How I Became Bilingual and You Can Too

Three years ago, I didn’t know more than a few words in another language. Today, I speak two.

Back in 2015, I finally made the decision to study at university. There was just one big problem: I still had no idea what I wanted to study. Frustrated with myself, I decided to put it off for a year and instead take a soul-searching trip to Peru.

It was my first time ever leaving my own country, and I took a jump straight into the deep-end — Australia and Peru couldn’t be more different. Armed with a phrasebook and a dream, I spent three months waddling around the South American nation, trying my best to communicate with hand signals and my five-word Spanish vocabulary. By the time I got back home, my Spanish was still just as bad, but I now knew exactly what I wanted to study.

Thus began my language learning journey.

I enrolled in a Spanish major at a local university, resolving to immerse myself in the language as much as was possible in Melbourne. The classes started out incredibly basic, introducing new concepts one at a time and only moving on to the next after we’d mastered them. To speed things up, I started watching Spanish-language TV and film in my free time and tried just about every online language learning resource you could imagine, from Duolingo to the plethora of bloggers who promise to share the secret to becoming fluent in a month for the low price of $50.

The common language-learning snake oil salesman. / Image: Wikimedia Commons

While I learned my lesson from my first experience with one of those ‘miracle’ peddlers, the rest of my efforts paid off with a nice 86/100 mark in my first semester. Still, my actual practical language skills were virtually non-existent; I knew how to make some sentences in the present tense with a very limited vocabulary, that’s about it. It felt like I knew next to nothing; anyone who’s learned a language or who’s currently learning knows what I’m talking about.

Around the same time, I had my first experience trying to use Spanish practically when ordering food at a Latin American restaurant. I mentally prepared myself for the moment, and managed to get my first phrase off without a hitch. Then, the waiter replied in Spanish. All I could do in response was look at him, wide-eyed, as he realised that he’d need to swap to English. I already felt dumb, and that interaction made me feel even dumber. For a short time, I seriously considered changing majors, trying to give myself just about every excuse possible to give up: you’re never going to use Spanish anyway, no one here speaks it; it’s too hard; Everyone speaks English anyway, etc, etc.

At that point, however, my path was already set in stone. You see, learning a language is about a lot more than just the language itself: there’s also an entire new world of culture that it opens up. In my case, that culture had already sucked me in, even if I wasn’t quite aware of it yet. I’d been watching things in Spanish, trudging my way through the news in Spanish, trying more and more Iberoamerican food, and I’d even picked up a second major, History, intending to take classes on Latin American history. Giving up on my language studies would have meant giving up on my new, budding obsession. That wasn’t going to happen.

Let’s fast forward a lot.

It’s mid-2018, my third and final year of my degree. I’ve just finished Spanish 5, marking two and a half years of formal university study. At this point, we’ve covered basically every facet of Spanish grammar, our further development simply being a matter of putting our knowledge into practice. Oh, and that budding obsession? It had become a complete one.

Buenos Aires, Argentina. / Image: Wikimedia Commons

It was, of course, only logical that I’d take my last semester as an exchange student in a Spanish-speaking country. I thought long and hard about my destination, but in the end, the interest that I’d developed in Argentine cinema since immersing myself in Spanish-language culture led me to choose Buenos Aires, the location of most of my favourite movies.

Funnily enough, the city felt like home very quickly. Somehow, the view I’d internalised just from watching media set here wasn’t too far away from how things really were. Of course, though, the language itself was another matter.


My first couple of months in Argentina were a huge wake up call: my language learning journey wasn’t done yet, not even close. I still didn’t think in Spanish, and while I had the tools I needed, at least in theory, I had little clue how to put them to practice, agonisingly stuttering my way through simple sentences as I translated in my head. And god, they all talked so fast and with so much slang they never taught us in class and WHAT THE HELL IS A ‘BOLUDO’ AND WHY AM I ALWAYS BEING CALLED ONE!?

Boludo turned out to mean ‘idiot’ or ‘dumbass’, and I quickly learned that it’s a joking, affectionate way to refer to a friend, but that it could also be a mean-spirited insult. I choose to believe they were using the first meaning, though I certainly did feel like a complete and utter boludo. All those years of study and intense interest in what this new world had to offer me, and I was floundering. I even started trying to avoid situations where I’d need to speak Spanish. Of course, being in Argentina, that didn’t really work out.

Me, circa July 2018. / Image: Wikimedia Commons

Then I noticed that I was replying faster, often without needing to think. That some of my thoughts were in Spanish. That I was pulling constructions I’d never used before out of nowhere. That everyone was always complimenting my Spanish. My perfectionism had blinded me to just how rapidly my skills were improving. Once everyone else started noticing, I couldn’t deny it anymore.

That was four months ago.

Today, I finished the final class in my degree — one taught entirely in Spanish. I can write and read nearly perfectly and can have an in-depth conversation on basically any topic, and the everyday life that just a few months ago was torture is now a complete breeze. Sure, sometimes I make mistakes or lack specific vocabulary, but I can always find a way to get what I want to communicate across.

As for my cultural interests? Well, engaging with Spanish-language culture in the language itself is an entirely different experience than being limited to the tiny selection of it that’s available in English. It really is a whole new world, one that is now a huge part of my life.

What I learned… Apart from a language.

Learning a language takes lots of time and effort, but it’s also one of the most worthwhile things you will ever do. The biggest challenge is keeping the faith and staying consistent. Take your time, smell the metaphorical roses by taking advantage of the new world that a different language offers you, and never get discouraged. Regardless of how you choose to learn, whether it’s in formal or informal classes, immersion, or self-directed study, you’re always getting better — even if you don’t realise it.

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