• Mar

    The Importance of Learning Spanish: Part 2


    In an earlier post, I wrote about the importance (and challenges) of learning Spanish. For me, learning the language was important, for a couple of reasons. First, it was a sign of respect. Secondly, I knew it would help me navigate the culture. Nothing is worse than not being able to make yourself understood.

    It all started a number of years ago, when I went with my now ex-girlfriend to Mexico. I was working really hard at the time, trying to meet some deadlines before we left. I hadn’t even thought much about where we were going; it was just a holiday, and a way to blow off some steam.

    I wasn’t prepared for what happened. I encountered a life and a culture that fascinated me. I also found that I loved the ways of the Mexican people and I wanted to spend more time with them, but I was totally frustrated that I didn’t understand anything. I didn’t even know how to say: “Hello.” My ex had to teach me that, and many other things.

    It was quite humbling. I was so stuck in my own little world that I couldn’t see anything else. And once I was taken away from that and shown Mexico, my life changed dramatically. It was hell to get on the plane to go back to Canada.

    When we returned, I told my ex that I wanted to learn Spanish. She didn’t believe me. Still, within a couple of week of returning, I’d enrolled in a Spanish immersion program at a local church. Man, was it hard. I didn’t undertand anything and I felt like a total dork.

    Still, I kept going. Over time, I began to learn the language, but it wasn’t easy. There was so much I didn’t understand. As it turned out, learning the language was a good idea, partly because my girlfriend and me broke up a year later. After moving out, the last place I wanted to be was Victoria, so I went to Mexico for several months.

    While there, I enrolled in some Spanish courses and kept studying. Still, my knowledge was rudimentary at best and I couldn’t hold a conversation. Still, I kept on trying. One of the things I was told is that I’d have to tune my ear to the language. With that in mind, I put myself into difficult situations where a lot of Spanish was being spoken.

    I didn’t want to say much in those encounters, but just wanted to listen and learn. (I was also scared silly of making a mistake.) This fear is common to many foreigners learning another language, as I found out later.

    In the course of learning, I discovered that even if you try to speak a little Spanish, it helps. I recall walking into a store in Puerto Vallarta. When the clerk there knew that I could speak a little Spanish, she lit up like a Christmas tree.

    In other cases, where Mexican people saw I was making a genuine effort, they opened their heards and their lives to me. Many times I was invited into people’s homes and in one case, I was adopted by a Mexican couple who only knew a few words of English. They let me know that if I hung out with them, my Spanish would be much better. They were right.

    Over time, my ability to speak has gotten better, largely because I’m willing to place myself in uncomfortable situations to learn the language. One thing that helped me out enormously was to start a conversational Spanish group in Victoria. Ironically, when I returned to Mexico after some time away, my Spanish was better, from the time I spent practicing in Canada.

    How much it had changed became apparent when I came back to Mexico. I found I was able to have conversations with some of my friends without much difficulty, much to my amazement.

    Where I could really see the difference was last winter, when I was in La Paz. I needed to find out about getting an aircard from telcel. The first place I went to, I had trouble because of my lack of technical Spanish knowledge and also because the clerk wanted to sign me up for a plan, when I wanted to buy the aircard outright and buy pay as you go cards. I finally gave up and left.

    I walked 2 blocks down the street and found another telcel office to try again. I had the same issues about technical words but I did my best. Still, I was having trouble. That’s when a man (by the name of Carlos) came out from the back. He helped me with getting set up and made sure I had the right type of service. He also told me that I’d made a good impression on him.

    Why? Because I spoke in Spanish to the sales people there. Even though I was having difficulties, he appreciated that I was making an effort. He also told me that most foreigners who come into the office speak English to the staff and expect them to know it, which isn’t the case.

    The end result was a great connection and a valuable contact. Carlos went further to let me know that when I came back to La Paz the following winter, to look him up and he would set me up with service again. He was as good as his word. I got everything I needed and I’m back online with my aircard again.

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