Alcalá de Henares: the City of Storks

Half an hour shy of Madrid sleeps the humble Alcalá de Henares. The Spanish city — which translates to Citadel of the river Henares — is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and boasts a rich history which can be traced back to the Bronze Age.

Meandering through the shadowed alleyways, I couldn’t help but feel reminiscent of my time exploring the Italian city of Siena. The centre — Plaza de Cervantes — is positively medieval, and the cobbled streets carry a certain romanticism. The destination has come to be known as “the city of three cultures” owing to its three different neighbourhoods of Moorish, Jewish, and Christian origin.

It is also one of those rare places where there is a lucky dip of tourists and locals. Alcalá de Henares is a university town, so the streets are not only buzzing with travellers, but also the quiet presence of residents. For someone who unwittingly seeks comfort from dichotomies — I am only human, after all — I found this to be a little unsettling.

Crossing the threshold into Alcalá de Henares, it soon became readily apparent that humans do not run this city. Instead, around ninety breeding pairs of storks have claimed the land — and more are arriving every year. The distinct birds throne nests balanced upon every rooftop, their black silhouettes stamped into the skyline. As someone who had never before seen a stork in real life — for me, they existed purely as cartoons swinging clothed babies from their beaks — seeing them for the first time was something of a shock.

Alcalá de Henares has come to embrace the visitors, so much so that the stork population has become one of the biggest tourist attractions in the city. For a place known as the birthplace of the celebrated author Miguel de Cervantes, that’s no easy feat. The stork has become emblematic of Alcalá de Henares, and has created something of a communal identity for its citizens.

I spent that Sunday afternoon roaming the city and practicing my broken Spanish. I sat in Plaza de Cervantes and ordered tortilla de patata, cerveza, café con hielo and vino tinto, whilst above, storks snapped their beaks and scattered twigs from their disheveled nests. My heart may belong to Madrid, but there is something doubtlessly special about Alcalá de Henares.

The storks know it too.

Catch more of my Spanish adventures here – or if you want to get choosy, take your pick out of Barcelona or Madrid 🇪🇸

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6 Ways to Learn a New Language Without Picking Up a Book

When I was thirteen, I studied a mandatory year of French.

hated it.

My reason was simple and would have done my father proud: it just wasn’t practical enough. As a homegrown Kiwi who hadn’t yet developed an appreciation for travel and culture, I couldn’t fathom why students were forced to learn French of all languages. Logic suggested that Mandarin or Spanish – two of the most widely spoken languages in the world – might actually be worthwhile. Or even Maori, the native tongue of New Zealand. It was fair to say that I didn’t take to my lessons.

Seven years later, and my only regret from school was not properly studying a language. I both admire the cognitive capacity of multilingual people and yearn for the opportunities they earn from such an skill. I dabbled in languages here and there, but I always lacked the motivation to put in the hours. It wasn’t until I decided to travel to Spain in 2017 that I found a reason to commit.

My only previous exposure to Spanish had been from the sassy Hispanic women on Orange is the New Black (I’m cultured, I know). I also hadn’t really heard of anyone who successfully taught themselves a second (or third… or fourth…) language without enrolling in an expensive course. But I was determined that I wouldn’t fail this time around, and that when I arrived in Madrid, I would be able to order a damn paella.

Whilst I’m far from fluent, two months later I can confidently read and write basic Español. My listening and speaking skills still need some brushing up, but I no longer helplessly flail when I try to read a menu or ask someone for directions. The following six activities played significant roles in my self-tuition, and none involve picking up a language book. Most importantly, they are fun. To me, learning Spanish is a game rather than a chore, and as someone who maintains a love-hate relationship with linguistics, that is one of the most important things I could get out of such an exercise.

1. Download a Language App

When I first embarked on my journey to learn Spanish, I opted for Duolingo. I spent a couple of intensive weeks on this platform, but whilst I made considerable progress through the chapters, I struggled to retain words longer term. Around this time, a friend recommended I give Memrise a go… and I’ve never looked back.

Memrise is fantastic because it takes management over making you practice the old content till you nail it before moving on to the new. It also exposes you to new material in a logical and easy way so that even as a beginner, you still have the important areas covered. By introducing personal stats to the mix, you are able to compete against and challenge yourself 💪

2. Change Your Phone Language

Admittedly, this is a bit of a risky one. But, if you can stick it out, you will reap the rewards.

By going into your settings and swapping your native language for your new one, words that you have come to be familiarised with through social media or apps will be replaced with others. This helps you to make connections between the known and the unknown in a habitual context. For example, most everyone is used to seeing that ‘Like’ button when they log into Facebook. When I changed my phone language to Spanish, I soon grasped that the equivalent was ‘Me Gusta’.

Tip: Make sure you know exactly where to change the language back to English (or whatever be your mother tongue) so that in emergencies, you can still operate your device. It’s all fun and games until warnings start flashing on your screen and you have no idea what your phone is trying to tell you.

3. Find a Language Buddy

The thing about learning a foreign language is that simply being able to read and write is a whole different ball game to actually listening, speaking and interacting in general. If you are teaching yourself, then the chances are that there are not many people in your social circles who also speak that language.

Well, it’s time to make friends! My Spanish exponentially improved once I began conversing with native speakers. I made these connections by using Couchsurfing, the social travel website I mentioned in this and this blog post. I stayed with hosts in Madrid who were more than happy to invest time in going through exercises with me and helping me understand and correct my errors. It was a win-win situation; these people were also bushing up on their English, so we were both getting something out of the interaction.

4. Immerse Yourself in the Place

Granted, this is easier said than done. Depending on where you are based, access to a country where your chosen language is widely spoken may require large financial sacrifices. For me, it was no painless manoeuvre to get to Spain all the way from the antipodes of New Zealand, but this only motivated me all the more to commit to my Spanish once I did arrive.

By physically being somewhere where the locals speak what you are trying to learn, the level of absorption compared to that from a book is incomparable. You soak in so much raw linguistic information; it feels like all the synapses in your brain are dancing frenetically. From the road signs to the shop windows to the supermarkets – everything just makes so much more sense. Context is key to this process, and language apps inevitably fall short in this area. Put it this way: are you more likely to remember that watermelon is sandia in Spanish through looking at a picture of the fruit on your screen, or by ordering watermelon soup in a Spanish café? (Yes, that is a thing. And yes, it is the best thing I have ever eaten).

5. Embrace Subtitles

Most – if not every – paid streaming service provides access to subtitles. I like to think of subtitles as the lazy person’s approach to learning a language; although it’s not an altogether passive activity, you can still afford to kick back, relax and enjoy the show.

Subtitles are especially effective if you are watching something you are already familiar with. I enjoy searching for clips of my favourite stand up comedy acts on YouTube and locating the Spanish versions. I know the jokes off by heart, so instead of trying to both process the original content and then link it to the words scribbled below, I can focus my energy on simply the latter. It’s fun. Try it.

6. Collect Children’s Picture Books

Okay, I lied. The title of this blog post promised that I would offer six ways to learn a language without picking up a book, and yet my final method includes just that. But bear with me.

When I was staying in Madrid, I went to the most amazing bookstore in the world: La Centrale. There, I purchased a beautifully illustrated children’s picture book depicting the life of Frida Kahlo. The catch? It was written in Español.

I find resources like this are really indispensable tools to practicing a new language, especially if you are already familiar with the content in the book. The visuals make it a really attractive way to study, and they’re always entertaining to read to someone who is well versed in that language so you can laugh and try again when you f*ck up. Similarly, if you are at more of an advanced level, you can find translations of your favourite novels online. I myself downloaded Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal – you can find a link to the PDF here.

Photos taken at Plaza de España in Seville, Spain.

I’d love to hear your tips and tricks for learning a new language without chasing a traditional path. Moreover, if you’re like me and fascinated by language and culture, you might find yourself poring over these blog posts from the archives: the Pocket Guide to Kiwi Slang and 8 Untranslatable Words to Bring You Joy.

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