Learning a foreign language is hard. If it wasn’t, maybe I would already speak more than one! Sure, I took a language in high school like every good American. And I thank my lucky stars that I did not opt to learn Latin. I chose Spanish, the second most widely spoken language in the world. How useful! In my cocky, 16 year-old brain I was actually quite good at Spanish. When I switched high schools for my junior and senior year, the Spanish teacher there reaffirmed I was great at Spanish. When I traveled to Chilean Patagonia ten years later and met a lovely Australian couple who heard me pathetically finagle my way onto a sold out bus, they were impressed with my proficiency in Spanish (though they spoke none). And when I traveled to Spain with my mother later that year and ordered us cheese and tomato sandwiches (queso y tomate, like come on!), she insisted I was fluent.
With that kind of support and progression over the years, why would I even bother taking further Spanish lessons? Well deep down, the other 400 million Spanish speakers of the world and I realized I could not speak worth a mierda! To be honest, I travel a lot, and I have grown tired of fitting the stereotype that Americans only speak one language. But beyond that, speaking another language would make my life so much easier as a traveler. It opens a new world of friends I never had access to due to an inability to effectively communicate. Also, when I order food, it will increase the probability that I receive what I ask for. Winning all around. With that, I made the decision to transplant myself in Medellin, Colombia for a couple of months to learn Spanish once and for all.
A couple of things happen when you relocate yourself to a country where you kinda, sorta know the language. Aside from the all the benefits you will reap from total immersion, you are going to look like a complete idiot more often than you prefer. Like this is actually a step in language learning that is typically glossed over.
- Learn basic vocabulary
- Learn basic verbs and conjugations
- Start to put together sentences
- Start trying to speak sentences in public
- Look like a giant imbecile in public due to misunderstanding or misusing aforementioned vocabulary
All of these steps are required if you are going to make any progress. Even though awkward and embarrassed are my baseline state, I still struggled to put myself out there to practice. This may be the appropriate time to share a couple of laughable moments (in hindsight anyway) as I attempted to navigate my way through my new Spanish-speaking life.
There is Something on Your Back
I had just arrived in Medellin, flawlessly transported myself from the airport to my apartment, dropped my bag off, and set out to explore my new city! The neighborhood was beautiful, there were trees and plants despite being a city, and the restaurants and bars looked super trendy. Suddenly a woman approaches me and starts speaking Spanish (go figure). I had to put my Spanish thinking cap on and deliberately focus on what she was saying. While, I caught words I knew, it was ultimately her gestures toward my back that made me understand. “I know what is going on,” I thought. “I read about this on the Internet. This is a scam where she tells me something is on my back and tries to help me while someone else attempts to pickpocket me. Ohhhh hell no. Not today.” With that, I let my Spanish aptitude fly: “No, no, no, no,” and walked away. Upon heading back to my apartment, I met my roommate who had not been present when I initially arrived. After a warm greeting, she poignantly pointed out the luggage sticker attached to my back. The woman was so sweet and trying to help me, not rob me. I’m a jerk. The only redeeming part of this story is that I still don’t know how to say sticker in Spanish, so maybe more practice wouldn’t have changed this situation.
The major supermarket of Medellin is called Éxito. It is massive and has everything. I mean everything. During my first shopping trip, I had spent nearly two hours in the store prior to perusing the wine section. The wine was in a separate portion of the store complete with several dedicated employees. I wanted to discreetly check out the prices and get a feel if wine could be an affordable drink of choice during my time in Colombia. Much to my dismay, I was approached by one of the employees and asked if I needed help (in Spanish, duh). I replied that I was just looking (in Spanish, phew). I continued browsing and the woman approached me again. Now I must preface the next part of the conversation by saying that on occasion, people have assumed I am from Latin America due to my dark hair I presume (this is always before I open my mouth). The woman started questioning me, “Argentinian? Chilean?” “Wow,” I thought to myself, “I must have really been convincing when I told her I was just looking.” “No, no, soy Americana,” I said out loud. Cue face palm and bright red cheeks. She wasn’t asking if I was Argentinian or Chilean. She wanted to know which kind of wine I was looking for. Ugh. And that is how you effectively initiate a wine detox. I left that section immediately, never to return.
Ok, Ok, Those Things Happen, But Are You Sure I Can Do It?
We can probably all agree that immersing yourself in the environment of the language you are learning will yield quicker results. But for a lot of people, that is scary! Even if you arrive in a country knowing not a single word, you will see how truly resourceful you are until you learn enough words to communicate orally. So, yes, I know you can do it. Here are my tips that will guide you through the initial distress of being an uncouth stranger in a strange land:
Hand Signals are Universal
Looking for a bathroom? Cross your legs, squat a little, and put your hands over your crotch. I am willing to bet every single person knows what you are looking for. Hungry? Nothing like pointing at what someone else is eating. Or pointing at a picture. Or just sitting down until they bring you something. Trying to buy something? In nearly every country I have visited, the cashier has a calculator to type the price so we don’t have to say a word to each other. Miscommunications are avoided!
Smiles are also universal. Feel uncomfortable? Have no idea what is going on around you? Embrace the awkwardness and smile so at least you are a friendly awkward person.
Find a Partner in Crime
Chances are you aren’t the only one trying to learn a new language. Especially in Medellin, Colombia, many locals were trying to learn English as I was trying to learn Spanish. Nearly every night of the week, there were organized language exchanges in Medellin. It was a great opportunity to meet local friends and potentially practice outside of language classes or organized meetups.
Consider Private Lessons
I took both group and private lessons during my time in Medellin. There is nothing like individualized attention to quickly help you progress. Be open and eager. Prepare questions and ask anything and everything you can think of. This is your time.
Get Embarrassed but Don’t Stay Embarrassed
So you’re gonna say some stupid things. For me, this is the biggest motivation of all. I felt embarrassed that one time when I accidentally said something I didn’t mean, yadda yadda yadda and I sure don’t want it to happen again. This helps you determine what to study and practice. Use every little pitfall as motivation.
Live a Little
Like, I mean, be a normal person. Have a routine, go grocery shopping, dine in restaurants, take taxis. These are all normal, day-to-day activities that allow you to practice the most useful, practical language skills. Yeah, maybe you learned how to say where is the hospital or the library in class? But, seriously, how often do you go to those places? It is much more useful to practice giving the taxi driver directions to your apartment or asking where you can find almond milk in the grocery store (shocker: they do have it in Medellin!)
Apps, Apps, Apps
Not appetizers, sorry, I’m hungry…But the ones on your phone! There are a zillion to help get you started. These are perfect to get a foundation before going abroad to learn a language. They also help a ton once you return home to practice and maintain the newfound skills you have acquired. If you are trying to learn Spanish, SpanishDict is a godsend. It gives the most thorough definitions of words going from English to Spanish and vice versa. I have also recently discovered HelloTalk which allows you to converse with native speakers of the language you are learning and ideally they are trying to learn your language as well.
I look back on my time learning Spanish in Colombia very fondly. In fact, it was one of my favorite experiences in my past two years of full-time travels. If you are ever on the fence about going abroad to learn a language, I must say, just do it. There is no way you will regret it. Just be patient. The hardest part for me was thinking that a language can come easily. That I could go to Colombia for two months and speak without having to think. What did I come away with? A dose of humble pie, the ability to sing 20% of the lyrics to Despacito, enough embarrassing stories to last a lifetime, and the most solid foundation of Spanish that I will work hard to continually build upon until I am the American girl who speaks two languages fluently. So was it worth it? Sí.