I'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!
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.
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.
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.
[Tweet “Everyone has setbacks. Don’t let them stop you.”]
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.
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.
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.)
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.
[Tweet “It’s better to just make mistakes, get them over with, and learn from them.”]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[Tweet “The end of one journey should always be the beginning of the next.”]
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?
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.
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