My Journey from “D” Spanish Student to Fluency

I decided to take Spanish in high school for two reasons: 1) it was mandatory to take a language, and 2) Spanish seemed easier than French or German. I never anticipated needing this skill later in life because, up until that point, English was all I ever needed. I assumed this trend would continue my entire life.

I entered Spanish class with the best of intentions but it turned out that I was horrible at it. I was immediately intimidated by English grammatical terms that sounded more like a foreign language to me: imperfect, subjunctive, gerund, preterit, conditional perfect, and conjugation. That last word was the worst. I spent countless hours of my young life conjugating Spanish verbs on worksheets, but I was still not able to have a conversation in Spanish with my bilingual friends.

Spanish became my least favorite subject but I still had to take two years of it to graduate. My grades hovered between the “D” and “F” range during most of that time. Fortunately for me, my Spanish teachers always managed to find some “extra credit” points that kept me keep from failing the class entirely. I suspect that these points were awarded to me for staying awake and breathing.

After high school, I went to the law enforcement academy in Florida to fulfill my lifelong dream of being a police officer. After the academy, I was hired by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office to work the road as a deputy sheriff.

Polk County is a large county of over 2000 square miles located between Orlando and Tampa. When I was hired, the county had a very large agricultural industry that attracted over 15,000 migrant workers during the citrus harvesting seasons. The vast majority of the migrants were from Mexico and only spoke Spanish. The county was also home to thousands of full time Spanish-speaking residents.

From the first day, I was assigned to work in an area with a large Mexican migrant community. I was frustrated with my inability to communicate on everything to traffic stops to investigations. As much as I hated Spanish when I took it in high school, I knew that I had to learn some basic phrases if I hoped to be successful at my new career.

Early Efforts

I bought a few “teach yourself Spanish” books at a local bookstore and I would study them in between calls for service. It was very slow at the beginning and I had a few setbacks.

One of the setbacks came when I bought a Spanish book that focused on Castilian Spanish from Spain. I should have known since most of the exercises mentioned Madrid or Barcelona. When I used many of the words and expressions from the book, I would get a blank stare back from the Mexicans. On one occasion, the person responded in Spanish, “I know you are speaking Spanish, but I don’t know a lot of the words you are using.”

I went back to the book store and found a book that specified “Latin American Spanish”. I was a little more successful this time, but it still was not a perfect fit for what I needed.

The Boost

My Spanish really took off once I started to use it in the field. Spanish speakers would politely correct both my grammar and my pronunciation. By speaking it daily, I quickly identified any gaps I had in the language and I would work hard to fill them.

Once I had learned a little knowledge of Spanish, the other deputies and officers would call me to assist them with every Spanish-speaking call for service. This would often happen several times in a single shift; it was as if I had enrolled in a “total immersion” Spanish program.

The Epiphany

Within two years, I was comfortable translating in most work-related situations; however, I did not have the fluency that I desired. That is until I started paying attention to patterns in the language.

When someone makes a mistake speaking a language, the native listener knows because it “sounds wrong” to them. When you learn a foreign language as an adult, it takes many years to develop your ear for the language. In the meantime, you have to rely on some other mechanism to be able to speak correctly; that is where patterns come in.

Languages follow logical patterns in their construction. Many, but not all, of these patterns are explained in the form of grammatical rules. Although grammar is what intimidated me about Spanish when I was in high school, I knew that I had to learn it to reach the next level.

Learning grammatical rules is quite boring but it is like learning the blue print for the language. By following the blueprint, you can create grammatically correct sentences without having an “ear” for Spanish and you can avoid sounding like a phrasebook. You will never be fluent if you rely solely on memorizing random phrases.

Focusing on the patterns of the language extended to vocabulary as well. Cognates allowed me to expand my vocabulary by close to 1000 words without having to learn each word individually. If you have not learned about cognates yet, you should make that a priority.

Techniques to Speak Faster in Conversations

As a law enforcement officer, I had to be able to speak Spanish at a conversational rate, even in very stressful situations. I did not have the luxury of being able to stop the situation while I looked something up or worked out my sentence on a piece of paper.

To accomplish this, I developed a system of plug-and-play phrases that allowed me to construct sentences in my head very quickly. All I had to do was plug the infinitive (unconjugated verb) into the phrase to make a grammatically correct sentence. I was finally able to keep up with complex conversations in Spanish.

An example of a plug-and-play phrase using the Spanish verb poder, as well as a look at some cognates, can be found here: How to Express Ability in Spanish (Video).

The Result

Spanish became an integral part of my professional life. In my 25-year career, I conducted over 3000 work-related translations, many of which were during criminal investigations ranging from domestic violence to homicide. Not one of my translations was ever successfully contested in a court proceeding. That isn’t bad for a former “D” Spanish student.

Law enforcement has a public relations side and my agency would frequently use me to fill that role when Spanish-speaking residents were involved. I did interviews with the press on Spanish language television; spoke as a guest at events hosted by the Mexican Consulate; attended multiple Spanish-speaking events as the agency’s representative, and translated numerous legal and informational documents for use in the Spanish-speaking community.

For the last 15+ years , I have been teaching the techniques that I described above to other law enforcement officers. The feedback has always been overwhelmingly positive and I am commonly asked why Spanish is not taught this way in school.

To make it easier for law enforcement officers to learn, I started an online course and opened it up to other agencies. Over 5000 officers from around North America have enrolled in the course and it is still in use today.

Many of the early online students requested a printed version of the techniques, which prompted me to write the Functional Police Spanish Book in 2010. The second edition of the book was released in 2014.

My Current Situation

In 2015, I hung up my gun belt and badge and moved to the Riviera Maya in Mexico. Now I spend my days enjoying retirement with my beautiful wife, going to the beach, working on my blog, and of course, speaking Spanish.

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About the Author

Q-Roo Paul
Paul Kurtzweil (Q-Roo Paul) is a former lieutenant from the Polk County Sheriff's Office in Florida. During his 25-year career, he received numerous commendations to include two of the agency's top honors: a Meritorious Service Medal and a Medal of Valor. In 2015, Paul retired and moved to Mexico with his wife. He now spends his days enjoying the Riviera Maya and blogging from the beach.

2 Comments on "My Journey from “D” Spanish Student to Fluency"

  1. I won’t be surprised if you start speaking Mayan…hahaha.

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