My Spanish is now better than my Chinese. Sorry, Mom.
I had many years of mandatory weekend Chinese school throughout my childhood as well as 6 weeks of intensive Mandarin language classes in Taiwan when I was in my 20s, but after just five weeks of intensive Spanish classes in Costa Rica (4 hours per day) I already felt more proficient in Spanish than Chinese. During our last week in Costa Rica, we had dinner with the host family who had welcomed us during our first three weeks there, before I’d had any Spanish lessons – and this time I could understand their stories. At the Charles Darwin Research Center in the Galapagos, I tried to read the Spanish text next to the exhibits and was delighted to find I could understand a lot of it. I’ve done google searches in Spanish as part of planning our itinerary and managed to coordinate logistics (e.g. communicating with Airbnb hosts, making restaurant reservations) by sending written Spanish messages in WhatsApp. (However, native speakers sometimes still look puzzled, and Corbin mocks me even though I think I’m saying the words correctly, so my pronunciation is still apparently not great. (Or perhaps it’s because the mask muffles my voice…))
For me, the characteristics that have made Spanish so much easier to learn:
- The alphabet is very similar to the English alphabet, so the vast majority of the sounds are the same, and there are no tones, clicks or other unfamiliar sounds
- It’s phonetic; the words pretty much sound like it’s written – so reading and writing reinforce speaking and listening;
- Many words are similar to their English counterparts, so new words are easier to remember and if I don’t know a word, I can often guess enough to convey what I want (this is true even though linguists consider English and Spanish to belong to different language families);
Apparently, my experience is typical. The U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute ranks languages by how difficult they are for English speakers to learn. Spanish is in Category 1 (Languages closely related to English), while Mandarin Chinese is Category 4 (Languages exceptionally difficult for native English speakers). Russian, which I took in high school but no longer remember, is category 3 (Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English). (Hm, maybe I’ll try to learn Indonesian (in Category 2) when we’re there (hopefully in a few months) so I can have a personal experience trying to learn languages in all four categories….?!)
Meanwhile, I’m extra-grateful for Yu Ming Charter School – the kids developed a strong foundation in Mandarin while their brains were still maximally plastic. (And I’m also a little extra regretful that I didn’t study just a little bit more for Sunday Chinese School as a kid!)