I’ve been a lover of foreign languages since high school which, sadly, is the first time I was even presented with the opportunity to learn one. Growing up in a small, conservative town in rural central Washington State, there was a general lack of enthusiasm for foreign languages. My family vacationed on the beaches of Washington rather than taking extravagant overseas trips; many of my neighbors were of the opinion that, since we lived in America where the official language is English, that it was the ONLY language we should need to know. Never mind the enormous Spanish-speaking immigrant population that made up nearly a third of our town…this is America! We speak English!
And growing up, I didn’t even realize what I was missing. I led a relatively sheltered, safe upbringing which I am thankful for in many ways, but it wasn’t even until my late teens that I realized how much of the rest of the world was raised multi-lingual; whether at home or in school, they were learning another language, practically from infancy, and as a result had already been enjoying fluency for years by the time I learned how to say “Hola, me llamo Leah.”
My bookshelf at home is overflowing with Latin-based dictionaries–at one point or another I’ve dabbled in Italian, Portuguese, and French–and I have a tendency to gravitate toward people of other nationalities during my travels and aim to learn at least one word or phrase in their native tongue (my favorite German word, to this day, is schmetterling, the rather delicate translation of butterfly; my favorite way to say cheers? Egészségedre! in Hungarian). I lived in Thailand for a year and a half and began studying Thai (my first tonal language) intensively, learning to read and write that crazy squiggly alphabet and speak at a near conversational level, but eventually let my efforts slip as I realized its near uselessness outside of the land of smiles.
I’d love to one day proudly bear the title of polyglot, but lately I’m finding even reaching a point of fluency in one measly foreign language exceedingly difficult.
Spanish has always been my one true love, and I studied it diligently in high school and again briefly at university. But then my priorities shifted and maintaining my Spanish skills fell to the bottom of the list. An embarrassing period of seven years passed before I began to wonder why I was letting all that knowledge go to waste and why I was burying one of the few things I’d always felt passionate about deep in the recesses of my mind.
I felt certain that by going to Latin America I would be able to recover much of the Spanish I’d lost over the years, and to some degree I did achieve that. On the other hand, I spent a significant amount of my time with other English speakers, losing out on opportunities for conversation with native Spanish-speakers, which I whole-heartedly believe to be the ONLY way I will ever achieve my idea of fluency (the ability to speak that casual, slang- and idiom-riddled Spanish you don’t learn in school).
I still struggle with complex grammar, I still struggle with listening comprehension, my vocabulary is still insufficient. And I’m back in the states where daily interactions in Spanish are far less likely. But since my goal after a few months is still to relocate semi-permanently to Latin America, I’m not giving up.
I’ve been slowly transitioning back into the working world, and I’ve been able to use Spanish on the job much more than I had anticipated. I’ve also stumbled onto an opportunity to tutor a kindergarten-aged boy in beginning Spanish which is as good an excuse as any to continue to enhance my own knowledge (if I can’t stay one step ahead of a 6-year-old, we have a problem). I’ve re-discovered my Duolingo account (a free web-based language learning tool) and am halfway through a short novel entitled ‘La casa en Mango Street.’
But I’m always looking for more ways to practice. If you have a method for learning a language that you find particularly helpful, I’d love to hear about it. At this point I can use all the help I can get! Gracias! Obrigado! Merci! Khob kun ka! Danke!