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Back in 2005, I realized I was getting addicted to travel. In successive years, thanks to the spouse’s conferences and a study abroad trip, I had the opportunity to travel to Scotland, Australia, and Tanzania. I learned so much during my journeys that I swear I could feel the sparkle of new brain synapses making connections in my head. I wanted to travel more, to learn more!

Since I’d managed to get to three continents in three years, I got a wild hare to try to visit another continent the following year. Happily, mi esposo wanted to go too, as long as he could investigate some exotic insects. Processing various whims and practicalities, we decided that 2006 would be the year for South America, and, specifically, Argentina. We wanted to travel cross-country by bus, without tour guides, to get as much direct experience with the country as possible. One problem—I studied the wrong language in high school (French) and spoke little Spanish beyond gracias, cerveza, and baño, and hubby didn’t speak much Spanish either.

This is the story of how I taught myself enough Spanish to get by.

argspan

Strong determination to learn the language

I’d had a previous experience that convinced me language learning was necessary for travel. Before I went to Tanzania, I learned a few dozen Swahili words. One day, we hiked up to the summit of an old volcanic crater. Our guide, Daktari, who spoke no English, indicated that we needed to descend the opposite side of the crater from which we had come up. Several people in our group were too tired to go on, unless the indicated path was the way back to the vehicle.

I pointed in the direction Daktari wanted to go. “Gari?” I asked.

Daktari shook his head, pointed in the direction we had come and said “gari.” Then he pointed in the new direction, said “maji,” and trailed his fingers down like rain.

Simply knowing the Swahili words for “car” and “water” allowed me to figure out that Daktari was leading us to see a waterfall before heading back to the car. The exhausted members of our party were able to rest awhile at the summit instead of slogging down to the falls. I decided from that moment that whenever I traveled, I would learn as much of the local language as I could.

Powerful motivators: a deadline and fear

In September, I had started kicking around the idea of traveling to Argentina, but I didn’t really commit to the idea until December, when I decided to go to Argentina the following May. I had about six months to get myself some Spanish fluency. Yikes! This short, specific deadline was a great way to keep myself on task. Also, I am a congenital worrier. I imagined myself wandering lost and distressed in some Argentine city, unable to communicate my needs. What might befall me if I wasn’t able to speak passable Spanish? Fear is a powerful motivator!

A multi-pronged approach to language study

I figured that if I was going to learn enough Spanish to be functional, I was going to have to expose myself to the language in as many ways as possible. I took advantage of every opportunity—a variety of activities that forced me to (in increasing order of difficulty):

  • Learn vocabulary
  • Write
  • Listen
  • Speak

Formal instruction

My first impulse was to take a formal class. Unfortunately, all of the introductory Spanish classes at the local community college were full and closed. Then I happened on a press release for an Iowa State Extension Spanish immersion weekend. Immersion sounded productive. I signed up.

The class used a simple textbook from Pronto Spanish. The instructors introduced us to vocabulary—politeness phrases, colors, numbers, foods, body parts, family members—and immediately challenged us to make use of it. One of my favorite parts of the class was learning the vocabulary associated with a salsa recipe and then going to a local tienda to purchase the ingredients and actually make the salsa. Having access to cable television was a bonus, too: I stuck to my weekend immersion experience by watching Telemundo in my hotel room in the evening.

The class was very successful in two respects. First, I got a sense of how much work it would take for me to be able to comfortably spit out a Spanish sentence in conversation. Second, I will never forget Spanish greetings. To this day, I have “¿Cómo Se Llama Usted?” from the ¡Viva La Música! album etched in my brain.

Vocabulary study

Obviously, to be able to speak a language, you have to know the vocabulary. I got myself a good Spanish-English dictionary and set about memorizing words. I spent every weekend and many evenings writing vocabulary words over and over again and then testing myself on those words. I also created a home-immersion experience for myself by putting up Spanish vocabulary labels all over the house.

Even the cat helped me learn Spanish.

Even the cat helped me learn Spanish. (She's a black cat sitting on a black chair.)

A “pen pal”

I was forced to practice composing Spanish sentences when I tried to reserve accommodation for our first overnight stay. I sent an email query in English; they responded in Spanish. I consulted my dictionary and 501 Spanish Verbs book and commenced a conversation about prices, bank transfers, and credit card numbers.

“Destinos”

I checked out a series of educational telenovela videos–entitled “Destinos“–from the local library. These videos were fantastic at helping me improve my aural comprehension. The speakers enunciated clearly, and I got exposure to regional accents. Also, I got caught up in storyline—would Raquel be able to track down the mysterious connections of the Castillo family?

One-on-one accountability

nelly

Nelly also taught me to make a pisco sour.

Through an international women’s conversation group I participated in, I met a Peruvian woman named Nelly, who was improving her English in preparation for the U.S. citizenship test. We agreed to help each other with our language studies. Nelly was a firm taskmistress. She hand-wrote lists of vocabulary for me, corrected sentences she assigned me to write, and forced me to practice speaking. This sense of accountability from another person really kept me on track.

Group conversation

Every Friday I had lunch with a group of people who wanted to practice their Spanish language skills to keep them sharp. (One of the group members moved to Panama and opened a B&B.) Often there was a native speaker present to assist with learning—the group pitched in to pay for that person’s lunch. I listened to the conversation and sometimes spoke, pausing long and stuttering and often saying no sais la palabra. This was critical, real-world practice that helped me get over my fear of speaking.

The results

Before we departed, I had a dream in which I spoke Spanish. I was hanging laundry on a line when someone in a pickup truck raced across the yard and plowed my clothes into the red soil. I shouted, “mi falda es succia” and chased after the truck, shaking my fist and wishing I knew how to curse. When I awoke, I was excited—my subconscious knew Spanish! I figured our trip would go OK.

We arrived in Buenos Aires, made it to the bus station, and I was able to purchase our onward bus tickets entirely in Spanish—a conversation that involved questions about proper ID, destination, choice of seats, and method of payment. When the tickets were secure, we turned away from the counter, and my husband said, “Wow, hon.”

That was one of the proudest moments of my life.

While we had plenty of moments of incomprehension, we still managed to travel a couple thousand miles around the country by bus, reserving lodging as we went (sometimes even over the phone).

In the intervening years, my Spanish language skills have been slipping a bit. I am now resuming my effort to attain Spanish competency, as the population of the new community I will be moving to is about 25% Hispanic.

I think staying in a Panama B&B for awhile would be good practice . . .

Copyright 2009 by Katie Bradshaw

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