*Disclaimer that this post is mostly for those of you who, like me, are single and childless. If you have a spouse and/or family, I don’t necessarily recommend employing this method of language acquisition.*
So I did something really brave this year (or dumb, depending on how you look at it): I moved to a foreign country, by myself, without knowing the language.
While many of my friends were heading to graduate school, getting their first office jobs, planning their weddings, and announcing their pregnancies, I was graduated, single, and itching to get away from the American Dream.
Through the connections of several college professors, I was introduced to an organization that needed an English teacher in exchange for room and board at their children’s home. It was exactly what I wanted to do.
So, I packed up, quit my job, said goodbye to my family, and moved to Paraguay.
No language school. No major in Spanish. Was I crazy?
Sure, I took two years of Spanish in high school (thanks to my mother’s insistence) but that was over six years ago. When I got here in July, all I remembered were the bare basics of present-tense verb conjugation and a couple of vocabulary words.
Immersion is the best way to learn a language, they said. It’ll be fun, they said.
Three months in, I can tell you that immersion is one of the biggest challenges I have ever faced. I have so much empathy for immigrants who move to the States and try to learn English as a second language. It is HARD WORK, but it can be done! Here’s what I’ve learned about the challenges of language immersion:
Living in a new place with a new culture and new people is a recipe for culture shock as it is. Add to it a new language and you’re just going to be plain worn out a lot of the time. And it’s not just intellectually exhausting. Physically, emotionally, and socially, it completely drains you.
For example: immersion is emotionally isolating. You don’t realize how much you just pick up from conversations around you until you can’t. You get left out when people don’t mean to (and sometimes when they do). You’re out of the loop. People get tired of putting in the effort to explain things to you and just give up.
It Takes a Lot of Courage
I teach English to 140 elementary, middle, and high schoolers who only speak Spanish.
In my attempts to communicate in Spanish, I get laughed at on an hourly basis. I constantly say dumb things, and even bad words in Spanish when I’m just trying to say some innocent word that apparently sounds really similar. Halfway through the day, I often just want to crawl under a rock.
It’s humbling, to say the least
I have to remind myself: “It’s not about me. No one else is as embarrassed about this as I am. No one is thinking about this as much as me.” To survive, I have to laugh at myself and move on. Over and over.
It’s a great way to practice at failure. I have to make a daily decision to let go of fear. Get back up, put on your brave face, and try again.
Additionally, being single and extroverted has been helpful for me in that I can’t just come home and hang out with my husband and kids and speak English the rest of the day. I have to choose to get out, go visit people, strike up conversations, and ask questions in Spanish.
It Teaches You about Yourself
One of my greatest strengths is my ability to communicate in the English language: all my life I have taken a lot of my self-worth from my skills in reading, writing, speaking, listening, and explaining. It’s hard to lose that and start back at square zero and constantly feel like an idiot. I have to keep reminding myself that my value does not come from how quickly or how well I can communicate.
It Gives New Significance to Your Actions.
For me, the greatest unexpected benefit of not knowing Spanish is that the only thing I can do right now is love the kids through my actions. I am incapable of delivering lectures or a bunch of empty words. I can only live my life in front of them, demonstrating consistency, kindness, and compassion. This has made me very intentional in everything I do.
-Find out how to say the phrase “How do you say…” in your new language and use it. (I use “¿Como se dice?” about three hundred times a day.)
-Find a list of the top 500 most commonly used words in English and work on learning them in the new language.
-Download a dictionary and a translator app on your mobile device. Dictionaries work without internet, translators don’t. I have both, and use them frequently.
Most Importantly, Have Grace for Yourself
You can’t fully prepare for immersion. It’s like jumping into a raging river and trying to figure out how to swim.
For a while, you’re not going to go anywhere. You’re just trying to tread water. That’s okay.
Give yourself a break. Language learning takes time! You’ve had 20+ years to learn the English grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation that you know. Languages are as complicated as the humans who invented them. It’s going to take a few months (maybe years!) to pick up on all of the nuances. It’s a steep learning curve, but you make progress quickly, and it’s very easy to see the change in a short amount of time.
Immersion HAS been best for me. I’ve gone from not being able to say “how are you?” to being conversational enough to spend a weekend parenting eleven Paraguayan children. Without the people who I so desperately want to be able to communicate with, I would never have had the motivation to learn Spanish at all.
So do I recommend learning a language this way? Absolutely. You’re in your 20s. Knowing a second language is a skill that no one can take away from you and will benefit you for the rest of your life. There will never be a better time to gain a new skill, have a new adventure, and make a difference at the same time.
And it doesn’t hurt to learn a little humility along the way.