The last time I tried learning a language I was a teenager. It was during secondary school when you’re required to choose an extra language beside English and your options are either French or German. Not having the greatest options, I chose French somehow believing it was more relevant. It wasn’t exactly my favourite subject. When I got to high school I had the pleasure of doing three more years learning this language I would never use. And after six years of practicing, I could write a six-page essay but barely order a coffee in Paris.
It’s safe to say that I forgot most of my French-knowledge straight out of school. It was a forced attempt of learning something that I was barely interested in. And if the interest was there, the number of teachers in front of the blackboard ranged from bad to frightening. Yes, frightening, one of them was a living nightmare and inspired hatred at best. So whether it was a series of bad luck with French teachers or the fact that it was a forced effort only to gain a general education, I never really learned French. I could write it, could understand some, but I had no speaking skills, which is sort of the point with a language.
So with that experience, I avoided ever learning another language, till now. Traveling around South America, a continent where at least less than 50% speak English, the experience will be rather limited without any Spanish skills. Both because you’re missing out on meeting all the people who can’t speak English and because you’ll always be just a tourist and therefore treated as one (aka. ripped off). And traveling solo, you definitely feel more at ease when you can understand what everyone else is saying. So my motivation to learn a language is very present this time.
I travelled through Brazil without learning any Portuguese, deliberately holding out for the Spanish. Learning one new language would definitely be enough for now. But when I arrived in Argentina, those few Portuguese phrases I picked up anyway, were hard to shake. Especially trading the “todo bom” for “todo bien”. After some research I signed up for two weeks of intensive Spanish course in Buenos Aires with the El Pasaje Spanish School thinking two intensive weeks would be plenty. I should have done two months. Guess I forgot how little I learned after six years of French.
Arriving at this school was a lot nicer than most other schools I’ve attended, with free coffee and a pingpong table!
Being back at school was nice though, a gathering of fellow travellers all with the same goal of being less of a foreigner abroad. Classes were kept small, only 5 students, which was a nice size for all to do some talking and getting enough attention from the teacher. And the teacher was nothing like my previous French teachers. Of course, it probably helps that the students here actually want to learn something.
The first week we learned basic words and the construction of sentences, but it was first during the second week I felt like I could speak some Spanish to others outside the class. And I could actually order my coffee the way I like it, which was very helpful. The biggest obstacle for me with new languages is probably what everyone find the hardest, the speaking. I can understand at least the double of what I can say, and I guess that’s what you need to learn the most when you’re traveling, no one cares about your writing. This is where the classes helped me the most. Any app or online course could have me writing a few Spanish sentences, but the classes really emphasised on talking and forcing you to jump into it, trying and failing. It helped me to get over myself being afraid of making mistakes, having to speak freely without any books. Had I known how hard it was, and how little you actually know after two weeks, I would have signed up for at least four weeks, but I had a flight to catch.
So without the school I’m going to have to tap in to that self-discipline again, forcing myself to stutter and look for words whenever speaking instead of taking the easy way out. Even though it feels like trying to talk without a tongue, at least I want to learn, which is probably the only thing that will keep me trying when people look at me like I’m a mumbling idiot.