Here's How I Finally Learned Spanish Outside of a High School Classroom



Spain is one of those places that I don’t think can ever bore me. I visited once in 2013. I visited again in 2015. Then in 2016, I found myself in Spain 7 times during my semester abroad… in France. It was only halfway through my semester in France when I realized that I might have chosen the wrong place – *shrug*. I am thankful for all experiences, but when Apple Languages reached out to the Shut Up and Go team about us taking language classes, you already know I had to choose to go back to Spain to make up for the study abroad experience I always wanted to have. Luckily, I was given the option to go anywhere in the country. Naturally, I wanted to revisit the places I had already fallen in love with and fallen in love in. My heart raced everytime the laptop’s cursor hovered over Barcelona or Mallorca. I think this was the point in my life where I realized I had a bit of an obsession. So, I quickly chose another region of Spain I’d never been to but have heard so much about, Andalucía. A few emails and a few weeks later, I found myself on a flight from London to Málaga.

How did my first day go?

Well, I missed the orientation meeting for new students. Let’s just say that the travel gods were really trying to test me that week. Before leaving from London, I didn’t realize that the weekend I was flying to Málaga was a holiday weekend. That said, every single flight was over £100. I know, I sound like a total cheap-o right now, but let’s keep it real – I’m used to paying less than £50 for flights within Western Europe.

After going on incognito mode and doing some intense cross-checking, I finally found an affordable and convenient flight. This flight was set to land around 8:00 pm, which would give me exactly one hour (more than enough time, right?) to make it to the orientation. Of course, when the day comes, the flight is delayed about 30 mins. By the time I go through immigration and exit the airport, it’s already 9:30 pm – ugh! After fighting with my massive luggage on a metro for a bit, I finally arrived at Malaca Instituto at 11:00 pm.

2 hours late… good job, Nasir.

When I stepped onto the property, the British cold and rush left my body, and they were quickly replaced by Spanish warmth and relaxation. To the left of me, there was a swimming pool.  To the right, there was a sandpaper-colored building, with a yellow tint, to confirm that I was officially in a tropical place… well, as “tropical” as Europe can get.

“Wait, do people actually swim in October here?” I asked myself. I had so many questions, but my real concern was how awkward it would be when I roll up to classes without knowing anyone in the morning.

Once again… good job, Nasir.

Okay, here’s how my official first day went.

The next morning came, and I made my way to the cafeteria. I’m not going to lie, most people seemed to already have acquaintances, so I was rather nervous about making friends. Remember, I haven’t been in a social situation like this since my freshman year in my university’s cafeteria. Did I forget how to make friends?

I grabbed my jamón y queso on a baguette and a café con leche.

I am usually one to go out of my way to socialize – I truly am – but I was just so darn exhausted from a day of traveling, so I sat down alone and hoped for the best.

A few moments later, someone smiled at me! This person came over, gestured at the seat and said, “¿Puedo sentar aquí?” With a full smile and a half of a baguette in my mouth, I said, “Por supuesto! Have a seat.” His Spanish had a deep vibrato and a stumbling of the “r”s, I assumed that he came from a German-speaking country. Soon after, he called his other friend over to join us for breakfast. Very quickly, we discovered that we were a group of three:

Me – 22, from The States

Karl – 49, from Germany

Luisa – 74, from Japan

Just from my breakfast experience with people from all over the world and of all ages, I knew that I already liked this school.

I had been studying Spanish since the 7th grade, back in Connecticut. We can partially blame The Cheetah Girls prancing around Spain as one of my main reasons for learning the language. So, after 9 years of studying Spanish and practising it frequently, I thought I was a pro.

Oh, boy – I was wrong.

After taking my placement exam for my courses, I realized that there’s a huge difference between speaking a language and actually understanding the grammar, syntax, and other structures. Mr. Sanchez, my high school Spanish teacher from Galicía, always told me “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.”

Sorry Mr. Sanchez, but I think I lost it a bit.

My first day of class was refreshing. There were only 6 of us in the classroom. Germany, Ukraine, Denmark, Mauritius, the USA, and the UK were all present. My classmates ranged from older Spanish teachers who wanted a language refresher course, all the way to some who just moved to Spain, in search of finding their Spanish lovers and a new life.

I definitely related (and still relate) to the latter.

Our first hour of class was a grammar course, taught entirely in Spanish.  I remember thinking in high school, “When will I ever use the pluscuamperfecto de subjuntivo again?” Well, this was the moment.

When the second course came around, it was conversation-based. Finally, it was my time to shine. Our professor pulled out a few flashcards and asked us to describe the app that was listed on our flash card. Despite not necessarily moving to Spain to find an international lover, my app was Tinder. I think the universe was trying to tell me something.

In Spanish, I described it as “an app where you go to find people to go on dates and to potentially find a significant other.” Although my professor told me that my explanation in Spanish was great, she clarified that Tinder here might be a tad bit different than Tinder in the USA. The app in Spain tends to have the reputation of being a place to find hookups. My cheeks immediately began to blush after I told my classmates that I adore Tinder… now I know why they were giggling at me; their first impression of me was probably that I was a super naughty guy. Hey, to each their own.

I love break time.

Between the last two one-hour slots of classes, we had a nice little break! I quickly ran to my room, which was basically a spacious apartment in a hotel that was connected to the institute… fancy!  I tapped the clear button on my kettle and prepared for my hybrid of tea-time and a siesta. With my bright green cup and my homework in hand, I made my way onto my balcony.

Homework on the balcony, anyone?

I must admit that I didn’t get much homework done on my first day, because I was too shocked by a) having a balcony and b) having a view of endless mountains. It might be a dumb question, but how do mountains stack on top of one another? Trying not to overthink it, I blew the rim of my cup and just took in the view.

The last two class periods went by super quickly. Since the professors who teach the courses change and rotate, I got to meet someone new during each class slot. I began to notice a theme between the professors: they all found super innovative ways to teach vocabulary and writing. Every single class was applicable to experiences in life. Whether discussing immigration policies, Tinder, or renting an apartment, each lesson had a real-world aspect to it. After a week, I was ready to go to a hardware store to order supplies to build a roof for my new home in Spain.

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Málaga, i bloom just for you. 🌸

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Splurging on Excursions

I only had four hours of courses each day from 8:30 am – 12:30 pm. That means, that I had a ton of free time to practice my language with the locals – maybe too much free time for my own good, but I’ll share all the juicy details in another article!

That said, the institute had at least 2-3 activities planned for us a day. Whether it was a flamenco show, paella cooking lessons, or trips into the city, there was always something to do. Luckily, Málaga is one of those places where you can easily find yourself getting lost. So, every day I’d head into town with the group, and I’d explore the city’s super tiny streets. It felt as if on every single street, the sunrays would beat down on my forehead, I’d look up and the sun would blind me a bit. But when I would finally raise my hand to block the sun, a historic monument would be in my view.

The word ‘magical’ doesn’t do this city justice.

On one of the last nights of the week, we took a wine tour. I had my first taste of a “true” wine from Málaga at an older tavern with a chill, rustic vibe. It only took me one sip to realize that people here love their vino dulce. In Spanish, the older server explained that their local wine is sort of a digestive wine with a complex flavor – despite speaking in another language, I could sense the pride in his voice. If you like the taste of sweet grapes and thick honey, then this wine is for you! To continue the night, we went to another well-known place in the area, to have some tapas and more wine. Honestly, I was super nervous… I’m not a fan of sweet wine at all, so I had little-to-no expectations for the next place.

I was wrong – Los Patios de Beatas was like nothing I’ve experienced. It mixed fine dining, amazing wine, a humble atmosphere, and cute waiters all into one place. I didn’t even think that was possible! And the best part? I didn’t have to drink sweet wine! I’m not a wine expert, but I told the waiter that I’m a fan of dry, white wines. They didn’t let me down. After each sip of wine and each bite of my chicken croqueta, I knew that Spain was the place for me. Next, they brought over a vino tinto, which was soon followed by a cava. I don’t know who told the owner, but I’m a sucker for bubbly wines. Using my newly-revamped vocab, I explained to him that I’m obsessed with Catalyuña’s gastronomic contributions to Spanish culture (look at me using big words in Spanish). This comment sparked him to introduce me to some of Andalucía’s finest dishes. Let’s just say that this place doesn’t play around when it comes to food and wine.


Just one more glass…

I began to realize that Málaga was giving my soul exactly what it needed. After being on the road for a month, every moment went by quickly and I didn’t have time to process that I was actually living in Europe, learning and living life in another language.

When there’s something new every day, you don’t necessarily always appreciate your experiences, because so many are happening all at once. It wasn’t until I’d walk to the local pastry shop and order una empanada con atún y huevo from the same smiling woman who would call me el americano OR when I’d go to the supermarket and the local teenage boy would ask me if I wanted una bolsa with my groceries, after sharing how his high school dramas with me… those were the moments that were humbling. Those were the connections that emphasized how important language-learning is, especially when you have Málaga as your home and magaleños as your teachers.

I’m super content with my experience. Although the actual schooling experience was a riot (in the best sense of the word), there was such an advantage of studying in a low-key Spanish city… I actually had the opportunity to practice my Spanish. Sure, I love Madrid and Barcelona, but they’re places where the locals are so used to dealing with English speakers that they’ll quickly respond in English rather than letting your process your thoughts in Spanish. These people exist in Málaga, but the locals are far more interested and honored that you want to learn their language.

Although my time in my newly-found home is over, we all know that the good experiences don’t fade from our memories.



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