Thoughts: How Travel Changed My Perspective on Language Learning
I used to think I was good at Spanish. I took four years in high school, listened to Latin music, and talked to my friends whose native language was Spanish over Facebook. All the time. After I was told a countless number of times by native speakers how good my Spanish was, I was comfortable and confident with how much of the language I knew.
That is, until I was in Nicaragua. I realized I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying; they spoke too fast and my ears couldn’t distinguish one word from the next. I felt like I was in a country whose language I had never studied before, but even worse, I felt like all my hard work had evaporated and risen to the skies in the hot and humid Nicaraguan weather.
Comprehension skills affect a lot more than I could have imagined. Not only can you not understand, but you can’t communicate, period. You can’t respond to what the person said, because you didn’t understand it in the first place. I was stuck using “un poquito” when asked if I spoke Spanish, and left it at that, so I wouldn’t have to endure the embarrassment of having a conversation crash and burn miserably to the floor, only to end with “no entiendo (I don’t understand)” on my part.
After about six days in Nicaragua with three days left to go, I finally felt comfortable enough to have a nice and lasting conversation in Spanish. I could finally understand what they were saying, which freed the caged words perched in my mouth, waiting to practice and converse. But most importantly, I was the one who felt free and relieved; it restored any faith I had previously lost (though there is a part of me that hopes that I just had to get used to hearing Spanish; after hearing English every day for a majority of my life, it was tough for me to switch the gears in my head to process a new language).
I have always been conscious of this characteristic of language learning, but I never realized its magnitude until I was in a real situation with the real language.
Learning languages in a classroom may teach you verbs and word order, and songs may teach you catchy phrases and get you off your feet to dance once in a while; learning languages by yourself on the computer or with a book may teach you correct spelling and grammar, but nothing will prepare you more for speaking with native speakers, other than speaking with one.
In other words, it’s hard to fully learn a language in your comfort zone–at home, at school, on your couch with a book, taking a run with your iPod. There are many language learners I have met that are more on the shy side, like me, who are sometimes scared to open their mouths for fear of error, but there is no other way to learn. Make mistakes, learn new words and grammar, make more mistakes. And just when you’re comfortable with the language, do something that will push you off the edge and make you want to rip your hair out. That’s when you’re at the threshold of a whole new level of your game.
If you place yourself in a foreign country with your language skills, then you’re in the best place you can be. You will be immersed in the best way possible, surrounded by the language, its words, its people, and its culture. Here, you will not only learn correct word order, grammar, or spelling, or new vocabulary, but you will learn how to communicate.
Which, in the grand scheme of it all, is the point of learning a language, isn’t it?