I just returned from a nearly three-month trip in South America. It was the stuff dreams and dinner party anecdotes are made of.
I think it’s pretty safe to say that we found our way off of the Gringo Trail, excepting the touristy stops on our trip, at least for quite a while. Once we even heard someone say, “We never see gringos on this trail” as we hiked by a group of Argentinos.
I returned to North America with a deeper understanding of biology, a greater appreciation for the creatures that share this planet with us, a solid grasp on Argentine wines, and a love/fearful respect relationship for the Chaco region. And a newfound respect for the accordian. I got a lot out of the trip.
But did I return to North America as a fluent Spanish speaker? Am I wowing everyone with my near perfect Argentine accent?
Oh, heavens no.
Yeah, I could be a bit disappointed in myself. I can’t even understand entire movies without subtitles, especially if it’s coming to us from Buenos Aires or Chile (¿Jaja?) My Spanish-language exchanges still tend to be halting, awkward as often as not, and there’s a whole lot of “¿Cómo?” coming from both sides. So, there you are. I’m proof that just being in a place where people speak a language isn’t enough. It’s not a simple osmosis thing.* It’s not magic. Learning a language still has to be intentional.
Why didn’t we reach fluency? Why am I not disappointed in myself? That wasn’t our goal.
We never set out to learn Spanish to the point of fluency on this trip. In fact, we never set actual goals for attaining a specific level of Spanish. Sounds awful? Maybe, but read on.
For neither the husband nor I, improving our Spanish wasn’t the primary purpose of the trip. He was there to get into the field, concentrate on a paper he’s working on, and work with research collaborators. I, on the other hand, went with the intention of writing (eek, could have done more), reading to my heart’s content, assisting in his research (I am queen of the GPS now), eating empanadas like crazy, and improving my Spanish. Learning Spanish wasn’t the only reason we were there and we never made a point to decide what level of Spanish we wished to obtain before leaving. When your objective is as vague as “improving my Spanish,” it’s hard to measure and certainly not conducive to obtaining fluency.
We also didn’t purposely seek out in-depth language practice. Other than walking to the lab for internet and ping pong and going on research trips (and a wee bit of vacation), we only left our hermitage once per week. I am only a little bit sorry about this. When your hermitage is a gorgeous park with hiking trails and new flora and fauna, it’s hard to justifying leaving it too often. If I’d been more ambitious, I could have taken the bus into town, paid for classes, or tried to set up some sort of language exchange around our trip schedule.** But that would have changed the entire nature of our trip.
No, I’m not fluent in Spanish. Still, my Spanish most definitely improved.
How do I know?
Let’s travel through time about ten months to a Montreal cafe. I was trying to deoxidize my nine-year-old Spanish in a conversation with a Spanish-speaking friend. This friend (with whom I normally spoke in French) laughed and told me I sound “funny” in Spanish. Later, he admitted to Jordan what he meant by “funny.” Apparently, I sounded like a robot when I tried to speak. A really, really slow one. I was pretty bad.
Fast forward a bit. On the flight to Argentina, I really strained to grab words from the flight attendants’ announcements. On the return flight, that same seemingly incomprehensible announcement was pretty manageable.
Reading articles doesn’t seem painful anymore. Sure, I look words up. But a news article no longer takes 30 minutes—only 10. 🙂
Last night, I chatted with that same Spanish-speaking friend who said I sound like a robot. My words seemed to come easily. He noted it early on in the conversation, saying that he could tell I had learned a lot (and this was unprompted…promise I didn’t fish!).
Finally, I type this from a Vancouver cafe (not the trendy, hipster one your picturing—bring your expectations down a bit). Guilty as usually charged, I’m eavesdropping on approximately four conversations at one time. One of these happens to be one-side of a Spanish-language Skype call. I certainly am not understanding everything (he’s speaking pretty quickly), but I’m able to understand the overall subject of his call, can seize some details, and picked out his accent.
I don’t want you getting the wrong idea. Even these improvements didn’t come easily or automatically.
Improving took work, intention, and awkwardness.
I wasn’t intentional about leveling up in a language. Instead, I was intentional about practicing a little every day.
My goal was a process goal, not a product goal.
When out and about, we often were left with no choice but to speak Spanish with vendors or locals. On our trips with other researchers, I made a point to speak at least a little amount each day and listened to their exchanges with intent. From these conversations and I scrawled down new vocabulary words to practice later, plugged them into my Anki (flashcard review) sets, and reviewed when home.
While tucked away in Horco Molle (the aforementioned hermitage), I still fulfilled my commitment to practice a little per day. A little per day probably averaged around fifteen active minutes. I reviewed grammar lessons at least two times per week, logged in for a DuoLingo session a couple times per month, and listened to podcasts for Spanish learners. We watched some movies in Spanish during our stay. I read from YA books or articles in magazine a couple times a week. Sometimes, I even squeezed tiny five minutes conversations in with others.
These three months taught me that learning a language isn’t the same for everyone. And that’s great. If you’re goal is about leveling up and you’ve got a test to pass, by all means, strive for the next level, strive to pass. Please do. Let’s remember, though, that focusing on results might not be the only way to improve. I found focusing on the process way less intimidating and way more inviting.
I focused on the habit, not my level or how to label it. Worry about your level and fluency if you need to or really want to.
When I was really in the throes of French learning, I was constantly stressing about my level. It was easy to succumb to this pressure when my main motivation for learning French was to put it on my CV and find work. Was I maintaining? Was I improving? In a moment of frustration, I told a friend I felt like I was actually digressing. Her response would become my language learning mantra:
If you’re practicing and really making an effort, you can only get better.
I’ve come to find that to be true. Sure, you might be able to be more efficient. But if you’re putting in time and keep challenging yourself, you will get better.
For me, right now, that’s the goal. Move ahead a little bit each day and occasionally look back to see how far I’ve come.
*I know, you’re thinking about how children “are like sponges” and just absorb language. Except that your mom probably spent precious time with you pointing out colors, shapes, and playing games that make you repeat words over and over.
**Skype lessons weren’t exactly easily feasible either. We had no internet in the house. When I went to the lab for internet, it was shared internet with people who needed it to work, and there wasn’t a place to Skype that wouldn’t disturb others.