Naturally, one would expect that learning another language while traveling abroad is one of the many benefits of long-term travel. It’s a badge of honor for backpackers to add to their street cred as serious travelers by knowing at least one foreign language or at the very least, knowing all of the slang. The appeal of attaining this merit badge is certainly not lost on me, and as such, one of my top priorities for the South America leg of my trip is once and for all, achieving near fluency in Spanish.
I have flirted with the Spanish language several times over the past 15 years through high school classes, jobs, and language programs abroad (one in Costa Rica and one in Spain). Towards the end of each learning experience I always feel like I’m just about near fluency, but having a lack of opportunities to practice in my normal life, I find myself quickly forgetting most of what I learned, and I soon revert back to having only intermediate skills. Well, since I don’t really have all that much on my plate for the next two years, I think it would be a shame if I left South America with the same mediocre Spanish skills and so I’m getting serious about learning this time.
Looking back at my past failures in cementing the language in my head, I think the two major problems I had were underestimating the effort and patience it takes to learn a language and failing to fully immerse myself in the culture. Often times, I assumed that because I had already studied Spanish in high school that I could make do with short refresher courses or that “being around Spanish influences” would somehow magically rewire my brain to fully comprehend the language. As you can imagine, this mindset was not very conducive to my learning efforts. The other major pitfall is unfortunately, being around others who speak English. Especially when you’re in a foreign country and wanting to make friends, it’s hard getting to know people when you’re limited to, “Me gustan mucho los perros”, so it comes as no surprise that people gravitate towards their common language, which is usually English. Being around English speaking people is rather unavoidable and quite frankly, not something I want to restrict as a solo traveler, but the effort and patience piece I could stand to improve here on this trip.
Now, I have no excuses for not improving my Spanish – no time-consuming distractions and no lack of opportunity to speak the language – and so I’m making one final investment in education materials and setting up a reasonable but consistent schedule of practicing Spanish outside of my normal routine in the hopes that I can achieve some level of fluency by July of this year. Here in Puno, it’s surprising how much English I’m speaking at times, but hopefully when I make my way to the shrimp farm in Ecuador (I’ll fill you in on more details about that later in the month) I will find myself in more Spanish-speaking company to help achieve my goals. And if that plan proves to be less than successful, well, I expect to be in Colombia soon enough and I’ll just have to resort to the cliché of enlisting a latin lover as my personal tutor.
I’ll provide an update on how successful my learning strategy is in July, though if I “forget”, it’s likely because I don’t want to admit failure once again.
What happens next?
Assuming I achieve my goal of near fluency in Spanish by the end of this year, the next language on my to-learn list is French. I did study Italian in college and that language would probably be easier to pick up than French at this point, but given my travel plans for the Middle East and Africa, I think French will be more useful. That and the fact that I’m one of those rare Americans who adores the French, their sexy accents and anything else having to do with the land of escargot and champagne are further motivation for learning French.