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The Joys of Learning A Language


Holding the world: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8130052@N02/3193265040/sizes/s/in/photostream/

By Denise Gamboa

Straight ahead of oneself, one cannot go very far.

– The Little Prince

They say that the two most dangerous years of a human being’s life are the year you are born and the year you retire.  The year you are born is wrought with physical risks, and the year you retire exposes you to the dangers of depression and listlessness.  Human beings aren’t meant to be listless.  We all have an innate need to improve, to learn and to challenge ourselves. This is why the super-rich continue to work, even if they don’t have to.

This is why academics pursue even higher forms of education in order to become better experts in their fields.  This is why athletes run marathons, why serial entrepreneurs exist, and why self-help books consistently top the best sellers lists.  And this is why I’ve decided to learn a new language.

I think you should too.

Ask anyone who has ever learned a new language and I’m sure they would agree that there is no greater mind-twisting endeavor.  It is spatial and semantic reasoning in the most abstract, yet literal, form.  It’s like deciding to take a long trip in complete darkness hoping that one day, the light switch will turn on and the path will make sense.  Learning Castellano (Argentinian Spanish) has been one of the most challenging projects I’ve ever taken on.  I worked for four years in one of the largest and most successful technology companies in the world, launching products and campaigns across the emerging markets in Europe and the Middle East.

I faced ambiguity, language barriers, political roadblocks. But none of these challenges have compared to the sheer discipline and frustration that has come with learning Castellano.

For someone who talks and writes more than the average person, not being able to say “Hello, I am hungry” was a huge ego blow for me when I first started learning in Buenos Aires.  After classes, I would come home defeated, feeling insecure that friends in class could speak in full sentences and I couldn’t even remember how to conjugate a verb in the first person.

I’d go to expat conferences envying expat speakers on stage who could speak perfect, beautiful Argentinian Spanish.  I longed so badly to be like one of them – in full control, able to think and speak Castellano on the spot.  During long walks on Sunday evenings, my boyfriend and I would pass coffee shops full of people, meeting for tea and gossip.  I felt isolated, alone, trapped in an English bubble so useless in this city on the other side of the world.

It has taken me a long time to feel comfortable with the sloooow process of learning something completely new.  I’ve always been so used to finding a goal, working tunnel-vision to achieve it and voila, it is conquered.  Language learning is so not like that.  It takes patience, practice, forgiveness – like a slow, sweet, measured courtship that’s built to last.  It has been one of the most uncomfortable endeavors I’ve taken on; completely foreign and off the beaten path of all things familiar and secure.

But throughout the process, I’ve learned not just about the semantics of a new language, but also about the history of this place, the culture, its people.  There are stories and folklore layered in the nuances of slang that need to be peeled back with care and time.  It’s like discovering a country slowly but surely, investigating the hidden folds behind each artichoke leaf of history.

If you’ve ever wanted to challenge yourself in a new way, where the rewards aren’t reaped in bonus schemes, promotions and report cards, I would encourage you to go language shopping.  Find a map, pick a foreign land that has always enchanted you and commit to learning the language.

Create an entire year-long romance with the place and its tongue.  Plan a trip, take classes, meet locals, read books, watch foreign films and cook local cuisine.  Not only will you marvel at the pure genius of linguistic evolution, but you’ll discover beautiful details in words and phrases that you would otherwise be blind to in English.  You’ll discover an entirely new world.

And because I’ve been doing this on and off for about a year now, I’m going to share some pointers that have made my language learning that much more meaningful.  It won’t be an easy road and at times it’ll feel impossible, but I promise, you’ll find delight and elation in the most random moments, and isn’t that in itself worth the effort?

Language Learning Best Practices

Use Flash Cards

To memorize verbs, I’ve been using the flash cards to test myself.  Spanish verb on one side, the English explanation on the other.  I test myself every chance I get, mastering the Spanish-to-English prompt and then reverse.  It’s mighty fun and a great way to “collect” new verbs as you go along.

Learn songs

Many friends have suggested picking a favourite Spanish musician, buying a CD and learning his/her songs.  This has been good fun but a lot of work!  Songs are usually full of parody and slang and they are sung much much faster than what a beginner language learner would be comfortable with.  But it’s something to aspire to and another addition to cultural enrichment.

Create a running story

I’ve been populating a story about myself in Spanish.  I began with phrases like “My name is Denise.  I’m from Canada”, and have slowly built up to things like “I love taking walks in the park and traveling to far away places”, all en Español.  It’s a great way to practice new tenses and a boost to the ego as the story get longer by the week.

Immerse yourself in shopping and dining experiences

While here in Buenos Aires, I’ve found that the best practice has been with complete strangers – in cabs, at stores, at restaurants.  Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.  Being forced to speak with non-English speakers is the best way to discover just how much of the language you already know!

The Pocket Notebook

Carry a pocket-sized notebook around with you.  Include Spanish phrases with English phrases right beside.  Test yourself at every free moment – from Spanish-to-English and reverse until you know expressions, verbs and sentences by heart.

Patience and forgiveness

Be patient with yourself.  Learning comes in waves.  Some days will feel amazing and other days will be demoralizing.  Just know that the frustrations and the joys are all part of the process.  You’ll forget verbs and words often.  And then other days, full sentences will fall from your mouth like a storm.  And it will feel amazing.

About The Author:

Denise Gamboa, owner and creator of A Girl in the World travel and inspiration blog.  Denise is a Canadian, ex-Googler currently experimenting with adventures in mobile living.  She is currently in Buenos Aires learning Castellano, working on a start-up and working on her photography and writing projects.

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  • We Fly Spitfires May 1, 2010, 4:02 am

    Nice article. I’m struggling to learn Japanese so I can better communicate with my wife and her family. It’s a bloody difficult language to learn, especially the writing system. Sometimes I think it would be quicker and easier for me to teach the entire country English.

    • Denise Gamboa May 1, 2010, 10:24 am

      Being able to communicate with your wife’s family is one of the best motivations for learning Japanese. Some days I find it really frustrating not being able to communicate the simplest things and other days it just feels so good to connect with one sentence. Good luck with the studying!

    • Leonor July 17, 2011, 3:56 pm

      Yes, it’s brilliant and I agree with you. But being a teacher of Spanish I should clarify that Castellano is not Argetinian Spanish but Spanish from Castilla, which is the Spanish province (from Spain) where Castellano (the original Spanish) was born. Please, do not feel offended. It is not my intention at all.
      Said this, I encourage everyone to learn a language as I am learning English and Arabic at this moment. It’s such a rewarding experience!
      Thank you very much.

      • Denise Gamboa July 19, 2011, 12:01 am

        Hi Leonor, thank you for clarifying! I had no idea!

  • Laura Cococcia May 1, 2010, 6:19 am

    Hey Denise! I’m an ex Googler too – and used to work in our BA office for a short period of time – so fun to find you here! I love learning languages – but have a hard time committing to it. I like your tips and would also add that buying children’s books in other languages helps – or at least helped me. So excited to find your site!

    • Denise Gamboa May 1, 2010, 10:25 am

      Hi Laura! Where are you now? And how was your time in BA? Did you manage to learn Castellano while you were down here? Would love to know what you’re up to now!

    • Denise Gamboa July 19, 2011, 12:00 am

      Hi Laura,

      I wanted to touch base with you again. This thread fell off and I’m curious to know where you are now, after your Google days. I hope you are well! I’d love to keep in touch.


  • Jim Lochner May 1, 2010, 6:33 am

    I’ve said for years I want to learn Russian for a proposed trip to Moscow/St. Petersburg that has yet to take place. That’s a stupid reason to learn it if I simply want to learn something new. I love Russian music, literature, films, so why not learn the language? It will be a bit more challenging with the Cyrillic alphabet, but that’s okay. Thanks for the kick in the pants. 🙂

    • Denise Gamboa May 1, 2010, 10:26 am

      Your interest in all things Russian is the *perfect* reason to learn. You’ll be able to connect so much of the culture to the language. And yes, planning a trip over is one of the best rewards you can give yourself. Take classes for a few months and then go test your skills on the streets of Moscow! Good luck!

  • Giulietta the Muse May 1, 2010, 7:52 am

    Hi Denise,

    Great post. I took up Italian – my ancestral language – and worked at it for about three years. At least that many years have lapsed while I pursued other interests.

    The Italian language urge resurface last week. Your post reminds me yet again that I want to do this! Think a two-weeker at an Italian school immersions school would do me wonders.

    And you’re right, the best bonuses come from following our desires to learn what we want rather than what some boss wants for us.

    Your blog sounds fascinating. Will check it out!

    Much thx, Giulietta, Inspirational Rebel

  • Denise Gamboa May 1, 2010, 10:29 am

    Hi Giulietta. I *love* Italy. I’d actually like to learn it next. I’ve always dreamt of living in Italy for a while to learn the language, learn to cook and experience la dolce vida for a few years.

    If you can find a course at a university, I would recommend that. Private teachers are great but learning in a classroom environment has helped my comprehension immensely! Good luck!

  • Mistina Picciano May 1, 2010, 10:36 am

    Thank for sharing this wonderful, inspiring posts. I’m trying to brush up on my rusty French skills when I can cram in the time, but I keep looking guiltily at the Rosetta Stone box for Mandarin Chinese, sitting on my bookshelf.

    With the exception of my mother, the entire maternal side of my family still lives in Taiwan, and I’ve never been able to communicate with most of them. For a number of reasons, I keep telling myself that I’m going to learn Chinese, but I still haven’t gotten around to doing it.

    • Denise Gamboa May 2, 2010, 7:52 am

      Being able to communicate with family is one of the best motivators for learning a new language. Perhaps you can treat yourself to a good vacation after a few weeks of classes… 😉

  • Gail @ A Flourishing Life May 1, 2010, 10:50 am

    Hi Denise,
    I just started taking French again after not having studied or spoken it for many years. So frustrating, and so amazing as the words pop into my mind from nowhere.

    Thanks for the validation that sometimes the brain is blank and sometimes the sentences flow. So true.

    • Denise Gamboa May 2, 2010, 7:54 am

      I can relate to your frustrations with French. I learned it all throughout elementary school but somehow it never stuck. I think there’s got to be more than just the feeling of having to learn a language. You’ve got to be really interested.

      And yes, the ‘flow’. It feels amazing, yes? =)

  • Stephanie Smith May 1, 2010, 11:13 am

    It is only when you fully immerse yourself in a foreign culture that you truly grasp and understand a new lanuguage, with the nuances, slang and phrasing native to that country.
    I was 13 when we moved to Denmark and I chose to go to a Danish scholl rather than boarding school in England. Danish is very difficult, as there are not grammatical rules that apply accross the board, such as with Spanish (feminine vs mascukine, etc.). In Danish, you must simply learn the words or which word to use for the, as there is no set rule. I lived there 7 years and graduated from business college there. I also learned to speak, read and write Spanish IN DANISH, so when I went to Madrid as an au-pair after graduation, I translated Spanish to Danish, not English. It was natural for me. It is a beautiful thing when you get to the point where the words flow without you having to translate them mentally first. Watching TV in that language helps too – anything to immerse yourself in the culture. You cannot speak a foreign language as you do English – you must teach your brain to construct sentences differently, so that it will flow more natural for you. You will be amazed at how wonderful it is to go somewhere and understand all that is going on around you.

  • James May 1, 2010, 2:30 pm

    I’m tempted by learning a new language, maybe Spanish because it opens up more traveling opportunities. The intention is there, it’s just finding the right tools and practices. Apart from the challenge of it and the satisfaction gained from learning something new and potentially life changing, there is the simple fact it’s good for the brain. Very few things out there really expand and develop the brain like learning a new language.

  • Farnoosh ~ Prolific Living May 1, 2010, 4:36 pm

    I love and live and breathe languages. And I just spent 8 lovely days in BA. My French friend speaks the language well and it’s a beautiful Spanish, although I have not yet endeavored to learn it. I grew up with Farsi as my native tongue then had to take a year of Arabic at school – we moved to Turkey where I had to learn Turkish (for survival), English (for practicality) and German (required) – I have forgotten most of those except the English. In the US, I chose to pursue my language of choice: French and to this day I practice daily and still have yet to call myself fluent. I studied some Portuguese and Japanese and would be happy if I had to spend the rest of my days learning a new language! This article resonated with me on a deep level. THANK YOU!

    • Denise Gamboa May 2, 2010, 7:59 am

      You’ve got languages in you. I’m sure you’d be great at picking them up considering all the exposure that you’ve had!

  • ami May 1, 2010, 7:49 pm

    What a great reminder Denise. I love learning new languages and even hearing people who are fluent in English speak another language fluently just tickles me. And these days there are so many free resources online to give you a taste of a new language. I’d love to learn Korean (my mother’s tongue) and Spanish (to read Cervantes) and maybe Russian (b/c it sounds so wonderful).

    Despite the strong dislike that some in this community felt for Eat, Pray, Love – that book made me want to learn Italian, too. And eat pasta. Lots of pasta.

    • Denise Gamboa May 2, 2010, 7:57 am

      Another great author to aspire to reading more of is Pablo Neruda. His “20 love poems and a song of despair” is beautiful.

  • Patricia May 1, 2010, 7:52 pm

    Hi Denise!
    Glad that you’re visiting us to learn Spanish.You happen to be in my beautiful city Buenos Aires.It takes a long time to learn a language.I started learning Englsih when I was a kid and though I am an ESL teacher I still find new things to learn.I think that the most difficult thing to do is to think in the other language without translating (my students always get angry when I tell them not to translate) It’s difficult at the beginning, but we have to give it a try.The thing is that we have to be understood.People will not correct us as teachers,and it’s great fun.
    I wish you a great stay here, and you can give me a call if you want.It’ll be a pleasure to show you around.

    • Denise Gamboa May 3, 2010, 7:58 am

      Hi Patricia, thank you for your comments and for offering to show me around. How can I get in contact with you? It would be lovely to try to meet in person.

      • Patricia May 3, 2010, 11:27 am

        Hi Denise
        My email patriciaugo@gmail.com Contact me there and I’ll give you my phone number.We can have a coffee or something; maybe share a mate and talk about ourselves.It’ll be a pleasure

  • floreta May 2, 2010, 3:12 am

    I have a friend who learned Argentinian Spanish (didn’t know there was a term for it!) in one year of living there. Definitely envy people who are good with language. Some seem to “get it” faster than others. It’s a slow and frustrating process indeed. But I’m trying to become bilingual as well. I think it’s shameful that most Americans only speak English while (most of) the rest of the world is bilingual or more. Thanks for the pointers. I really like your story idea!

  • Denise Gamboa May 2, 2010, 7:58 am

    Thanks Floreta! Good luck with the endeavor. What language are you learning?

  • Srinivas Rao May 2, 2010, 8:53 am


    As somebody who has lived abroad and learned a language, I think immersion is the best thing for learning a language. Before I lived in Brazil, I was listening to audiotapes of Portuguese, but then when I get there it was a totally different experience. Being absorbed on a day to day basis by all these interactions with people was what really took it to the next level. Sounds like you are living a pretty interesting life 🙂

    • Denise Gamboa May 3, 2010, 8:00 am

      Yes, I completely agree that immersion is key. I’ve been trying to learn French my whole life and never did catch on. I guess hours and hours in front of a book just doesn’t cut it. Languages must be lived.

  • Daisy May 2, 2010, 1:13 pm

    I also recommend thinking in Spanish (or the other language). It will help you realize which words/ structures you might need later, and then you can look them up before you need to speak them. I was very proficient in Spanish during college, and then I didn’t use it for a long time. I started practicing speaking again when we got a Spanish language program in my elementary school; the vocabulary came back fast.

  • Maria August 22, 2011, 8:42 am

    This is so great advices, maybe it is useful to learning languages abroad as easy way to learn.