How Not to Learn Spanish
I meant to become fluent in Spanish, I really did. After all, that was the whole point of the trip, wasn’t it? I definitely wasn’t running away from the tedium of the life I’d created for myself in London; it was all about learning another language properly, for the first time.
At least that’s what I told myself.
It was early 2012 and, on somewhat of a whim, which involved Googling “best places in the world to learn Spanish,” I made the decision to move to Argentina. The pictures I found and the stories I read about Buenos Aires jumped off the page. I was ready to immerse myself in Spanish. And that was going to be the way that I finally learned a foreign language to some sort of respectable standard, whatever that means.
First Steps in the Right Direction
In planning my indefinite trip, I was doing all the right things. I’d booked Spanish classes, and paid for them upfront, for 3 months, I’d found a flat share with a few fellow Spanish beginners, and a Chilean couple, and I’d signed up for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu classes, where all of the instruction was to be in Castellano.
All I had to do was turn up, commit to all of that and I’d be fluent by the time I left. Or at least that was the plan.
I’m quite happy to admit it, in hindsight at least -- I was intimidated. After all, I was moving to a completely new city on the other side of the world, where I didn’t know anyone, and I was firmly putting myself out of my comfort zone. I like to think of myself as fairly brave when it comes to this sort of thing; I love to travel and I’ve been to about 30 countries. But I’d never quite travelled like this and it was scary.
Upon arriving at my apartment, I was greeted by two Dutch girls, who I would be sharing the apartment with; one left after a few days and I would live with the other for the duration of my stay, while the Chilean couple wouldn’t be moving in for another month or so.
On the surface, living with friendly Dutch people was great and it really helped me acclimatise to Buenos Aires. Unfortunately, however, both of them spoke about as much Spanish as I did, which was, essentially, nothing. English was, therefore, the universal language spoken in the house. And that was great for me in terms of having interesting conversations, but it hampered the speed of my Spanish acquisition significantly.
I was not great at languages at school. Wait, that’s a cop out. The reality is that learning languages just didn’t interest me at school and, to make matters worse, my language teachers weren’t particularly inspiring.
Maybe it was my age, or maybe the instruction was better, but I seemed to pick up Spanish a lot easier in Buenos Aires. It wasn’t happening at warp speed like I’d hoped, but, in Spanish class, my Spanish really was coming along. It took me a while to get the knack of the grammar side of things, but I’m blessed with a more or less photographic memory, so the vocabulary side of things came reasonably easily.
On more than one occasion, my Spanish teacher told me she was impressed with my progress, especially given that my previous knowledge of Spanish consisted of things I’d picked up by watching the Flintstones, in Spanish, on my last trip to South America 10 years before.
I may have been progressing in a traditional, classroom-based sense, but what I wasn’t doing was actually speaking to people. You see, I made friends with a lot of European people from the language school I was studying at, as well as a big group of Americans. So, I either spent my time speaking English or, because pretty much all of these people were more or less fluent, I simply deferred to them in situations that arose where Spanish was a necessity.
I became lazy.
A glimmer of hope
After spending 4 months in Buenos Aires, most of my European and American friends were beginning to head home. I’d made some Argentine friends, but my gut told me it was time to move on.
So I did -- to Peru, probably my favourite country in the world.
When leaving Buenos Aires, I made the somewhat questionable decision to get the bus to Arequipa, Peru. Although those were a painful 3 days on the bus in some respects, yes I said 3 days, that trip did also completely transform the language learning journey I was on.
I spent 3 days sitting next to a Peruvian woman and was surrounded by Peruvians, being, quite overtly, the only tourist on this particular bus. After all, who else in their right mind would get a bus for 3 days out of choice?!
But I digress.
Over the next 3 days, I spoke more Spanish than I had in the previous 4 months combined. I got rid of my foreign language stage fright, mostly because necessity forced it, and I began enjoying speaking Spanish; perhaps for the first time.
The people I took that trip with were unbelievably friendly and supportive; they gave me praise when I got things right and they were helpful, correcting me when I got things wrong and explaining what I was doing wrong. And best of all, speaking English was simply not on the menu. I had to find a way to communicate.
Finally Getting It
It may have taken 3 days spent on a bus with a group of Peruvians, but I finally got it. The benefits of learning a second language finally dawned on me.
On that bus, the Peruvians I met truly appreciated my efforts to speak Spanish to them. Yes, it was clumsy at first, but, by the end of the trip, our conversations had begun to run a lot deeper than the normal pleasantries that one learns as a beginner.
We began to share stories, talk about life in England, discuss what life was like in Peru and I got a real insight into their family life. But most of all, I felt, for the first time, that I was really starting to understand that adage about seeing the world through a different lens when you learn a second language.
As the months ticked by, I returned to the UK around a year after first leaving for Buenos Aires. I don’t regret those months I spent in Argentina, but I certainly believe that leaving the city was actually the best thing I could have done. When I stood on my own two feet and pushed myself out of my language learning comfort zone, I soon found that my Spanish improved beyond belief.
I would classify myself as far from fluent; in fact, I’m not even sure what fluency really is and whether it’s actually worth worrying about. But what I can say, unequivocally, is that I’ve now fully internalised the benefits of learning a second language.
And that’s a big step for me.
From here, it’s just about finding as many opportunities as possible to continue to practice and trying to make language learning a part of my daily routine. It may be easier said than done, but I’m certainly giving it a go.