At the back of Condis Life there is a whole fish counter. No, not a counter, a display. A gigantic table filled with ice, and fresh whole fish, and shrimp, and piles of other seafood. I couldn’t wait to buy fresh salmon in Spain and cook myself a meal.

However, I had a couple of problems. The first was, I had no idea how to identify salmon in full form. My cooking skills are to the level of being able to identify a salmon filet by sight. But with the scales still on? Forget it. And beyond that, I had no idea how to buy it.  Do I buy the whole fish? What do I do with the head? Do I have to cut it open and de-bone it myself?

When I don’t know what to do, my general game plan is to observe and study.  To watch the people and systems before me and gain an understanding of how things work.  

What this amounted to when attempting to buy fish in the grocery store was me my pulling my basket back and forth in front of the fish counter, pretending to look at all of the different seafood options, while really eavesdropping on business transactions.* Once I overstayed my welcome at the counter area, because I wasn’t buying anything, I discreetly moved to a nearby shelf and pretended to peruse the lovely canned options available, all while staying in earshot of the counter.

I implemented this method for about twenty minutes, and still had no idea how to buy salmon. What I had deduced was the large fish to the left of the counter was indeed salmon. To my relief, I had witnessed it was possible to purchase a piece of salmon, rather than the entire fish. It even seemed that the person behind the counter would de-bone the fish for you. Win.

However, the same man who had ordered a piece of salmon fifteen minutes earlier was still standing there as the lady cleaned his fish.  And it looked like he was getting an entire fish. It seemed this salmon-ordering operation would take a long time, and I decided for today, it was currently too taxing for my growing hunger and still-emerging Spanish.  

I picked out a piece of frozen salmon (I had studied these extensively while observing the fish counter, so I had no trouble deciding which one to grab), and decided to settle for frozen fish and fresh vegetables for dinner. I could be content with the fact that I had at least gained some valuable information.

A few days later, I relayed this story to some American friends of mine, who have lived in Barcelona for several years. They told me I was being ridiculous, and the people at the fish counter were there to help me. All I had to do was ask or motion, and we’d be able to figure it out.

I decided my friends were correct. It was time for me to woman-up and buy some fresh salmon.

I marched into Condis Life, grocery list in hand.  I picked up my fruits and vegetables for the week, and then headed to the fish counter.  Phone out, Spanish Dictionary App at the ready, I pulled up the word ¨piece¨ in Spanish. I was prepared to order my piece of fish.

¨Quiero un pedazo de salmon, por favor,¨I enunciated to the man working behind the counter.

¨Do you know how the pricing works?¨ he replied in English.

My face fell. I wasn’t sure whether to be happy or disappointed.  I had geared up for a mumbly and confusing conversation in Spanish, in which I was hoping I would learn something, and now, he was speaking to me in English?  I quickly decided what was important was figuring out how to order fish. I could figure out the Spanish another time.

¨No, I don’t know how it works,¨ I said in English.  ¨Could you help me?¨

Later that night, I sat down to a meal of fresh Moroccan green beans, rice with onion and garlic, and salmon pan-fried with olive oil and lemon wedges.  I poured myself a glass of wine, and took a celebratory sip.  I had done it.  I had bought fresh fish and cooked it myself.  I had made a delicious meal in Barcelona.

As I took my first bite, I discovered there was one more thing I should’ve done before cooking the fish.

¨You didn’t take the bones out?¨ my roommate, Enrico, asked.

¨I thought the piece the man gave me was without bones!¨

¨They take out the major bones,¨ Enrico said, ¨But you still have to do some of it yourself.¨

Okay, so I still have a ways to go.

And this, I realized, is what my life is currently going to be like for a while. This is the beauty of transitions. I am going to be confused almost all of the time. I will study and observe, and then woman-up, and take action.  I will feel proud of myself for this, and then I’ll realize, I still have a lot to learn. 

But for now, I’ll take it. Even with the bones, the salmon is pretty good.

And with time, and patience, eventually, I’ll figure it out.


*Side note: This whole pulling a basket-thing is new for me.  Rather than grocery carts, here, we use baskets.  Like the ones I used to carry in the States, except bigger, more durable, and with wheels.  Similar to the ones I used in the States, these have one handle to hold with your arm if you are only getting a few things, but, they also have an additional large handle you can extend if you want to put the basket down on the ground and pull it behind you.  It’s sort of like luggage.  Or a tiny grocery cart.

On Learning the Language

I am not quite sure what I thought learning Spanish would be like.  Actually, that’s not true. On some level, I thought that once I heard a word once, I would remember it.  As in, I would learn one word at a time, and learn some language patterns, and then it would be fine.  I would be go to good.

Turns out, for me, learning Spanish is not like that at all. Here are some updates on my Spanish-learning journey:

  • After being confused as to why my yoga teacher kept referring to milk during yoga class, I learned the difference between la leche, milk, and derecha, right.
  • After an embarrassing and confusing ordering mix-up, I learned the difference between jamón, ham, and salmón, salmon.
  • After describing a woman as ¨wearing cats,¨ I learned the difference between gatos, cats, and gafas, glasses.

Like with any learning process, we learn more from our mistakes than from our triumphs.  However, I am noticing some patterns in my language acquisition.  I’m realizing it takes me about six or seven times of hearing the word, and being given the knowledge of what it is, before I am able to recognize it consistently, and about six or seven times of using it in context before I am able to authentically integrate it into my vocabulary and recall it at will.

When I discovered this, I spent about two days feeling extremely frustrated I couldn’t remember a word after I heard it or looked it up once.  Then, my mom gave me a good reality check.  She said, ¨Lauren, it takes human beings about 18 months before they start talking, even a little bit.  They spend all that time listening.  Calm down.¨  After going to another yoga class, and listening, I realized, she is right.  Calming down, is a good idea.

Honestly, the acquisition of new vocabulary words in English isn’t all that different for me, even at this stage in my academic English career.  For completely new or unknown vocabulary words, it takes me multiple times of using and hearing the word before it is integrated into my everyday vocabulary.  I am not sure why I thought learning a different language I didn’t know at all would be easier than learning a language I’ve studied extensively and use daily.

Now though, I’m committed to the process. I’m accepting the fact that it’s going to take me about 14 times before I consistently get it right (or almost-right, at any rate).

I am currently in week two of a Level A1 intensive Spanish class, and I have my third and final week of  summer class next week.  I’ll start up again in fall, and my goal is to pass the exam so I can enter Level A2. 

In the mean time, that’s going to mean a lot of studying, practicing, and messing up.  I’ll keep you posted.

Small Potatoes and Bank Issues

A few days before moving to Spain, I Skyped with one of my best friends from high school, who is now living in Bordeaux, France.  As we were talking about my upcoming adventure, she said, “I can’t believe you are getting ready to move- by yourself- to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language.”

I was like, “Wait, what? Didn’t you just do the same thing?  You’re in France right now!”  Then I remembered, she speaks fluent French.

Here’s some things that will improve when I learn Spanish:

  • When the lunch lady explains to me that there is sauce to go with the fried potatoes, and describes where the sauce is, I will put sauce on my potatoes, rather than salad dressing.
  • When I order a sandwich, I can communicate that I want it toasted, rather than to-go.
  • When the bank asks for my secret number, I will know exactly which PIN they mean, rather than locking myself out of my bank account.

Thankfully, the Head of Human Resources and the Business Manager at my school helped out with that last one. 

However, these events got me thinking, as a soon-to-be English Language Learner (ELL) Teacher, what are the small things my students will struggle with?  What things can I anticipate that they will need extra support in negotiating?  What are the things that are so much a part of everyday life that no one thinks about helping them with?

Ultimately though, I need to remember struggle is often productive.  I absolutely needed help navigating the bank, but once that was sorted out, the worst thing that happened to me today was I oogled over my friends’ toasted sandwiches while eating cold bread and ham wrapped in aluminum foil, and I had to abandon half of my fries.

Now I know.  I am learning.  And I am extra-motivated to figure out Spanish food phrases.

Moving into the year, I want to ask myself- is this a bank issue or a potatoes problem? I’m here to help my students with the bank issues, but for the small potatoes, I want to be there to cheer them on as they figure it out themselves.