by Jill Robinson
The final lesson in Greenheart Travel’s “Survival Spanish” course was held a few days ago, and I was quickly realizing that I should have attended the first five classes. Waiting for my turn in Spanish Jeopardy, I began to sweat. I had completely blanked on how to say “I’m from Iowa” in Espanol and I was feeling intimidated.
Our teacher, and a fellow Greenheart Travel colleague, Lizzy Leahy, wrapped up the sixth class of the session with an overview of the course. The four other students had attended the previous classes, and Jeopardy was to be the final test. Of course, just when I thought the prize of a Divine dark chocolate candy bar would be mine for the taking, I started drawing a blank. My tongue would get stiff, and I tried to avoid saying any Spanish word that involved rolling my “r’s.”
Learning a language is humbling. Suddenly, a simple question like “Que te gusta hacer?” becomes daunting. There are hundreds of thing I like to do, but to answer in Spanish, my vocabulary limits me to three activities: “Me gusta correr” ( I like to run.), “Me gusta leer” ( I like to read.) or “Me gusta comer.” (I like to eat.) Even more frustrating is that I went to Spain last year on my own, worked with many Spanish-speakers in past jobs and have taken Spanish in high school and even a year or two in college. How can it be possible that I have forgotten how to say “I am 29 years old?” Oh, I know, because I haven’t SPOKEN the language in quite a few months.
As the group of us whispered our answers, avoiding the 400 and 500 point questions, we laughed at our mistakes. The atmosphere was perfect for beginner lessons, and we cheered each other on no matter who got the Jeopardy points. As we moved to the floor for the second game, circled around a game of “Memory,” confidence was beginning to build. Our muttered sentences became a little more self-assured just as it was time to say “adios.”
To learn a language, you have to speak and think in that language. This is exhausting and frustrating, and too often we think it will only take a few weeks to catch on. It’s an ongoing process. Like staying in shape, you have to keep at it or you’ll find yourself back at the beginning. It was clear that I could get all the Spanish “word of the day” emails I wanted, but until you really start conversing, fumbling over pronunciation in conversation and learning the hard way that “cansada” and “casada” mean two completely different things, I would always be restricted to saying “hello” and “I like to eat chicken” in Spanish. That’s not a very effective way to learn about a culture. Travel is about immersion and conversation, and what better way to build confidence than being able to say “Estoy perdido,” when you’re in Spain and can’t find the train?