Six months ago, I relocated to Ecuador, a Spanish speaking country, with little to no Spanish speaking skills of my own. I moved in with a host family, started volunteering as an English teacher at a local high school, and attempted the task of learning Spanish.
Why am I not fluent in Spanish yet?
As I always knew, my issue lies with laziness. From time to time I’ve been impressively proactive; scribbling notes, making conversation solely in Spanish, and even spending afternoons looking up wayward words and phrases I haven’t yet got to grips with.
But, for the most part, I’ve been hanging out with my fellow volunteers; English-speaking friends who I can’t help but speak our common native language with. So while I speak Spanish at work and with my host family, English still reigns supreme in my day-to-day life.
Things are changing, though. A few weeks ago, I left my home in Cuenca and began travelling in earnest; up through the Ecuadorian Oriente and across the border into Colombia. A direct shift from a teacher’s lifestyle and straight back into backpacking.
Luckily for me, my time in South America doesn’t end with a departure from Ecuador. While my friends head back to England for a new chapter, and the start of their university lives, I begin another chapter of my own; travelling, writing and volunteering my way around this huge continent.
But it’s not just the pursuit of those listed above that’s going to keep me going. For I have an ulterior motive – a challenge – and something that could end up being the making or breaking of me.
So here’s my Spanish challenge: I am not going to leave South America until I’m fluent in Spanish.
Of course, there’s plenty of debate over what ‘fluent’ means. Generally speaking, the better you are at a language the more you realise how much there’s still left to learn.
In a perfect world, I’d feel comfortable talking to anyone about any topic – be it history, culture, politics, or literature – but this is something that could easily take many more years to achieve. So I’d settle for the more varied, possibly less skilled but ultimately the most satisfying achievements with my language skills; things that, at present, I can see being a possibility but that still remain tantalisingly out of reach.
I want to be able to email my Ecuadorian host mum and brothers about my travels in flawless Spanish. I want to chat effortlessly to every taxi driver who picks me up. I want to expand my social circles in each city I move to, speaking only in their native language.
And don’t even get me started on how much safer I’d feel in a strange new place if I could ask anyone passing by for advice or help. Something your average gringo definitely can’t do.
But most of all? I want to not have to think when I speak Spanish. I want to feel like my mouth is doing the talking and my mind is making minimal effort. I want those verbs to conjugate automatically, those tenses to fall into place without effort, and that once-strange vocabulary to be more familiar and appropriate than English.
Slow and steady: my Spanish advances so far
There are some elements of this that are happening already, of course – which is also of great help to my eventual aim. One of the many benefits to living in a Spanish-speaking country for so long is the unconscious ability to start combining your first language with the one you’re trying to learn; so even though I predominantly speak English with my friends, we still throw in a hefty dollop of Spanish tambien.
A typical conversation amongst us could easily go as follows:
“Hola chica, como vas??”
“Bien gracias! Have you heard from that guy about getting wristbands for the club yet?”
“No, not yet… Creo que él está durmiendo. Or he’s just being lazy.”
“Ahh entiendo.. I hope he calls though! We need to sort our plans en la noche and we might not vamos en el club if he doesn’t habla para ti…”
Sometimes I even find myself idly translating the sentence I’ve just said out loud into Spanish in my head – like when my thought process does this for me:
Por ejemplo: cuando mis amigos y yo vamos a bailar en noche, hablamos mucho en espanol con mucha gente.
Simply put, we spend a lot of time dancing in clubs in amongst the Cuencan partygoers, and our Spanish increases tenfold when we’ve had a drink or two, or just so happen to be dancing with quite an attractive Ecuadorian.
What’s my motivation?
So why am I hell-bent on my self-imposed grounding on South American soil? Well, in case you didn’t already know, this place is pretty damn cool.
The people are awesome, the food is fantastic and the nightlife is simply hilarious. There’s incredible graffiti hiding around every corner, photo opportunities everywhere you look, a myriad of ‘must-see’ sites and even more unknown ones.
And, fundamentally, Spanish is spoken pretty much everywhere, so it’s a perfect stomping ground for me to practice and to learn. What makes things a bit trickier, though, is that accents vary across the continent; so do the conjugations of many verbs, and there’s a hell of a lot of slang that I’ve had to stop myself from picking up in Cuenca, because I know that people in Quito may not understand it – let alone those in Bolivia or Argentina!
All this combined means I’m facing a pretty difficult challenge – but I know I can complete it, however long it takes.
How am I going to achieve this Spanish challenge?
I’ve made no attempt to hide one of my main motivations for travelling in general. Volunteering is something that I love doing – and it’s also a huge help when it comes to language skills. Spending six months volunteering in Ecuador has definitely improved my Spanish. Even if the vast extent of my extra vocabulary is all to do with school-related instructions…
But with Ecuador behind me, it makes sense to take this lesson and utilise it in the other countries I visit in South America. So the plan is to make sure I volunteer my services in every country I pass through; whether for a few months or just a couple of days, I get the feeling that volunteering with Spanish speakers (most of whom won’t be able to speak English) should help me significantly.
There are so many options available to improve your Spanish out here, particularly when taking the volunteering route; staying with host families, working with locals, becoming part of a community. Even the CouchSurfing world is bigger and more welcoming in this continent than anywhere else!
So while I’m obviously not going to avoid talking to English speakers, I feel like it could be sensible to make English take a back seat. For the next few months, at least.
I’m travelling with my volunteer friends until mid August, but once they’ve left me in the north of the country, I’m spending a week in Cartagena to do some intensive Spanish classes with Nueva Lengua. I’ve had really good recommendations from this language school, so I’m excited to see what improvements they can make to my skills!
I’m then heading down to Medellin for a week; in perfect timing, apparently, because the city’s yearly flower festival and biggest celebration is happening exactly when I’m there! So I’ll be hanging out with a few bloggers and getting to grips with yet another of South America’s unique customs. I’ll also drop in on Angeles de Medellin, an organisation providing care for displaced women and children.
Finally, I’m going further south to Bogota, the county’s capital, and staying with a friend I met on the beach in Montañita while I spend another week learning Spanish with Nueva Lengua Spanish School.
After three Spanish-speaking countries, I take my first foray into another language – so I’m hoping that my Spanish will be good enough to pick up the similarities in Portuguese. I’m flying from Bogotá straight to Rio de Janeiro (thanks to the generous guys at Skyscanner) and heading into the nearby mountains for two weeks of technology-free volunteering: my cousin recently set up a healing community in São Bento and I’m helping out with building work.
At the start of September, I plan to explore Rio for a bit, and maybe spend a few weeks volunteering in the favelas, before cutting across country – presumably aboard a multitude of long-haul buses – to reach the Bolivian border.
This country has been calling me for quite some time now, and I’m choosing to ignore those who say La Paz is a nightmare of a capital city. For a month or so, I’ll hopefully be volunteering at the Rotary Club’s centre for artificial limbs before heading for Sucre to work with a literary organisation who establish libraries in rural areas, run book groups and generally promote all things book-like.
And after that?
While I have some rather exciting projects in the works for my travels post-Bolivia, there’s no point in thinking quite so far ahead just yet. But I can reveal that they’d definitely benefit from Spanish fluency, so it’s a good timeframe to work within.
The ultimate resolve is to spend the second half of this year speaking Spanish as much as possible. Just like I said before i left London… But maybe it’ll be different this time around. Six months in Cuenca has gifted me the ability to not care if I make mistakes; I just speak regardless, which feels like half the battle.
And now there’s higher stakes to play for, after all. Because what’s life without a little challenge?