indiantinker's blog

Phases of learning a foreign language as an immigrant


Reflections on the evolution of my language skills as an immigrant in Spain

Languages seem to affect the experience of immigrants (or expats, if you like to use this word). I have noticed that there are different phases to this. These phases depend on their level of integration and their perceived 'foreignness' in the host culture.

About three years ago, I moved to Spain. I did not speak any Spanish when I came. Today, I can speak some. The point of this article is to understand this idea of 'some' Spanish. If there are any levels where we can place this some. My idea is to draw a parallel between my language skills and my current social life.

Let us say that my Spanish is at a "I-can-get-by" level (Too bad that people mistake me for someone from Mexico) . I can perform most daily tasks like shopping and meeting friends for casual conversations. I can even manage a visit to the doctor (with some sign language and theatrics). But, I seemed to have reached a limit. I cannot make longer conversations. I get tired. My head is working on three languages at a time. The latent Hindi-English translation and the exhausting English to Spanish one. I can last 20-25 minutes in a conversation before English starts filling in.

This seems like a normal thing for many immigrants in Spain at my level of social life. I have English speaking friends and I am often not forced to speak Spanish unless I am stuck.

When I discussed my case with other friends the felt the same. Many of them have been here for more than 5 years. They can get by too. Flair of getting the language fades. But some do get better though. Few of them are great. So, I was curious, mon ami ? What are they doing? What are stages ?

I realized from several discussions, that for immigrants, there are three phases in which their acquired language grows :

  1. Utility : I can get by
  2. Expressive : I can attend family dinners, and talk about myself and my world-view
  3. Intellectual : I can create knowledge in the acquired language.


It starts with utility. You pick up the basics. Shopping seems easier. You can even bargain. You get your A1/A2. It is so much fun. You can talk to a whole new world. But, when things get real the challenge is too much. A friend invites you for Reyes Magos. People ask you questions on India. It is exhausting. But you tread it lightly. Soon the marginal utility has tanked. There is too much challenge and too little reward. You get stuck. It is like a boat oscillating in the waves.

I have passed this stage.


Next comes the expressive state. You have few good friends, probably a long term partner. They do prefer to speak in Spanish. You prefer to stick around. Every time they speak you learn things. You participate in the discussion and things just flow. You can talk to people and tell them things. Your listening skills are 75-80%. You get most of what is spoken. There may be a few kinks, but you can reply and talk about how you feel. You know a lot of the palabrotas (swear words), and a few 'sayings'. You can do professional work to some degree in the language or even give job interviews. You may not be able to read completely but can get the gist more or less. A 6 year old writes better than you. You can consume films maybe with some subtitle help.

I am just getting started on this level. Thanks to friends like Paco.


At this level, you can probably have a civil-debate in Spanish. Using the skills in the expressive tier, you can make friends in this tier. The more you talk about serious stuff, the more expressions you learn. A greater understanding of language creates a higher respect for the culture. You can read classics and even write things. You understand the local politics and history deeply. The quality of jokes you make is good and cracks people up. You can watch native movies, appreciate them, and even discuss it with friends.

I know just one friend like this. As native French speaker, he can give a lecture in Spanish on philosophical things. That is the final level in my opinion. It takes time and patience.

What could I have done differently

  1. Attend more Spanish-speaking-only hikes.
  2. Attend more language exchanges.
  3. Listen to my Spanish friends when they want me to speak Spanish to them.
  4. Complete the B1 course in Spanish.
  5. Watch more Spanish cinema (El Verdugo is a good one).
  6. Speak in Spanish, even if it is not correct. Most people are very tolerant and they would try to understand.
  7. Keep at it and stop taking the easy way out by staying silent.
  8. Find a buddy that corrects you like a child when you speak wrong. Mihir did that for me in Pune. This helped me pick-up Marathi quickly.
  9. Be more grateful to whoever helps.
  10. Do not try to spend too much effort copying the accent. Create an Indian Spanish accent.

Thanks for reading!