The more I travel, the more I feel the need to learn the language basics of the country I’m in. Getting to grips with ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’, ‘what’s your name’ and ‘how are you?’, and the all important ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ is simply common courtesy, and everything else you pick up is a bonus.
But ever since I made the decision to travel through South America, one fact has been weighing heavily on my mind: I don’t speak Spanish.
Sitting astride the language barrier
On my past travels, not knowing the language hasn’t been as much of a problem. In India I picked up a modest amount of Hindi, especially while working in Punjab for six weeks with barely any sight of another Westerner.
It was the same in Thailand; the time I spent working on a farm gave me plenty of opportunities to practice simple phrases with my host family’s grandparents, and in Nepal, the kids I taught at school loved hearing my attempts at speaking Nepali.
For my explorations closer to home, the smattering of European language phrases I pick up on the road – of German, French, Italian, Turkish, Greek – have sufficed for time spent in and around Europe. But the majority of the languages I’ve encountered on my travels thus far have been the far flung ones I’d never had exposure to before – which meant I could effectively explain away my prior non-existent knowledge of them (and the completely different alphabets have also been a hindrance in that respect!).
Ecuador is going to be different. Living in Cuenca for five months means I’ll be encountering the same people every day; from my fellow teachers at the school I’m working at, to the host family I’ll be staying with, my day to day Ecuadorian life is going to involve a lot of interaction with Spanish speakers. All of whom are going to expect me to talk.
“So why not simply learn Spanish?” I hear you ask. Well. That’s a very good question.
Trying (and failing) to speak Spanish
When I studied abroad in San Francisco in 2009, I spent a semester taking Spanish. When enrolling for classes, the idea of ‘Spanish 101’ seemed like a really sensible idea; I knew I’d want to travel through South America at some point, so what better preparation than to try learning the lingo beforehand?
What I hadn’t prepared for was that ‘basic’ Spanish in San Francisco, California, is not ‘basic’ by anyone else’s standards. Because of California’s close proximity to Mexico, pretty much every child in the state learns Spanish at grade school – meaning I was the only total Spanish newbie in the whole class.
Over the course of the semester, I didn’t do too badly, but I didn’t do wonderfully either, and I came out the other side with a grasp of the language that was rudimentary at best. Said grasp has also apparently slipped completely away from me in the last two years, and I don’t seem to have retained any of it.
But I know that learning Spanish is a relatively manageable task which countless people the world over have been successful in. Why not me too?
So over the last few months I’ve attempted to kickstart my Spanish skills in a number of ways. And when I say attempted, I mean giving each avenue of Spanish instruction a woefully short period of time to make me significantly improve.
Don’t say I’m not a trier.
More trying (and more failing) to speak Spanish
First off, I read through copious blog entries on learning techniques, from the Rosetta Stone program to living a life of total immersion in a Spanish speaking country, and from progress reports to the best Spanish learning books on the market. Every person’s contribution to the subject of Spanish learning has been hugely inspirational, and while I’ve had lots of fun imagining myself to be as fluent as them, I’ve quietly abstained from actually following said advice.
When I realised my inability to be influenced by others, I tried rereading old notes that I made in San Francisco, and leafing idly through the satisfyingly thick textbook I made a conscious effort to bring back to England when my year abroad ended. Hurray for forethought! But, sadly, my inability to concentrate put a fatal flaw in that particular effort.
In a fit of desperation, I turned to the child’s play route, downloading apps and podcasts designed for kids to learn language. I found a particularly fun iPad app called Doki, which uses little animated characters with big heads and no eyes to wander their way through real life situations and demonstrate what you’d say in Spanish in accompaniment.
Unfortunately it was a tad too ‘real life’ for me, and I was waylaid by the ‘agencia de viajes’ into virtually buying a ‘tiquete de ida’ to New Zealand (hey, look! I learned something!) and found myself chatting to the animated Greek guys in Doki City airport while waiting to board my flight.
Strangely enough, I came away from all these concerted efforts at learning Spanish with very little to show for it. Weird, huh?
A moment of realisation
Ok, so I’m a procrastinator (no surprise there, as I’m spending hours of my time perfecting this article about learning Spanish instead of actually attempting it). I keep telling myself (and everybody else who’ll listen) that once I’m actually living in Ecuador, surrounded by native speakers, will be when I feel my desire and drive to learn the language kicking in.
Ultimately, though, I know what my problem is. I’m terrified of not knowing enough. If I avoid looking at anything Spanish and attempting to learn, then I don’t have to discover how bad I am at learning it! It’s a very annoying perfectionist attitude, but it’s there nonetheless; I want to be fluent straight away.
Or at least near fluency. I am a realist, after all.
So I actively shy away from even beginning to start studying properly, and sit safely in the knowledge that, without having tried, there’s no way I can say I’m bad at Spanish. The idea of being unable to say even the smallest of phrases – hell, not even knowing my numbers properly! – makes me feel defeated before I’ve even begun.
Yet another (and slightly hysterically resolved) effort to speak Spanish
So here’s the test. If I make this confession to you, my avid and lovely readers, that I’m terrible at forcing myself to bite the bullet and actually attempt to learn myself some Spanish – maybe things will change.
Over the next five months, while I’m living and teaching in Ecuador, I hereby promise that I will make every effort possible to learn, speak, and even think in Spanish. This means notebooks full of semi-translatable scribbles, taxing interchanges with the old lady at the nearby fruit stand, and copious barmen shaking their heads when I realise I can’t even order a drink to drown my sorrows in.
In a few weeks time, when I can call myself a semi-resident of Cuenca, the fun can really start – and I’m pretty sure it’s going to be equal parts of hilarious and hysterical.
Spanish or no Spanish.
Have you found it a struggle to start learning a new language? What did you do to combat the fear of not being good enough? And, perhaps most importantly, do you have any tips for a struggling and scared language perfectionist?!