Immersing oneself helpful when learning languages

Just a short month ago, I was lounging on a sunny, quiet beach in Boquerón, Puerto Rico, with a carton of coconut water in one hand and Tina Fey’s “Bossypants” in the other. As I finished my last yucca chip, I realized that I had, in just three days, almost stopped taking note of the stark differences from my home environment and begun to make myself comfortable. I stayed with a friend and her mother in a small, historical town where horses are a popular method of transportation and the only nearby American business in sight was a Burger King.

Happy to be in an area where I could absorb a culturally significant place while relaxing, I considered my own educational goals that I may have left on the mainland. As a Latina brought up outside of Latin culture, I wished to improve my language skills and grow closer to that part of me as well as those with whom I share this background. As someone studying the Spanish language, I was determined to make my vacation in Puerto Rico an educational experience that could also end up helping me in the classroom.

To preface, I’d like to note that I had relatively poor language instruction in high school, and that my Spanish course last semester absolutely terrified me when it came to speaking and writing, as I had little experience in either. Through the encouragement to participate by my professor and her engagement in my writing process, I definitely noticed that my reading, writing and comprehension abilities were improving dramatically.

My course also included a “Conversation Class” component, which I found a bit disappointing. In this section, which I assumed would consist of having conversations with one another, we would instead spend an hour each week going over class material and learning about parts of speech—all things that I had learned in high school by studying and regurgitating conjugation charts, and therefore struggled to utilize in practical situations. While I had grown as a writer, I was lacking as a speaker. Needless to say, I was terrified of spending 10 days with native speakers in an area where falling back on English may not necessarily be an option.

My first anxiety-inducing encounter was at the aforementioned Burger King. Waiting in line, I said my order repeatedly in my head, as if I was about to give an important presentation rather than try to order chicken fingers. I remembered learning how to order food once during junior year in high school. I also remembered that this chapter was followed by one that taught us how to talk about UFOs, extraterrestrials and magic.

This was when I realized that my four years of high school Spanish were not only so slow-paced that I graduated having never written a real essay, but also that much of my time was spent learning useless vocabulary that I may never actually use, foregoing opportunities to learn how to actually communicate with a Spanish-speaking person. I realized that learning how to effectively communicate is going to take a lot longer than I had expected. With my goals readjusted, I tried my best to become a better Spanish-learner than a better Spanish-speaker.

One of the most valuable lessons I took away about language was that listening closely is sometimes more critical to communication than one’s proficiency in speaking. If you are able to at least pick up the topic of conversation and a few details, then piecing together a concise, coherent response, although maybe not exactly what you would like to say, is simpler, and can keep a conversation going rather than stalling to think of the perfect words. I found that people were sympathetic and would not mind repeating something a bit slower, which quelled most of my fear. The fact that I knew that many of the people where I was staying did not know English put me in “survival mode” when I spoke, adding importance to my ability to succeed at speaking Spanish.

I also learned something essential to everyday communication in a second language: People will be forgiving if you use the imperfect tense instead of the preterite as long as you are conveying what you need to. It is easy to go home at night and brush up on whatever you may have stumbled over earlier in the day, but thinking and acting in the moment with your mistakes is crucial, despite what your self-conscious mind may say.

Also, being corrected in a social situation, while it might seem embarrassing, will help the mistake stick in your memory because it is attached to some event and practical usage. I will never forget how to say “Have a good night!” after I said, “Ten una buen noche” instead of “Tenga una buen noche” because I can remember that specific situation and I use that phrase often. Inhibitions can be the biggest (and only) barrier to working on a language in a non-academic setting—sometimes it’s also comforting to remember that you will probably never see this person again!

Another sneaky way to improve language skills I found was to just ask questions about anything, even if they seem random. I found myself asking my friend or her mother how to say words we came across in music, TV shows and movies, and was able to more easily work these into my vocabulary than learning more niche words in my class readings and lectures. Finding someone you feel comfortable with who is either a native speaker or a more advanced student is great way to ask questions freely and clear up confusion without fear of being judged by fellow students or professors about your questions. The main goal here is to be inquisitive and not be afraid to bridge the gaps in your language knowledge. Believe it or not, doing this is perhaps easier in real-world settings than in the classroom.

While the academic environment is crucial in learning any sort of new language, finding creative ways to incorporate learning experiences from other parts of your life can help students learn better while also improve language skills as a whole. Both elements are essential to gaining as much as you can from the language learning process. It is important to step outside of your comfort zones in ways that will help you improve, not scare you from trying again.

In the end, whether it’s watching an English movie with Spanish subtitles (the opening song in “Into the Woods” is a great lesson in the subjunctive!) or asking for the translation of a song chorus, opportunities to learn are everywhere, both at home and abroad. Making your second language a part of your real life can make it seem less like another subject to be learned and instead more like a skill to be constantly improved upon both inside and outside the classroom.


­­—­Sophia Burns ’18 is a student at Vassar College.

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