Language Acquisition: The Ongoing Trial

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!

I feel you, kid.

I feel you, kid.

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About Leah Davis

Hey! I'm Leah. I'm a solo traveler letting my heart lead me around the world, one country at a time. I've taught English in Thailand, climbed the Sydney Harbor Bridge, gone skydiving in Argentina, and marveled at the ruins at Machu Picchu (twice!). I love maps, strong coffee, good wine and warm climates. For even more travel talk and inspiration, you can follow my adventures on Twitter or Instagram.
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9 Responses to Language Acquisition: The Ongoing Trial

  1. Laura iE-USA says:

    I agree that speaking with natives is one of the best ways. But I also found (as our post mentions) that singing along to songs gets you both fluent and learning slang from different countries. Try out Shakira songs first, or Bacilos! Also, books translated into Spanish are also fun.

  2. Hangul Love says:

    Don’t polyglots make your one language look like nothing? I wish I had it in me to learn more than one, but it’s not in the cards, I don’t think.

    Language acquisition is hard. I’m willing to say even more difficult for an American because we don’t exactly have a ton of opportunities to learn them as you said. Also, I’ve often felt like many Americans look at learning a new language (as a hobby) a waste of time. I’ve felt the same sentiment here in Korea. But don’t give up. Learning a new language can only benefit your life. And if you have the time to start doing it then I say it’s time well spent. “What would I otherwise be doing?”, is how I like to think about it. I’d be sitting on my butt getting nothing accomplished. In Korean there is a term 힘 내! Him nae. It means “cheer up”. Now you have another word to add to your arsenal.

    —Charm

    • lamochilera says:

      Charm I couldn’t agree more! Polyglots have always fascinated me, how do they do it?? I think I need a support group or something to give me a kick in the pants every now and then haha, so thanks for the motivation! I do have a ton of resources at my disposal already, so it’s just a matter of utilizing them.

      And thanks for the mini Korean lesson, I’ll remember that for sure! Good luck to you!

  3. adamf2011 says:

    Soap operas, no subtitles.

  4. Jason says:

    It sounds like you are doing what you can to keep up with your Spanish. One of my favorite ways to keep up with my foreign language skills is through reading and watching newspapers/news clips in that language. I have set goals in the past (one German movie a month and two books a year, for the rest of my life, for example–I’ve already outlived this one), but with my non-English-as-a-first-language friends posting links to articles on Facebook that catch my eye and my general fondness for following news stories and reading about them from various viewpoints, news is a natural and easy way for me to attempt to learn/keep up with my language acquisition skills. It is also a great way for me to learn or brush up on the vocabulary I need to discuss a certain issue or topic in a language other than English without feeling flustered that I cannot express my thoughts on the topic at hand.

    Also, I’ve always been a flashcard person and found the Brainscape Spanish language app immensely helpful when trying to learn Spanish. I primarily used it when traveling on long-distance buses, but it would be great for a few minutes of language practice while waiting for public transport if you were somewhere where you could have your attention on a smartphone and not be concerned that the chances someone will snatch it out of your hands and run are upwards of 70%.

    German was my first foreign language, and as a traveler who spends a lot of time with other travelers I thankfully have loads of opportunities to practice my German thanks to their omnipresence on every traveler’s trail I’ve been on. Because rarely a week went by without me communicating in German at least a bit from the time I left Germany after a year abroad in 2009 and my arrival in Buenos Aires in January 2013, and because I dabbled with el-lugha Arbiyah (I love that transliteration allows one to spell a word in the language he or she knows best however he or she chooses) for a couple of years during that time without feeling like it had any impact on my German proficiency, I thought that I could be a polyglot if I put my mind to it.

    Then I spent six months attempting to bag the Spanish basics through Memrise practice, DuoLingo, and aprender en la calle (I can’t italicize here!) in the Rio Platense region, practicing my German rarely but thinking about it often while expanding my Spanish lexicon and learning new grammatical rules (by this I mean I would learn a new word–mariposa, for example, and without even trying I would naturally think “butterfly, schmetterling, mariposa)”. Awesome that my brain is doing this, I thought–not only am I learning a new language, I’m constantly refreshing my German and giving my mind multiple triggers for these new Spanish words I’m learning. If only…

    As I worked my way toward Central America and left the Spanish-speaking communities I had joined short-term in Buenos Aires and Uruguay I found myself in the company of native German speakers again, and I found that I could only speak to them in English or in Sperman. Shit, my rudimentary Spanish had crowded out my ability to think and speak pure German.

    Since leaving Latin America, I am happy to say that my German has returned, but very much so at the expense of the Spanish I learned while in the region. I am now doubtful that I could be a polyglot even if I devoted my life’s time and energy to it. I imagine that it is easier for people who grow up multi-lingual, and not just bilingual (I grew up neither of these things) to keep their languages straight, but maybe that’s just a cop-out. In any case, I’ve accepted that I probably won’t be a polyglot but, by focusing on one language at a time, can learn enough of a language to communicate with people in their own terms when traveling or living in their land….even if those language skills evaporate rather rapidly once I leave their linguistic territory and start focusing on another language.

    • LaMochilera says:

      Reading definitely helps me in terms of learning new vocabulary and understanding written Spanish, but I find that I still stumble over my words when I’ve gone a long time without actually speaking it. There are plenty of people to chat with around here though, so I just need to get over myself and start striking up conversation with strangers!

      And yes agreed, one at a time is easiest, and learning a bit of the language of the place you’re traveling is always a must. I’d love to learn German someday…that elusive day of the week, someday.

  5. Jared S. says:

    Leah, it’s been an absolute pleasure hearing about your various travels and adventures through blog posts and Facebook pics… I have to say, the above post embodies for me one of the biggest drawbacks of having grown up in C-town. Not that it was bad, per se, but it’s happy in its isolation. I do love coming back every once in a while, but after a week or two, I’m ready to be back on the road.

    Regarding language learning…you’re right in that nothing beats getting yourself out of your comfort zone and immersing yourself in the language. Apart from that, I’ve also tried a bit of duolingo for Spanish/Portuguese with limited success…but the one thing I have found immensely helpful is language podcasts. They’ve been a great way for me to keep up with my Chinese while living in San Diego (incidentally…not a bad place to live if you want Spanish practice), and I also managed to learn basic conversational Indonesian through podcasting as well. Just a thought…

    Will be stationed in Okinawa for 2 years starting in August, let me know if you set your sights in that direction!

    • LaMochilera says:

      Thank you Jared! It makes me so happy to know you enjoy reading, and I love that you’ve gotten out of the small town life to see some of the world as well.

      The podcast idea is a great one, I’m going to give that a try for sure! Definitely something I hadn’t thought of. I do like Duolingo for grammar, but it sounds so robotic and not at all like a native speaker!

      Best of luck to you in Japan, my grandfather spent time in Okinawa too when he was in the Navy, I would love to see it someday. You’re on my radar if that’s where life takes me!

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