One of the things I love best about traveling in a foreign country is the feeling of being out of my comfort zone. When I’m in a place where I don’t speak the language, every day tasks such as finding a good place for lunch, catching the right bus or trying to buy shampoo become learning experiences. Although it can be challenging at times (and I often feel like an idiot) it forces me to be humble, to ask for help and to use more of my brain every day.
In 2008 when I was in Laos, I wrote a post about the language barrier and how it was frustrating when it prevented me from doing simple things like getting where I wanted to go. In Asia, being half-Japanese worked to my advantage because I didn’t stand out as obviously as being foreign. It’s the same here in Ecuador until I open my mouth and I’m forced to show how bad my Spanish is!
Through the magic connections of social media, I was instantly welcomed by English-speaking friends of friends (of friends) who have been so kind to me during my time here in Quito. Not only was I able to get my bearings while staying in a family home upon arrival from the airport, but that weekend I got to tag along on a road trip to the jungle in El Oriente, the eastern part of the country.
Spending time with Adres and Carter easily gave me some of the highlights of my first week in Ecuador and they’ve never been more than a text message away if I needed anything. Although it’s easier for me to speak English, Andres’s mom Mercedes (who is also fluent in English) has been helping me by speaking only in Spanish unless I really get stuck. Sometimes it’s hard to avoid English, but I’m trying! And I know that the more that I avoid English, the quicker I’ll learn.
My first week on my own, I signed up to try out a couple of hours of one on one lessons at one of the many Spanish Schools in Quito. I was impressed with the friendly staff and the location was about a ten minute walk from where I was staying in La Mariscal, so it was quite convenient. However, despite the brochure promising a “Survival Spanish for Travelers” option, my teacher started me with the Beginner level program, which was focused more on grammar and vocabulary.
Now, if my goal was to become fluent, I’d definitely want to do it this way – learning verb tenses, adjectives, colors, animals, etc. But since my aim is conversational Spanish, it wasn’t the most productive class for me. I left knowing (sort of) how to say “my eyes are brown” and “your shirt is red” but neither of those are really phrases that I could see myself using in the real world any time soon.
Part of it was the language barrier, I’m sure – my teacher spoke some English but for the lesson, it’s immersion so she only answers in Spanish. I tried to ask about the “Survival Spanish” and I gave examples of things like “Can I see a menu?” or “Does this bus stop at ______?” but she would nod and then go back to the lesson we had started.
I ended up not returning to that school and checked out a couple of other options (including two hours at a school that was cheaper and just around the corner) but ultimately, I decided to try to learn on my own instead. There’s an abundance of resources out there for teaching yourself a language. I thought I’d share a few of my favorites as I work on getting by as a gringa here in South America.
Resources for Learning Another Language
- Duolingo – I’ve become a big fan of Duolingo – both the website and especially the iPhone app, which allows you to practice reading, writing, and even speaking words and phrases that have practical uses, like “una cerveza, por favor!”
- FluentIn3Months.com – This website is run by Benny Lewis, also known as the Irish Polyglot. He emphasizes a method where you start by diving in and SPEAKING a language from Day 1. If you sign up for newsletters, you’ll get 7 days worth of tips for free, and a more intensive program is available to paid subscribers.
Practice makes (not even close to) perfect
One of the most difficult things for a perfectionist like me is to jump into something before I feel like I’ve mastered the basics. But by sticking with what’s comfortable (English) I’m really doing myself a disservice. So every day I’m forcing myself to find situations where I can interact with people rather than relying on a map or my smartphone. There are lot of little ways to do this that really help to immerse you in the culture.
Just a few easy examples:
- Asking a stranger on the street for directions instead of consulting a map.
- Asking the waiter what they recommend or asking questions about a dish, rather than just pointing at things on the menu and hoping for the best.
- Asking for the price of different items at a local market instead of a supermarket.
- Carry a notebook everywhere and learn to ask “how do you spell it?” or “could you please write it?” so that you’ll have notes for using phrases that come in handy.
- Learn a few questions to practice “small talk” – I admired how my friend Bryan in Colombia has the habit of chatting up cab drivers about music and futbol. If they deviate from the topics he knows, he may just be nodding and smiling, but by the end of the ride, they’re often best friends! If nothing else, it helps to make the ride quicker.
At first, it may feel uncomfortable for me to follow my own advice because the answers come back in Spanish! But it’s invaluable practice and every time someone understands what I’m asking (even if the grammar is not perfect) and I recognize a word or phrase in their answer, it builds my confidence to try again. I’ve definitely got a long way to go, but so far I’ve gotten to the point that I can at least have very basic interactions in restaurants, markets and at my hotel in Spanish. So that’s something! 😉
>> Do you have a favorite language resource or tip? Share in the comments below!