“You’re gonna come back fluent in Spanish!”
Traveling to the country that speaks your target language isn’t a silver bullet. After my first eight days in Mexico (when I was using Spanish all the time and improved rapidly) the next 56 were largely focused on pure tourism: socialising, sightseeing, exploring nature. Spending more time with fellow tourists meant I spoke a lot more English (and German). Spanish was restricted to functional purposes (ordering food, asking for directions, haggling over prices at the market) with the odd chat here and there with a taxi driver, hostel worker or tour guide.
There were moments when I felt like I’d suddenly lost my ability to understand and speak coherently in Spanish. For example, in Oaxaca, I hiked from Llano Grande to Amatlán, two tiny villages in the Sierra Norte mountains. That’s Zapoteca country, and I had a great deal of difficulty understanding the locals there. I think Tim Doner made a really good point on this topic in his recent piece for TED:
[Y]ou can be nominally fluent in a language and still struggle to understand parts of it. English is my first language, but what I really spoke was a hybrid of teenage slang and Manhattan-ese. When I listen to my father, a lawyer, talk to other lawyers, his words sound as foreign to me as Finnish. I certainly couldn’t read Shakespeare without a dictionary, and I’d be equally helpless in a room with Jamaicans or Cajuns. Yet all of us “speak English.”
When you’re dealing in your target language, it’s vital to shut out that little voice in your head pointing out every word you didn’t quite catch, every moment of miscommunication. In language learning, the law of averages always wins out; it’s not possible to paper over the cracks. There’s no substitute for time and experience, and when you get there, you’ll just know it.
Looking back, I’m extremely happy with the progress I made in Spanish. My positive memory stems a lot from my last-minute, spur-of-the-moment trip up to Monterrey, where I spent a long weekend Speaking Spanish 24/7 again with Celic (my Couchsurfing host) and all her friends. It was the perfect way to assess the progress I’d made on the trip.
I remember how I used to have to listen so hard just to extract the meaning of what was being said to me, when I had to ask silly questions to double-check the most basic things. In Monterrey, I was able to follow long stories and respond to the most interesting points. I was telling stories of my own without taking awkwardly long pauses at random times haha, and people actually laughed at my jokes sometimes. Interacting in Spanish had never felt as easy and that really felt amazing. I may have been far away from the tropical paradise of the Yucatan Peninsula but, because I’m a language nut, Monterrey was easily one of the highlights of my trip!
That’s all for now, thanks again for reading! For more about the details of my trip, click here and here, and for more about Tim Spricht click here. I plan on changing gears a bit for my next post, so look out for that – it will be out next Sunday.
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