Lessons Learned in Language Immersion

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It has been almost 3 weeks since I arrived in Mexico. I am ashamed to say that I studied Spanish in college, and I never truly took full advantage of that opportunity. Many reasons shroud my failure to fully grasp the language. I never studied abroad for more than 10 days. I never pushed my comfort zone and practiced listening skills. Many of my elective courses in my studies were in English because that’s how I designed my study. It is one of my biggest regrets. When people ask me what I studied, I usually only say “biology/chemistry and political science”.

And now that I’m here, I have many opportunities to think about my language immersion experience. It has only been 2 or 3 weeks but it has been quite dynamic.

My skills with Spanish have changed. Sometimes it feels like they are improving. And then other times, I am sitting there. In a room. With 10 other teachers. Completely lost.

It’s weird. Because I want to improve my ability to understand Spanish. I put myself in situations where I am hearing the language often. But something internal has to happen, I think, in order for me to truly “click”. For my brain to say “yes, Stuart. You can understand this stuff now.” But this is fallacy, no? Because it would be easy for me to tell myself that it’ll happen while at the same time I’m not doing anything to really make it happen.

Lesson Number 1: Always put yourself in situations where you have to understand or speak Spanish.
I am very shy, and I do not like doing new things if I don’t completely understand how they function. It would be so simple for me to rely solely on my friends who speak Spanish and English well. But then where would I be? It’s not so easy for me to avoid a teacher’s meeting just because I don’t know the language. But I still have the choice of whether I speak English or Spanish.

Lesson Number 2: Being immersed can be stressful.
I won’t lie. In my first meeting with the teachers, I understood about 35% of what they were saying. When it was my turn to present my class details, I spoke in English. I thought it would help me feel more comfortable in that situation. But, no. It made me feel even more like an outsider. The teachers were very kind and attempted to truly understand what I was saying, but the discussion seemed to build this invisible wall.

The second week, in the teacher’s meeting, I hesitated. The Director of Education turns to me and says, “You can skip if you want.” I see the wall growing larger. No! I cannot skip. And I must try to speak Spanish. And so I did. Afterwards, I literally could not remember what I said about my class. But the Director said that it was at least understandable. But the strangest part of this experience is what happened right after I spoke during the next teacher’s turn. I had this overwhelming urge to cry. Not because I was sad or embarrassed. Not because I felt like a fool. But I’m thinking it was because of the stress I felt in that situation. And if I had not been in a meeting with 10 other teachers, I might have let myself cry. Release the energy.

Lesson Number 3: Two Steps Forward, Four Steps Back
Each day is a new day. Some days I feel like I have improved while other days I feel like I know nothing about the Spanish language. I think this is a natural feeling. Just like learning science or political science, sometimes I knew the concepts really well, and sometimes I faltered. But then there was a point where I always knew some of the concepts really well.

And so I must wait diligently for that day. For when I can express myself well in Spanish and understand those people around me. Where I tear down the invisible wall I place between myself and others. Where I finally feel like I am no longer an outsider.

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2 thoughts on “Lessons Learned in Language Immersion

  1. Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is never easy and very nervewrecking…it happens to me each time I think of doing solo travel…but you will learn lots from it…all I can say is good luck and you are growing well!!! cheers! :D

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