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How 7 months of learning Spanish changed my life

How 7 months of learning Spanish changed my life

learn spanish ecuadorI’m very happy to host a guest post today from a talented writer, Beth Hobson, who caught my attention earlier this year with her honest and engaging writing over at bethhobson.com.

We were talking about her experiences learning Spanish in Ecuador, and how hard she was finding it. Then one day, I received an excited message saying: “Today was the first time I spoke only Spanish…not a word of English!” 

So what happened? How did Beth get from despair to spending a total of 4 days without a word of English?

This is her story…enjoy!

Culture shock & rude awakenings

For me, the culture shock had nothing to do with the culture itself.

It wasn’t the differences in lifestyle or even the vast disparity between the rich and the poor that left me feeling like I had stepped into another world.

It was something else, something that I had taken completely for granted; with two flights and a layover, I had lost something so valuable, so intrinsically part of my life that it seemed I couldn’t live without it.

Stepping off that plane into Ecuador, I lost my ability to communicate.

It was something I had worked on for years, and in one fell swoop I suddenly felt like that shy, awkward teenager without a speck of social skills that I once was. I had worked so incredibly hard to change her, to become confident, bubbly, brave, happy; and here she was, a part of me again, uninvited and large as life.

Not having the confidence to say the words you want to say is one thing, not having the right words is equally as crippling.

My grand language-learning plan: “Figure it out when I get there.”

I hadn’t been worried about learning Spanish when I decided to move to Ecuador for a while. I had confidence in myself, I figured since I’m a smart gal and I adore language, how hard could it possibly be?

But in that airport, waiting in line for customs, it started to hit me just how difficult this might end up being.

Sunset on the coast

And so it began…

But I was there, and as I quickly learnt, Ecuador is a beautiful country.

I was staying mere blocks from a stunning, peaceful, 5-mile long beach. The sunsets over the ocean were magnificent, some of the most beautiful I have ever witnessed; a riot of color, fiery and alive. I could hardly bear to miss even a single one.

It was when I was on that beach, enjoying the tranquility, that people most often tried to approach me. Maybe wanting to sell something, often just wanting to talk.

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How not to study

I had a few vocabulary lists I was studying and when I wasn’t busy hanging out on the beach or eating the amazing seafood, I occasionally took a Spanish class.

I could muddle my way through a menu and order at the restaurants; It seemed like I was trying.

“There’s more to learning a language than just reading a menu.”

The reality was, each time I would come in real contact with another human, I just froze up. I couldn’t seem to understand a word that wasn’t related to food, and though I could dredge up a few sentences, I often didn’t spit out anything more than the incredibly unimaginative “I’m sorry, I don’t speak much Spanish”.

It was humiliating. The encounters invariably left me with my cheeks flaming red, so deeply embarrassed that I just wanted to sink into the soft white sand beneath me.

With my dark skin, hair and eyes, I blended in – just so long as I didn’t open my mouth. I was really nothing more than a stranger in their country, an impostor play-acting at learning a language and clearly getting nowhere.

I then fully realized how hard it was going to be to break that language barrier, it wasn’t going to happen with the occasional class or my vocabulary lists.

Instead of letting these incidents fuel my determination, I am ashamed to say that I did the opposite of what I should have. I withdrew into myself.

I had a friend around much of the first month who spoke Spanish with a fluency that I envied to no end. I could have used him to practice, but I didn’t. I was too embarrassed, couldn’t bear the thought of looking like an idiot again; so I just let him do all the talking for me.

IMG_2985Moving on

Then it was time to move.

No longer was I going to have the ocean and the long expanses of beach as my distraction, my excuse for not talking to anyone.

The mountains and tranquil valleys were to be my home for the remainder of my stay.

I didn’t think I could love it more than the beach, but there was something about it that was magical; the way the sun would dance across the mountains was like a dream. As it moved across the sky it would light up first this section of farmland, then this cliff-face and finally that forest. Every time I looked they were different, telling a new story.

I was hooked.

Starting over

To love a land, you need to know the people, and I knew that I could never truly say I loved Ecuador until I knew that I loved the people too.

For me, it was all about finding the right motivation.

A group of Ecuadorians my age adopted me without a second thought, they invited me to all their gatherings and did their best to communicate with me.

I was surrounded by all this life, all these wonderful people and it was a little bit like standing under a waterfall. It looks amazing before you hop in, but the reality is different, suffocating, a little painful and a part of you just can’t wait to get out.

I would always come home exhausted and collapse into bed because I felt so overwhelmed, berating myself for my continual lack of understanding.

My notebook filled up with words and phrases I needed to learn and due to the fact I now had internet, I started studying online. (Thanks to Olly I found a ton of amazing resources.)

road trip peru

The beauty of determination

Life got a little busy for my new friends and I didn’t go out with them much over the next two months. But that was ok, I had found something else to keep me busy.

I had finally found my motivation.

I wanted to talk to these people, I wanted to discover who they really were.

I studied, not perfectly, but I did it. Every day. I started working through my fear of making mistakes, because I was going to make them, no matter how hard I studied.

It’s hard to forget your mistakes, but they make for great stories once the embarrassment has faded.

If you happen to order bread with a side of eyeballs (ojo) instead of garlic (ajo)… it’s really no big deal! A little laughter in your direction doesn’t kill you, and the locals really do appreciate the effort.

So I studied, and I listened, and I practiced, and failed and studied some more.

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The boy

Then there was this boy. He was the very first Ecuadorian I met when I arrived in the mountains, and the very first thing I ever said to him didn’t make a lick of sense.

I could hardly make eye contact with him after that!

But he didn’t seem to care too much. He had this gorgeous smile and energetic personality and I knew that I really wanted to have a proper conversation with him.

It wasn’t anything romantic, just an incredibly deep desire to connect. It took almost three months. But suddenly there we were, chatting awkwardly, a little haltingly… and I finally, finally got to meet him.

It was one of the most satisfying things I have ever had the opportunity to do in my life. I am quite confident that catching these glimpses of his personality, getting to know him just a little, was as incredible as finding the lost gold of the Incas would be.

“It’s not just about communicating, it should be about discovery.”

Turns out he’s smart and funny, and knows more about this beautiful country of his than most of the people that give tours for a living, and not only that, he’s passionate about it. In talking to him, connecting with him, some of that passion rubbed off on me, and now I love his country even more.

I can truly say “love”, because after hitting the books and working my ass off, I started spending more time with that first group of people that were willing to adopt me. I now know, without a doubt, that the people are as beautiful as the country they live in.

Four months in – finally, success!

waterfallThe delight in the eyes of my friends when I correctly responded to their questions, or tried to tell a story was beyond belief.

They started parading me around like a trophy. I was their friend and look at how well I could speak their language.

It didn’t matter that my sentences were broken and that I constantly had to ask them to explain or repeat, they didn’t care one tiny little bit.

We could finally communicate, and being the amazing people they are; they loved me for it.

Learning a new language is a lot like travelling, not just because it’s a journey, but because with every bit more you discover, your world begins to open up.

You lose your restrictions, it changes the way you think, exposes you to new ideas, new cultures, new people. You can’t help but grow as a person when you are learning a new language because you are doing something that completely changes your world.

It’s hard. It’s really hard.

I can’t tell you the amount of times I had to psych myself up to talk to someone.

I would plan the whole conversation out in my head, just to have them say something I hadn’t scripted and leave me fumbling for words, embarrassed and wishing I could run in the opposite direction.

But as hard as they are, it is these moments that make us stronger.

For me, looking like a fool in front of people is one of the things I dread, one of my fears, and nothing makes us better, stronger and more confident than facing our fears and coming out the other end.

Even if my hands shook and I turned beet red and stumbled over my words, well it hasn’t killed me yet. When the 16-year-old version of myself tries to rear her timid little head, I push her right back into the past where she belongs.

When I hear the words “But this verb is an exception”, I can now resist the urge to curl up into a little ball and hug myself while rocking uncontrollably.

I just laugh because of course it is!

If the laughter is slightly pained, and tinged with tears… well at least I know that eventually I’ll remember this one too. After I’ve used it the wrong way at least 6 times. 43 if I happen to be talking to a handsome gentleman.

I can be pretty hard on myself…I wonder if I really am trying hard enough.

Maybe I shouldn’t have skipped doing my flashcards today, and I definitely could have studied for another half hour instead of watching that movie (in English). And it’s true, I can always work a little harder, I can always let myself be disappointed in my progress and wonder if everyone else is judging me as much as I’m judging myself.

Much more important than self flagellation, is enjoying the journey and celebrating every little success.

The little moments that make it all worth it

Moments like the one with the boy.

Or suddenly understanding that expression that makes no sense when translated literally into English. Or acting as a translator for a friend. Or that first successful phone conversation. (I think my hands shook for an hour after that one!) Or spending four days in which I didn’t hear or speak a single word in my mother tongue, and yet I was still able to have fun and meaningful conversations.

The thing that I keep telling myself, and this applies to everything in life, my writing, my language learning; unless I give up, I haven’t failed.

Am I perfect, am I fluent, do I understand everything? Gosh no. My journey in this beautiful language has only just begun.

Soon I’ll be returning to Canada and this particular adventure will be over, but every single moment has been worth it. I’ll be heading back different than when I arrived, my outlook on life has changed, my view of the world, and the amount of people that I am now capable of talking to.

Did you know that over 20 countries in this world have Spanish as a first language? They’re no longer scary mysterious places filled with multitudes of people I’ll never know.

No, now they’re my playground.

How could my world ever be the same again?

Bio:
Beth Hobson is a twenty-something writer from the grasslands of Alberta, Canada. Her passions include the discovery of new places, the endless consumption of riveting novels and the sinful pleasure that can be found at the bottom of a perfect cup of coffee. She has just returned to her hometown after spending seven months in beautiful Ecuador. Her plans for the future include travelling again as soon as humanly possible.

Do you know anyone currently living abroad who could benefit from this article?

Please share this post on Facebook and let them know! Then leave a comment for Beth below!

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  • Chris Broholm

    Wonderful post, Beth. Thoroughly enjoyed reading through it.

  • Christopher Bowley

    A great and inspiring read. I’ll also add that I found your writing very creative and engaging.

  • ruffgruff

    I’ve been living in Ecuador for some time now. I started with a four-week cram course in spanish, then did three months as a volunteer in an elder care project. I made the terrible mistake of falling into the “expat bubble” and my progress in spanish came to a grinding halt. I’ve been digging myself out of my self-imposed language purgatory by following some of your advice — and some of the advice I’ve received from other polyglots. Hopefully, I can pull my head out. This was a great article. Thanx!

    • Best of luck with escaping the ex-pat bubble, I know exactly how hard that can be! I had to make a conscious effort to avoid it because the town I was staying in was full of English-speakers.

      You can do it! (And it will absolutely be worth it.)

  • Awesome post :). I feel the same way as you did before when I am in Germany. I can read newspapers, I understand what people say, but I feel uncomfortable speaking German, so I avoid it. Then I feel bad about it.

    The weird thing is that I don’t think it depends only on how well you speak a language. Because strangely enough, it felt much easier for me to speak Korean when I was in Korea, even though my German is way better than my Korean. As you wrote, all you need is a good motivation, and wanting to talk to people is one of the best. I think the best way to learn a language is to have a strong desire to talk to someone precise, someone who will forever remain a stranger otherwise.

    • Brad Stokes

      Is it because of the expectation to preform. No one really expects a westerner to speak Korean, so anything is going to sound great, whereas in Germany you look similar to those around you, so you subconsciously place more pressure on yourself?

      I’d say the best thing is to expect and plan to make a tonne of mistakes and then make them. There really isn’t any other way to get past them. It sounds like you are doing awesome, hope you conquer your nerves each day you find them. Don’t beat yourself up, because you are further along than most people.

    • It`s true, finding that motivation is key – but getting past the discomfort is unbelievably hard. Every time you do it, you owe yourself a pat on the back (or a beer, G&T… whatever your poison might be).

      From a purely scientific standpoint, I would like to see for myself how falling in love, (or lust, whatever the case may be), would affect the language-learning process. I’m pretty sure it would be an entirely new level of motivation! I might see if I can experiment with it for my next language. 😉

      So glad you enjoyed the post!

  • A very engaging story! Thanks for sharing!

    • My pleasure, so glad that you enjoyed it!

  • Brad Stokes

    Thank you, it really seems that the two keys to moving forward are overcoming your fear and just doing something every day that moves you forward. There really is nothing like it. I’d love to visit Ecuador, some of my online teachers are from there. I love the accent and the warmth that they exude. Where would you recommend for a month long language retreat? I’d love to stay 7, but children would preclude that.

    • Hi Brad, I absolutely recommend Ecuador, I’m so excited that you are thinking of going! It depends what you want to do, but what I would suggest is to avoid any of the big tourist locations that are filled with English-speaking people. It makes it far too easy to slip back into an English bubble and your Spanish won`t appreciate it. If the coast is somewhere you would like to visit, I would heartily recommend the little town of Olon. It`s on a gorgeous beach, tranquil, and compared to other locations the expat community is relatively small. There is a company there called Outdoor Ecuador, if you are interested, they will place you with a local family. You`d have an opportunity to be immersed not only in the language but the culture as well. (www.outdoorecuador.com)

      I stayed with a family and their young son for a week, and they were absolutely incredible. They were so patient, so willing to teach and to talk; and Rita was an amazing cook!

      If you have any other questions just let me know!

      • Brad Stokes

        That sounds amazing… I won’t be looking for a while yet, unfortunately. I admit I was looking at self-renting and enrolling in a local course on something interesting, but I like the home-stay idea a lot. Dreams for the future…

  • Luna

    Thank you for sharing your story. I can relate to most of these feelings and moments! And I am sure i will experience them over and over again! It was nice to see that there is a way for not giving up. I will continue learning languages knowing I am not alone.

    • Absolutely, there is always someone else working through similar struggles. Good luck with your journey, may it take you to places you never dreamed of.

      🙂

      • Luna

        Thank you, I really hope it does. 🙂

  • Loved it! I can really identify with your experience. Come back to Ecuador when you can!

    • I will without a doubt, I miss it already!

  • Okey, you make me want to learn Spanish, and I just started to learn German! It was an inspiring journey and you shared all your feelings with us. Now Ecuador is in my places-to-go list. Thank you! 🙂

    • Sena, me too! I’ve never been to Ecuador 🙁

    • Spanish is a gorgeous language, I love speaking it! When you’ve gotten to a high enough level in German I would absolutely recommend Spanish as your next adventure. 😉 (and of course Ecuador as well!)

  • Hannah ハナ

    Great article! I really needed some encouragement, and this helped. :3
    I’m at the point in my language learning where I’ve found my major motivation, and inspiration to learn. (Which like your reason, is to interact and talk with natives of the target language.) But I can’t help but be so frustrated at myself for making mistakes, misunderstanding whats said to me and not being able to properly express myself. Gaah~ And I realize I need to not be so hard on myself, but man its hard. Lol. I really need to learn to just throw myself into the language without a worry!

    I really look forward to the time when I can talk to my Japanese friends without constantly doubting/correcting myself whenever I speak Japanese to them. ^ ^;

    • I still constantly correct myself, or pause in the middle of a sentence to wait for confirmation that what I’m saying makes sense instead of trusting that it does. But it absolutely gets better, and I’m sure that one day I’ll just suddenly realize I’ve kicked the habit! You will too, just keep hold of that motivation!

      Good luck ^_^

  • Andrea Ljutic

    Thank you for sharing this story, it’s nice to know I am not the only one with such a fears 🙂

    • You’re definitely not alone, and if I could do it, I have no doubt that you can too. Good luck!

  • Stefan Malic

    “Unless I give up, I haven’t failed” – very powerful realization, thank you for this, it makes me fee less crappy about my Spanish 😀

    • I’m really quite the fan of the idea as well. 😉 It completely changed how I look at my life! Thanks so much for reading and best of luck with your Spanish.

      • Stefan Malic

        I don’t see Spanish as something I MUST learn, but rather as something that I’m willing to play with. For that reason I don’t give myself any restrictions, but I do keep in mind that I have to practice, in any way possible.

        • Wanting to learn can be as powerful as needing to learn I think. I mean, I need to work/make money so I can survive, but I want to write, I want to learn Spanish… and it’s these desires that I expend most of my energy on, not the things that are crucial to my continued existence.

          Having the option to play with it is more fun anyway, it means I can spend two hours listening to Spanish music I like instead of studying intensely and not feel guilty about it. 😉 I like that part.

          • Stefan Malic

            Exactly! I know that if I force myself to do something that isn’t a priority I will just get overwhelmed and I will give it up out of frustration.

            This way I get to decide when I feel like learning. I also don’t force learning vocabulary, I let it come naturally. For example, I follow a page on Facebook that’s a Spanish replica of an American page with funny comic-like pictures. And when that page posts a picture, I read it and use Google translate for words I don’t know. Then I write those words down and remember them. Also, I learn many words from the context and I only use Google translate to confirm I understand the word 😀

  • JWood424

    Hi Beth…this is a great story and tremendous motivation for me as I prepare to spend a month in Spain next year. Like you I plan to stay as far away from tourists areas as I can, and my goal is to not use a single word of English for my entire stay. Thanks for sharing your story. I’ll now be adding Ecuador to my list of Spanish speaking countries to visit!

    • So glad that you enjoyed it! I’ve been checking out your Spanish blog and I’m pretty sure that you are going to do just fine! Have an amazing trip, I hope you make the most of the experience (make sure to do at least one completely crazy thing, life is more interesting that way). 🙂

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  • Diego Cuadros

    That’s such an inspiring story, beth should come to Colombia and have a new adventure here 🙂

  • Natalia Aguilar

    Hello I’m 25 years old I’m from Colombia but I live in Valencia Spain, I would like to learn english as a professional, I can to recive a person in my house. I think is the best way to learn a lot.

    My e mail is: [email protected]