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.
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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