rolling with the "r"s

The Social Practice of Learning Conversational Spanish


I've always had a distant relationship to Spanish. In middle school, my friends and I all decided to take French, just like my older sister had and my younger siblings would. I somehow found myself in a bubble at home and among my friends where none of us knew Spanish. The only penetration into that bubble was in the form of a pop cultural reference. I never had anything against Spanish, I just was never found myself needing to use it or even getting exposed to it.

That changed in 2017 when Despacito topped the charts and my girlfriend went to Middlebury College for a Spanish immersion program for the summer. I didn't make any efforts to learn the language, but I did begin to notice how much the language meant to people around me, especially my girlfriend. Her interest in learning the language further partly inspired her to volunteer for a year in Honduras for NPH starting in 2018.

In March of 2018, I will be visiting her for a week. In addition to getting a passport and booking a flight, I wanted to make learning Spanish part of my preparation for the trip. To that end, I dove into the social practice of learning Spanish.

Social Practice

One way to conceptualize learning Spanish would be through the journey of the individual, engaging with the material and gaining skills with shifting motivations. In the theory of social practice, the object of focus is not the individual but rather the practice. As Elizabeth Shove outlines in Dynamics of Social Practice, practices are, "practices are defined by interdependent relations between materials, competences and meanings." (Shove, 24).

Diagram representing how a social practice occurs when its elements are linked (Shove, 25).

By each of these three elements, she means

  • Materials as, "objects, infrastructures, tools, hardware and the body itself" (Shove, 23)
  • Competences as, "multiple forms of understanding and practical knowledgeability" (Shove, 23)
  • Meaning as, "the social and symbolic significance of participation at any one moment" (Shove, 24)

Thus, the social practice of learning Spanish is defined elementally by the materials, competences, and meanings that are linked. It is worth noting that the social practice of communicating through the Spanish language is closely related to the practice of learning Spanish, often requiring an individual in the practice of the latter to practice the former and sometimes vice versa. Because of this relationship between the two practices, as time has passed and the language has spread geographically, the materials, competences, and meanings associated with the practice of have changed with the creation of new dialects, making the social practice of learning Spanish an expanding and evolving practice.

Map of Spanish speaking world. Deepest red represents official language. Red represents language is spoken by over 1 million. Lightest red represents 20,000+ Active learning of Spanish. (Gabbykawaii07, 2019).

Elements of the Practice

Social practices are situated. In 2019 in the United States, learning conversational Spanish is a practice comprised of different materials, competences, and meanings than in other time-spaces. Thus, while a discussion of the social practice in which I engaged is not driven by my participation, the social practice in which I engaged is specifically defined by a set of materials, competences, and meanings that are not necessarily shared by others. Let's explore the elements that comprised the social practice in which I participated:


The first and most important material for consideration is the Spanish language. Language is difficult to discuss as a material because it is intangible and non-physical. Language is a system of communication comprised of words that contain a duality as they are expressed aurally through noises and visually through systems of symbols. In written Spanish, this means the material is the symbols that represent all of the letters and accents that comprise words and the symbols used to punctuate. Knowledge of how to form a written sentence and assemble a word are competences. In aural Spanish, the material is the noises that represent the words and expressions that are in the Spanish language. Similar to written language, knowledge of how to make or understand those noises are competences.

The space where exposure to the language can manifest in the social practice can, depending upon the context of the social practice, be a material. For those who are raised in households in which Spanish is the spoken language, the social practice of learning Spanish emerges from exposure to others practicing the social practice of speaking Spanish. In this context, there is not necessarily a material used to generate the language, (unless you consider other people material). In 2019 in the United States, a reliable form of exposure to the language is through a technological application. One such application is Duolingo, a smartphone app designed to facilitate the process of learning Spanish.

Duolingo, installed on my Smartphone, defies the existing categorization to which I have committed and remains an accessible outcast.

I downloaded Duolingo from the Google Play Store and installed it on my smartphone, which is itself another material associated with this social practice. Duolingo is arguably a system of materials, each of which present information and can be tapped to make something happen. Duolingo's primary material comes in the form of lessons related to a given category of information, such as travel, phrases, food, and family. In the lesson, Duolingo presents pages of tasks, typically in the form of a prompt and a phrase to be translated in some manner.

While my intention was to use Duolingo as the only digital material to expose me to Spanish as part of a specific social practice, I found myself engaging in a larger social practice that involved materials such as and Google translate. The former of these materials is essentially an interactive dictionary, the latter is an internet application that translates full phrases. To engage with these materials required specific competences that I recalled, such as an understanding of the limitations of Google translate from my experience of it learning French, or developed, such as learning to conjugate verbs.

Learning a language is not just exposure to the material - it is also generating it and expressing oneself with it. With Spanish speakers in my life, I had conversations in Spanish to learn how to speak the language. In this context, those people are materials of the social practice.

Assorted pages from Duolingo. Left to right: (1) the home screen which organizes lessons in terms of categories, giving an example of how initiating a level looks (2) a page of achievements related to performance (3) a load screen before a lesson begins (4) an example of a lesson task (5) an example of an advertisement shown at the end of a lesson


The meanings of words, the pronunciations of the words, syntax, and the appropriateness of certain words in certain contexts are all competencies of the social practice of communicating through the Spanish language. The social practice of learning Spanish is comprised of competencies related to, essentially, learning how to learn a language. Competences required to learn a language are an understanding of what the symbols and noises that make up words mean or represent, an understanding of what is part of the language and what is not, and an ability to discern the nuances of the language presented.

Over time, an understanding of the meanings of words is an important competence in order to learn further. For example, in order to understand how verbs function in a sentence and are conjugated, or how a particular verb might be used to begin a sentence to express an imperative, learning the meaning of the verb is necessary. Because the practice of learning Spanish is typically motivated by the goal of being able to communicate using the language (which will be discussed further in the "meanings" section), the competences associated with speaking Spanish come to be elemental to the practice of learning Spanish.

Because information related to how to learn a language is often communicated in another language, the practice of learning Spanish is closely tied to the practice of speaking and/or reading another language, which in this case is English. The competences required to communicate and understand the English language, which include understanding the meanings of the symbols and noises that comprise the words of the language and the meanings of those words, are elemental to the practice of learning Spanish. Within Duolingo, on, and through Google Translate, information on how to use the interface is presented in the English language. When asking people I knew about how to say something in Spanish, the language used to achieve a mutual intelligibility was English.

Within this specific social practice of learning Spanish, an understanding of how to navigate Duolingo is necessary. Having an understanding that lessons are available based on categories, that more categories become available with continued use, that the tasks of each lesson are one of several type, and that at the end of each lesson and advertisement will appear which, if you wait long enough, will allow you to exit. There are several different functionalities to the app that can be avoided, such as the achievements, for which having an understanding would comprise the social practice of using Duolingo fully but not necessarily the social practice of learning Spanish.

An ad appears after each lesson. The competence of knowing how to navigate this screen is seemingly unrelated to the practice of learning Spanish, but is necessary for this specific social practice.

Interacting with requires an understanding of the context of the word sought. A lot of information is presented on, making it easy to select the wrong word. In addition, some phrases that I searched, such as, "to live" in order to express, "I live in the US," provided me with a phrase that I learned when talking with my friends is too formal and unused. In regards to Google Translate, the site does not have the ability to discern the context of phrases entered and therefore might give a poor translation. A knowledge of this limitation is an important competence for the social practice.

A fictionalized version of a learning moment

One competence that I personally had difficulty gaining is how to pronounce certain words. Having taken French in middle school and high school, I tend to read new words the way I would have in French class - not pronouncing the "s" at the end of a word, forming my "o"s with a deep round tone, and treating my "r"s like I do in English. The understanding that just because it's a new language doesn't mean a French accent is appropriate is necessary for this social practice.


When considering the meanings of a social practice, one asks themselves what the significance is of participating in the practice at the social and symbolic level. As I rode the train and learned Spanish on my phone through Duolingo, I considered what it might look like to others who saw me in the practice of learning Spanish, and how doing it in public suggests an interest in understanding those who speak the language. In the larger national context, where the president is advocating for a wall to be built between the US and Mexico, which is symbolic of a fear of the Spanish-speaking world, participating in the social practice of learning Spanish, especially in public, felt like an act of political resistance.

What initially motivated me to participate in the social practice was to be able to communicate with and understand those who speak the language, particularly those I will be visiting in Honduras. I feel that this is the meaning that most people associate with the social practice of learning a language, though the social significance of being able to understand and to be understood varies across cultures. I found that there was an additional social significance to not only understand those who I will meet in Honduras, but to understand my friend Stef who natively speaks Spanish, and what it means to understand the world through the lens of the Spanish language.

I found that the significance of participating was that it allowed my friends who had learned Spanish at some point in their lives to connect in ways that they had not connected before. I became a pupil, my ability to roll my "r"s become the object of humor, and it bred new conversations about culture and experience that had not occurred among these individuals before. I felt an additional significance in participating in the practice as it meant I could connect to my girlfriend around an interest that she has had for years.

Tangential Practices

Under the conceptual framework of social practice, practices are comprised of materials, competences, and meanings. Because those materials, competences, and meanings are not necessarily unique to a given social practice, it begs Shove to ask, "do elements exist in several practices at once?" (Shove, 22). Of course, as I stand on the train and practice my Spanish on Duolingo, my phone is an element of the social practice of learning Spanish, riding public transportation, and being an anti-social member of the train-car. Social practices emerge when the materials, competences, and meanings are linked, but those elements can form several links at the same time.

Similarly, because the elements of the social practice of learning Spanish help to comprise other social practices, there are certain practices in which those who participate in learning Spanish are likely to also participate. I have mentioned that the practices of communicating using the Spanish language is typically related due to overlapping materials, competences, and meanings. In addition, the social practice of speaking and understanding English contains elements that are also elemental to the practice of learning Spanish.

In my experience participating in the social practice of learning Spanish, I found that the social practice of using technology in the presence of other people was tangential. Because the material and competencies related to the social practice of learning Spanish are the breadth of the Spanish language, information to which is available at any moment through a smartphone with access to the internet, checking phrases and using applications is part of the practice. The personal experience of the social practice of using a smartphone is also, therefore, tangential, as the applications related to the practice of learning Spanish take up space on the home page of the phone, the screens used to learn Spanish become places to visit in relation to other virtual spaces experienced through the phone, and the person using the phone postures themselves in the same way, with a craned neck and a tucked arm.

One final social practice that is tangential, and is likely obvious, is the social practice of talking about Spanish and learning Spanish. the materials of this practice are typically memories or pieces of information, the competences are understanding what experiences related to learning Spanish are unique, relatable, or worth sharing, and the meanings are the value of relating to other people and finding a common interest.

Mi Experiencia

On January 13, 2019, I set to participate in the social practice of learning Spanish. My plan was to use Duolingo to receive regular exposure and lessons, use and Google Translate to find ways to say things I would want to say in conversation, and try to use Spanish around my friends and on calls with my girlfriend to get feedback on how much I've learned and to learn how to speak in Spanish in a conversation. I quickly found it was a lot more difficult than learning French in school.


Social practices tend to begin by acquiring materials to participate. For learning a language, in which the language is the main material, what is needed to onboard is a material through which to learn the language. In 2019, the easiest way to access such a material is through the internet and applications. As I already have a smartphone with internet access, I had the materials of and Google Translate with a quick internet search and downloaded Duolingo from the Google Play Store. While use of and Google Translate is intuitive and requires no account, Duolingo has a setup process which is designed to make it easy for people to start learning Spanish.

The set-up process for Duolingo is quick, easy, and painless

The other "material" to acquire is the people with whom I want to have conversations in Spanish. Unlike the other materials with which I could onboard whenever I wanted, I found it difficult to ask my friends to have conversations in Spanish and I found it difficult to get in touch with my girlfriend in Honduras to have a call. When I took French in school, I had a classroom of other students who were also learning the language with whom I could practice every day of the week. With no structure to rely upon and lacking the confidence to ask to regularly schedule time to have conversations in Spanish which would be done as favor, I had to hope that it would come up organically.

There are several ways to get around the difficulty I experienced onboarding to this part of the practice. There are online courses where I could be matched with a conversation partner and classes I could take in person at a community college. Onboarding by one of these methods would require a payment, but be easier because a schedule would be established, leaving to me the easy responsibility of showing up. Another way to onboard would be to immerse myself in a community in which Spanish is the main language. While this method would be effective, it would be very disruptive to the rest of my life.

I suppose in order to allow individuals to onboard to the social practice of learning Spanish through conversation at their own convenience, there is an opportunity for home systems such as Amazon Alexa or Google Home to provide language learning software in their AI. This would allow people to learn how to conduct a conversation without having to coordinate around the schedule of another individual. Because language has so much cultural value, learning a language through an AI might be a categorically different social practice than learning with people who can pick up on the nuances of pronunciation and the context of certain words.

It seems a bit silly to consider how we might redesign the onboarding experience of learning a language, given that the most common way to onboard is to be born into a household that speaks the language and learn through exposure. There is a lot of culture associated with learning a language that can't be abstracted to a different form. To participate in the social practice of learning Spanish through an app such as Duolingo is to know that you are experiencing a cheapened version of the language, that you are missing the nuance of the terms, and to feel somewhat fraudulent about eventually calling yourself a Spanish speaker at the end of your academic practice.

To design to make it easier for an individual to onboard into this practice in an authentic way is to disrupt it. Perhaps participating in a culturally-starved version of the social practice of learning Spanish can be of value with the eventual plan to immerse oneself in a Spanish-speaking community to continue the practice, making up for the cultural aspects of the Spanish language that comprise the material that is elemental to the social practice of learning Spanish.

Participating in the Practice

Once I onboarded to the social practice, I had to form habits to consistently engage in the practice. I aimed to spend at least 15 minutes a day participating in some activity that comprises the social practice. I found incorporating the social practice into my life to be disruptive at first as I had to, "find time," that had been spent doing another activity in my weekly routine (what proved to be truly disruptive was concussion I sustained on 1/16, forcing me to suspend my participation in the practice until I was able to return). I found myself often turning moments I would do nothing into Duolingo sessions, such as time spent riding the train.

Log of time spent doing each activity to learn Spanish, be it using Duolingo (blue), talking with others (green), or researching terms and studying what I found (red). The gap between 1/16/19 and 1/19/19 was the result of a concussion and the subsequent recovery.

I found that, when it came to Duolingo, the social practice was disruptive to some social practices but conducive to others. For example, while riding the train, I wear headphones and tend to not converse with anyone, as do most people and as is characteristic of the social practice of riding the T in 2019, making it acceptable for me to immerse myself in Duolingo. However, when it comes to the social practice of sharing a communal living space, one important understanding is that you shouldn't be annoying to other people, and Duolingo, which makes noise, is annoying. I didn't want to remove myself from the space or put in headphones, but of which I find to be rude, so I turned the volume down, getting a cheaper version of what is ordinarily an immersive experience.

One thing I noticed while having conversations in Spanish was that while I was searching for words to say, what came to mind were French phrases. When I shared this with my girlfriend, she said that was good because I was activating the language part of my brain. That was an important competence to have gained, that it was actually good that I was thinking of French words, as I would have thought I was approaching the practice in the wrong manner (I am lucky though that of all of the languages, there is some overlap between French and Spanish vocabulary).

The chart above tracks the cumulative minutes spent learning Spanish along with the number of words learned. "Words learned" constitutes the number of words and phrases I was able to recall on discrete dates in a 10 minute period.

One struggle that I anticipated was being able to be funny in Spanish. I tend to seek to insert humor in almost every conversation I have, relying upon my understanding of the nuances of English. Without a command of Spanish vocabulary or syntax but a desire to still express humor, I would tend to say things wrong intentionally, hoping that something funny might emerge or use an inappropriate voice inflection. Participating in the social practice of learning Spanish taught me that there are still some ways to express humor without language, but more importantly that it is difficult to share one's full personality when linguistically unequipped.

Through my experience, I definitely came to have a greater appreciation for those who can speak several languages fluently. If I started recalling French words while trying to speak in Spanish, I can only imagine the complexity involved in architecting the langue center of the mind of a multi-linguist. Beyond words and grammar, being a multi-linguist requires an individual to be able to participate in specific social practices for each language as well.

Models of the Practice

From my experience, which is an auto-ethnographic account, a few models for the social practice of learning Spanish can be abstracted. The first of which relates to the confidence of the individual participating in the practice. When I started learning Spanish, my expectations were that it wouldn't be difficult to speak it once I learned the vocabulary because I already learned how to learn another language with French. As I learned vocabulary through Duolingo and researched some phrases I wanted to use on and Google Translate, I felt that very confident in my ability to then have a conversation in Spanish.

I was very wrong. When I called my girlfriend a week into participating in the practice, I struggled to get past phrases such as, "Hola! ¿Cómo estás?" and "Me llamo Colin." After that conversation, my confidence in my ability to speak Spanish plummeted. As I continued to learn vocabulary, my confidence grew a bit, but I continued to remember how much I struggled to learn to hold a conversation. For my next conversation, I lowered my expectations.

A snippet of my second conversation.

As I continued, I identified a pattern of growing confidence as I was in the practice of learning the material but a drop in confidence with each conversation. Over time, I found my confidence rising with each time I practiced my vocab, but a drop in confidence each time I had a conversation. However, my confidence, on average, was growing over time.

Model of confidence over time in the social practice of learning Spanish after having learned a second language. With continued practice, the long term outcome is high confidence after low confidence early.

This model is could theoretically be applied to other social practices of performance, in which an individual may have experience in a tangential social practice. For example, the social practices of golfing and baseball have an overlap in materials (a club-like material, a ball), competences (a swinging motion), and meanings (satisfaction of hitting the ball, camaraderie). An individual who has had experience in the social practice of baseball may have high confidence in their ability to do well in golf. Upon trying golf for the first time, they will likely find that they have a larger gap in the competencies to be gained than they anticipated. They might find themselves in the same pattern as in shown in the model above, whereby their confidence grows as they gain tips, but drops a bit as they try to execute until eventually, hopefully, they have the competencies and confidence for high performance.

The social practice of learning Spanish also provides a model for engaging with social controversy. The meaning that motivated me to participate in the practice at first was to be able to communicate with people in Honduras when I visit and to find a new way to connect with my girlfriend. As I got deeper into the practice and discussed my participation in the practice or participated in public, I began to become aware of the perception of my participation at a symbolic level. To engage in a social practice is to show interest and support for the people with whom the social practice is associated. In some parts of the US, the legal status of some individuals from the Spanish-speaking countries of Central America, is, unfortunately, controversial. Some people in the United States believe that some individuals from Central America have come to the United States illegally and should be sent back, that there should be a secure border, and that it should be difficult to come to the US legally. While these aren't views I hold or held by people with whom I interact, I am aware that there are some people in the public who hold those views. Because to engage in the social practice of learning Spanish is to show interest in the culture of those who speak Spanish, I feel that my participation expresses support for those who speak Spanish in the US, regardless of their legal status.

What I found was that my awareness of how my participation might be seen as controversial became a new meaning to the social practice. I conjecture that for some, the awareness might cause them to reconsider their participation. Additionally, I was aware of the political antagonism aimed at Spanish speakers prior to my participation in the practice, yet it had not been a meaning associated with the practice until I began to consider participating in the practice in public. Thus, I think a model can be abstracted that represents what the process may be for a participant in a social practice as they engage with the meaning of the social significance of participating in the practice at a political or near controversial level.

Model representing that over time, the person has the option to participate with the practice or exit the practice. With further participation comes the discovery of new meanings to define the social practice. The person continues to have the option to participate or exit with the introduction of each meaning.

The model shown above captures what my experience had, wherein with further participation in the social practice of learning Spanish, I acquired new meanings that caused me to question whether or not I wanted to continue. I found that the meanings, what the social and symbolic significance of participating in the practice, were valuable to me and continued.

This model could be generalized to several social practices, especially those in which the social practice develops a new meaning. For example, in recent years in the NFL, players have knelt during the National Anthem in political protest, which changed the material of NFL football as a product that comprises the social practice of being a fan of the NFL. For some, this created a new meaning that caused some to exit the practice and others to remain. In some instances, it is by continued participation, introducing new materials, competences, and meanings, that a social practice can change and become acceptable to those who participate.

Closing Remarks

Participating in the social practice of learning Spanish has taught me a lot about Spanish, as well as social practices. I hope to be a lifelong participant in the social practice and continue to use what I've learned through the lens of social practice to understand the dynamic nature of the human experience.

Works Cited

Shove, Elizabeth, et al. The Dynamics of Social Practice Everyday Life and How It Changes. SAGE, 2012.

Gabbykawaii07. “Spanish Language.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 1 Feb. 2019,