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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Wisconsin chapter.

How hard is it to become fluent in another language?

Growing up in a household that prioritized a global education through traveling, experiencing new cultures and immersion in different languages made it easy to feel like I had a handle on the Spanish language, and I thought I was at least an intermediate Spanish-speaker. But as I entered college and language classes became less of a necessity, I realized I had taken the language learning tools from high school for granted. I found fewer opportunities to learn not only the language, but also the culture. This was something I really wanted to do since I love to travel, and because Spanish is a common language spoken in the United States that’s growing in popularity.

I decided I could easily practice my Spanish on my own time and retain my fluency and comprehension even without the traditional classroom setting. But I still thought I was “too good” for language learning apps like Duolingo or Rosetta Stone, since they are aimed at beginners and I wanted to challenge myself. My solution was to buy popular books in Spanish. Having done fairly well with this task in high school, I thought this would be a great way to improve my Spanish skills and see how the language was used in a more informal and conversational setting.

My book of choice was Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which admittedly I have read in English. But in my defense, I really enjoyed this book on its own and wanted my first dive into reading in another language to be fun. Also, reading a book that I was familiar with in English would help me compare my comprehension skills without having to constantly be looking up plot summaries to ensure I was following the correct line of reasoning.

My journey through Normal People: Spanish version was interesting and insightful. As I mentioned, I went into it pretty confidently, but I was definitely humbled at times. For the most part I was able to follow along and understand what the characters were doing, but I would be lying if I said it was a breeze. Normally, I can read at quite a fast pace, so something that annoyed me heavily while reading in another language was how slow I was. I wanted to cruise through the book, but when you’re not reading in your first language it takes a lot more focus to make sure you’re not missing key details or getting caught up in tenses and grammatical structures. I also focused on how things were phrased, since the grammar structures in actual Spanish literature are more difficult than the high school readings I was used to. While I could eventually figure out what the author was trying to convey, I definitely relied on context clues and previous knowledge of Normal People to get me through. 

Vocabulary-wise I succeeded more than I thought I would. Honestly, I assumed this would be the section I struggled the most with, since in high school our vocabulary units were very specific and educational—not really the words or phrases native Spanish speakers might use daily. But cognates were very helpful in gaining a grasp on the language and the book itself.

Probably the main pitfall of my experiment was that I wasn’t speaking Spanish—just reading it. This would be fine if my speaking skills were pretty good, but in my opinion they’re not. I sound American (which isn’t the worst problem, but does make you stick out as a tourist) and I’m not very fast. It would’ve been helpful to have read the book with someone else; that way we could have conversations about the book in Spanish. Speaking and reading Spanish are two very different skills and I think if I really want to enhance my fluency, I need to speak the language more, even if it is just with friends. 

Besides this missed opportunity, I would say I definitely improved my Spanish. I learned a lot about conversational Spanish as well as how the grammatical structures, phrases and tenses are used together outside of the classroom. I know I’ll continue trying to read in Spanish, and I will seek out more opportunities to help my speaking and language skills overall.

If you want to improve your language skills, whether it’s Spanish or not, I highly recommend checking out a book in that language. It may seem like a daunting task to read a whole novel in another language, but it truly is a unique, eye-opening experience that will certainly enhance your language skills. Not only do you get to strengthen your comprehension abilities, but you also get to see how language works to describe the lives of characters and the culture associated with the language. I’d argue this is even the most important part, as language and culture can bring us all together, making our world more empathetic towards each other. Language is not just a helpful travel tool, it’s a life skill which will enrich our relationships at home and abroad.

Paige Stevenson

Wisconsin '26

Hi, I’m Paige Stevenson, a University of Wisconsin-Madison studying journalism and mass communications, as well as mathematics. I love writing about fashion, art, music, as well as global issues that affect women and the LGBTQ community. Outside of writing my hobbies include running, painting, reading. In the future I would like to pursue investigative and editorial journalism, as well as try being a fashion editor or creative director.