One question that people back home often ask me is "How's your Spanish?" After a couple months of immersion in Ecuador, people seem to think you should automatically be fluent in the predominant language. The truth is, it's extremely hard for me to tell how my Spanish is coming along, probably because it's hard to look at yourself from the outside. But also, because as something that I deal with everyday, I always find mistakes in what I say, and it's easier to notice when you screw up than when you say something correct.
My Spanish was a little rusty when I got here because I hadn't spoken much of it in about three months. And before that I'd only been learning it for about two years, with 4 months in Spain. So I was never close to the expert level, though I did know quite a bit. I think about that when I consider some of my students who have studied English for 5 years and can't say 5 words.
For the first three weeks in Ecuador, most of my time was spent in Orientation with other Americans, so I wasn't getting the full experience until I came to Cuenca and was essentially on my own. The only people that try to speak English to me here are the few that have lived in the United States and want to practice their English again. So every day I use my Spanish, some days more than others, and some days are better than others.
I can say definitely that my grammar isn't improving very much because I'm not studying the language in a classroom setting. But my vocabulary has been growing, if not overwhelmingly, then steadily. Every day another word is absorbed and used more frequently, causing me to remember it. There could be the conscious decision to memorize a word, or the subconscious memorization out of necessity. If you didn't know the word for toilet paper before, you definitely need to use it from time to time when you get here.
Every now and then I catch myself making a mistake (every few times during a conversation) and if I can, I correct it. But it's no different than in English, when you make a mistake, the listener generally understands what you are saying and doesn't bother to correct you, unless they are a word snob. And because of this, it's harder for me to know when I'm screwing up, thus fix the problem.
As an educated person, I want to say more advanced things in Spanish, but not knowing how, I have to settle and know that I sound stupid, but the most important thing is being understood. I definitely feel comfortable speaking the language, and I know for a fact that I can survive with it. But like so many immigrants to the United States, or any other country, once you've passed a certain age, there's only so much of a language you can learn. You can live in a country most of your life and still have a bad accent, or not understand terms because they are cultural, pop phrases that you didn't grow up with.
The ironic thing of it is the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. When you know barely anything you think it's amazing that you can communicate with someone, yet once you start having longer conversations, it frustrates you that you can't fully get across what you want to say. And of course, there's a universe of vocabulary that you don't have at your disposal.
But there is sometimes a double standard. The native Spanish speakers are happy and excited that you can speak in Spanish, maybe much better than the usual gringo they see, a passer-by tourist. But when you meet with other foreigners and they ask you to translate or how to say something and you can't, they all but mock the fact that you don't know. It's hard to be a scholar in something that you had a late start in.
Basically, it's never easy to exactly define how fluent you are in a language. You can speak the language "perfectly" for years, and then someone could say a word that you never heard of and feel lost. It's the same way in English. We have so many words that it's impossible to know them all. But the most important thing is to be able to converse and survive. And by those standards, I'm doing just fine.