Frustration Learning Spanish in Santa Marta

The flight from Rio to Santa Marta was the cheapest I could find, and as a consequence, it entailed flying all day, from Rio, Brazil to Lima, Peru then to Bogota, Colombia and finally to Santa Marta, Colombia. I arrived early in the evening, with little sleep, and I soon realised that I had no Colombian Pesos on me.. so I took a taxi on the proviso we stopped at an ATM along the way.

When we did however, I had the same problem with my cards that I’d had in Brazil..none of them would work and I couldn’t get any money. I was baffled as to why my cards were not working in two countries, when the penny suddenly dropped and I remembered I needed to press ‘credit’ and not ‘savings’, to withdraw money. Thankfully that then worked in the machines that recognised my cards.

Begin to learn Spanish in the airport..
I began learning Spanish in the airport..

My first Spanish lesson was ok, although I didn’t understand much of what was said. I took the booklet home and wrote a list of all the words I didn’t understand in English, let alone Spanish. What native English speaker has heard of prepositional contractions, reflexive verbs and irregular conjugations, just to name a few?

I’ve been frustrated that I do not know English grammar since I took Spanish lessons in Spain three years ago, and thought perhaps it was the schools I attended that had omitted to teach such basic fundamentals. Having now spoken to a number of people, I’ve been reassured that no native English speaking country teaches English grammar. Why that happens, I do not know, but it does. And it makes it very difficult to learn another language.

Adding to the grammar issue, is my inquisitive mind, and my inability to accept things ‘just because’ – I want to know why something is that way, or how it works so I can learn it properly. Having a teacher who spoke only Spanish was not helpful, because I had too many questions to ask that she could not understand, and with too many unanswered questions, I was unable to actually learn anything.

I held back the tears on the first day, but on day two I couldn’t hold them in any longer. They were tears of frustration and shame, of annoyance and embarrassment, of feeling stupid and dumb. I also felt bad for the lovely teacher because I couldn’t force words out to answer her questions. The sounds simply did not come when I didn’t understand or know the answer.

I wanted to tell the teacher all this, and say that I was not usually this slow to comprehend, but that I needed to ask some basic questions so I could understand things, and then I would learn. She got her daughter, Alejandra, also a teacher, who spoke and understood English. I explained everything to her, through more tears that wouldn’t stop once they’d started, and we agreed she would be my new teacher. I even felt bad agreeing to that, because I felt I’d indirectly offended her mother by saying I preferred Alejandra to teach me, but I knew it was the right thing to do.

All this was circulating in my head while I was trying to control the tears and pay attention to what they were saying. Those who know me well know I don’t sleep much, and it’s things like this that keep me awake most of the time. People often ask what I do with my time because I don’t have a TV, and I cringe at the thought of adding useless, irrelevant televised crap to my already overloaded brain.

My lessons the next day were so much better – yes, there was a lot of English spoken, and I’ve had a few people tell me that’s not the way to learn a new language, but for my head, it worked wonders. I was able to ask all the questions that had been annoying me, and get answers I understood, and that seemed to make room in my head for actual learning – even with the brightly coloured Macaw squarking in the background of my lessons! The rate I learnt was probably slower than others who are just happy to repeat words and sentences without understanding why or how, but I know that when I learn something properly I always remember it, so that’s my preference.

It’s interesting that so many people want to tell you how you should do something, even when it pertains to something you’ve already been doing a certain way for years. Things like learning a language is new for me, yet I know how I learn in general, and it’s not by simple repetition. I’m a visual learner, and I need to understand the hows and whys of something, so having a teacher I could ask questions of was the best option.

This was my lunch one day.. it is the perfect size for me.
This was my lunch one day.. it is the perfect size for me

I also know how much food my body likes and runs best on, and it’s not three huge meals per day. It’s very small amounts of food, many times through the day. I know I should drink more water, but I also know how little I can survive on, which saves me from having to go to the toilet often as well. Shoes are another thing – I’m comfortable walking kilometers in my flip flops. When someone insisted I wear shoes because it was raining, I did so to appease them and instantly regretted it, because my feet rubbed all day and I got blisters. I know what works best for me and I’m learning I have to be more vocal in expressing it.

Overall my month of lessons went well, and I learnt some English grammar along with the Spanish. My vocabulary has improved, and although it needs to be expanded further, I am more comfortable knowing I can usually understand the idea of a conversation, that I can ask basic questions, and I can engage in simple back and forth exchanges.

It’s amusing that I can often understand a conversation going on around me without actually understanding many of the words. I read a lot from body language and facial expressions, tone and gestures. Occasionally I’d interject a comment and everyone seemed amazed that I understood enough to contribute. Then they’d ask me a question and I’d be under the pump to answer and my brain would go blank.. It’s one thing to observe and guess the content, and quite another to understand the conversation in order to answer correctly.

A nice sunset over the not so nice beach in Santa Marta!
A nice sunset over the not so nice beach in Santa Marta!


  1. Wow, it surprises me that you didn’t learn English Grammar in school! In my country we have those (political) discussions about children of migrants with a mother tongue other than German. Some political leaders want to force whole families to speak German all the time even at home, thinking that this gets children learn German faster. But the academic discourse is a different one: Children have to know their own language, speak it, understand it, know the grammer to be able to learn another language in a faster and better way.

    This was important for me too, when learning languages. Some people tell me that Spanish is a difficult language. But I don’t think so. If a language is difficult for one always depends on your mother tongue. Mine is German which has a complex grammar, much more difficult than the English one for example. But it’s more similar to Spanish grammar than to English one and I think that’s one of different reasons why my Spanish is better than my English.

    You’re doing well in Spanish and I think if you go on learning it as you think you should and feel good doing it (you shouldn’t be forced to learn it this or that way! That’s another reason why I think my English is worse than my Spanish, they forced me to learn it by studying words), you’ll soon speak like this brightly coloured Macaw 😉

    1. Thanks Hanna! Your words are encouraging, and meeting other people who speak multiple languages is always motivating!!

      I don’t know why we don’t get taught grammar, but it seems so widespread it may account somewhat for native English speakers being more reluctact to learn another language..

      I’ve spent three years wondering if it was true for all native English speakers, and finally a Welsh woman, who is an English teacher, confirmed it is correct. She doesn’t know why either, but to become an English teacher she had to learn the grammar herself! And now I hope she will teach her students the same 🙂

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