I (Cassie) always had two goals in the back of my head, one was to run a marathon and the second to learn another language. These goals were always present, but I never thought that they were things that I would actually do. But back in 2009, I ran my first marathon alongside my brother, which was the best thing ever! Now this goal has transformed into me wanting to complete a marathon in each decade of my life. I have nine more years to run my second one. My second goal was to learn another language. It is becoming more and more of a reality after living in Nicaragua for three years. I thought it would be doable, something I could finish and check off my list just like the marathon, but wow, it is so very different, it is a lifelong process.
There are some people out there who have a natural knack for language learning. I have seen some individuals come down for one year, live with a Nicaraguan family, immerse themselves in all things Spanish and leave quite fluent. And then there is me! After one year, I was alright. After three years, I am doing good. But I still have so much more to learn in order to call myself fluent.
Just the other day I was asked last minute to translate a public health talk for one of the doctor’s at Accion Medica Cristiana. It was two hours of really hard work, there were a few medical terms that I had no idea how to translate, but in the end, it went okay. I was able to see that this daily practice of studying and immersing myself in Spanish is paying off. It is easy to focus on everything I still do not know, but each day it gets a bit better. I continue to remind myself that it is a process, nothing that I will ever master.
I know that some of our friends and family are interested in improving their second-language skills. We have been emailing our experiences and suggestions back and forth, but I thought it would be helpful to share a few different tips that have helped me in my language learning.
1. Remember that it is a lifelong process. Different from a marathon, you will never “arrive” at the finish line.
2. Immersion is key! One aspect that was very beneficial for our learning, was that we lived with a Nicaraguan family for our first six months here. While it was challenging at times, it was incredibly helpful in our language acquisition, building our cultural knowledge as well as developing friendships. Not everyone can move to another country for five years, but you can find ways to make this work for you. Come down for a month and take classes, or find ways to immerse yourself with others in your local community who speak a different language than you do.
3. Say “yes” and put yourself out there. I have been asked to give workshops, teach classes and lead activities that I would have never said “yes” to in the past. My perfectionist side tells me that my Spanish is not where it should be in order to fulfill these types of roles, but I have said “yes” (often because I did not have a choice) and in the end, this has allowed me to continue to improve my skills.
4. Find a teacher. I met my Spanish teacher Mayela in November of 2011 and we have faithfully met every week since then. She is excellent in her knowledge of the language and its grammatical rules, she is patient with me and she is also my friend. We usually spend most of the hour chatting and catching up on life, while sipping a cup of coffee, but we are practicing and that is only helping me to get better. Mayela does offer Spanish classes via Skype if you are interested.
5. Surround yourself with the language. When you get a chance, watch movies in Spanish, listen to the radio in Spanish, read the newspaper in Spanish. Attend a Spanish speaking church service on a regular basis. Each activity will help you to learn a new vocabulary word or hear sentence structure in a different way. Also, try to think in Spanish. Tell yourself a story in Spanish, either in your head or out loud. It will always assist you in continuing the language acquisition process.
5. Find ways to incorporate language study in your day to day life. I use a variety of resources for my language studies. They range from workbooks, my favorite being the Practice Makes Perfect series, to flashcards either homemade or this set that my brother gave me, online resources such as El Blog para Aprender Espanol (they have weekly assignments and correct them for free!), listening to the language learning Podcasts (see previous post here), studying a new word each day (e-mailed to me) and writing in Spanish. Some learning methods work better for others. But pick one or two things and stick with it.
To give you an idea as to how I incorporate study into my day, I generally wake up and read a Biblical passage in Spanish, I then hop onto my elliptical and watch the news in Spanish which is followed by a bus commute where I listen to a Spanish learning podcast. During my workday, my work is generally in Spanish and I am interacting with my co-workers in Spanish. We always take a half-hour at lunch to connect. Sometimes during my workday, I pull out a Practice Makes Perfect workbook and try to complete a page or two. If I have the energy and a bus seat on my commute home, I will flip through flash cards or read a Spanish novel. While I am home cooking at night, I try to put on some Spanish music. In addition, I have conversations with my neighbors, people in public and friends throughout my day in Spanish. I am very intentional and yes, it can be very exhausting.
6. Keep talking. There are days when I come home from work absolutely exhausted, but I know that it is important to interact with my neighbors, build our friendships and use my Spanish. Sometimes I allow myself a break and other times I keep on going.
I hope that these ideas are helpful for you. Remember that it is a long process, probably one of the most difficult things you will ever do, but also one of the most rewarding. Be encouraged and keep going in your language learning journey.