8 unexpected lessons I gained from learning a second language
I can’t forget the first time I was immersed in a language that wasn’t my own. I was 24 and on a vacation in a city in northern Brazil. Apart from being able to say “good morning,” “thank you” and order a beer on the sweltering shores of Recife’s Boa Viagem beach, I had no Portuguese. The words that my friend—a local—spoke came out of her mouth in the most fantastic rhythm. I envied the way she switched from Portuguese to English flawlessly with such ease.
The next time I had this experience, I was in Colombia. On the Caribbean island of San Andres, my friend (different person) directed our taxi driver through narrow island streets. We were lost. Without her Spanish, I myself would have been hopeless. In the cramped streets where locals flooded out from the bars, she chatted, laughed, and translated. I thought to myself that Spanish sounded richer than Colombian coffee tastes. The rhyme of the words and the way conversations took on a sort of melody… For me, an English-speaking girl from Ontario, this felt like discovering a new song and I wanted to learn the lyrics.
A couple of years later, I took that jump.
I now speak Spanish (not quite fluently but I plan to get there). Having a second language is so important—at least to me and to many travellers curious about conversing with folks from all over the world. I first started learning the language five years ago. I expected to learn verbs, vocabulary, funny local slang and turns of phrase that don’t quite translate into English, sure. What I didn’t realize is that learning another language brings with it so many other lessons. Here are eight things I’ve learned.
1. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
When learning another language, you can’t take yourself too seriously… even if you try. It’s best to have a sense of humour from the beginning. You will mess up. You will forget the words you just learned. You will say something totally weird even when you meant to say something else. You will also have those awkward moments when all you can do is smile and nod. I always feel like the foreign girl putting my foot in my mouth, mispronouncing something, mixing up really key words and therefore impressively altering what I intended to say. I slip out slang from one region in another where locals don’t know what I’m talking about. I once told a date I was heading home because I was “casada,” married. What I meant was “cansada,” tired. I still laugh at how unfortunately hilarious this is. At least stuff like this makes for a funny story, right?
2. Be compassionate towards those learning *your* language and culture.
Committing to learning (and memorizing) literally all of the words is already a difficult endeavour. Now add in the layer of doing this when everybody you're surrounded by is already a native speaker. It’s an extremely vulnerable place to be. In doing so, you feel compassionate towards others doing the same thing under much harder circumstances. I have the utmost respect for anyone who comes to Canada to work, study, raise a family, and learn English at the same time. The same goes for those who travel to parts of the world where the locals aren’t so kind as to attempt to speak their language or be patient as they piece together the words. We all have to start somewhere and I’ve had it easy by comparison. We often highlight the perks of exploring new cultures but let’s also talk about the respect we owe those who do it.
3. Have respect for slow processes and stick with them.
Learning another language is a process that’s slower than the flight delays that are now a part of our reality. (At least for me anyway. I have so much admiration for those who absorb languages like a sponge!) I learned to respect—and have faith in— the process. Speaking at least two languages just makes for easier and richer travel experiences. In Canada, a bilingual country, I think that we really all should be conversational in our nation’s two official languages and therefore familiar with the journey of going from beginner, to basic, to functional, conversational and fluent. As it is, I have grade 12 French which is more practical for a classroom setting than for actually speaking. In learning Spanish in a Spanish-speaking country, I learned that the process takes a lot (and I mean A LOT) of effort. The hard things are worth sticking to though. Bit by bit, it gets easier. It’s so rewarding to look back at how far I’ve come. I’ve connected with people from at least six countries as a result. Some things just take time.
4. Trust others.
A lot of the conversation about travel is rife with warnings, safety advice, and precautions. How to travel solo. How to safeguard your stuff. Advice for female travellers. That absolutely is warranted and has a valuable place. Another perspective, which I’ve gained through learning another language, is that there are so many good people who are rooting for you, appreciate your efforts, and want to help. When it comes to language barriers, the kindness of strangers goes so far since you’re out of your element. I wish there was space here to list all the times when someone has had the patience to: repeat themself, explain something to me in a different way, speak slowly, or offer to translate. Sometimes there’s a smile of pleasant surprise when I start speaking. If I stumble or pause, it’s always, “Yes you’ve got it!” People are really on your side more than you may know. Before travelling, there were always conversations hinged on worry and fear. I didn’t realize that teamwork and no-strings-attached support are part of human nature.
5. Celebrate the little milestones.
Speaking Spanish wasn’t even something that was remotely on my radar. Not even a little bit. I’m Irish-Canadian from Ontario. Geographically and culturally, I didn’t have a lot of exposure to Spanish or the cultures that speak it. But, sometimes the milestones or achievements that are completely unexpected are the best ones. That’s also true for when trips divert from the itinerary or when travels take a detour. Relax into these surprises and go with them! That’s what my experience has taught me anyway. When your wanderlust encourages you to learn another language, there are so many underrated milestones you hit along the way. Your 100th conversation in said language. Your first social activity speaking it. The period when you stop prefacing interactions with “I don’t really speak X.” The days you realize you haven’t spoken your first language all day. These are all such good reasons to be proud of yourself.
6. Committing to small actions is better than doing nothing.
I’m a total perfectionist. Recovering perfectionist. To my detriment. For me, if I can’t do something 110%, I’m disappointed. How many experiences—travel or otherwise—do people like me miss out on with that mindset? If you’re travel-savvy and looking to pick up another language, having sky-high standards is awful. You’re not going to become fluent in a few short months. There’s no “perfect” way to study or advance your skills. And perfectionists can be hyper-critical of themselves so making mistakes or sounding “stupid” can be triggering.
As much as hustling to fluency would be a solution, that’s not realistic for most travellers. Ummmm hello, you came to explore and do fun stuff on vacay! You’re not going to be in class all day and hitting the books at night. (Unless you specifically came for an immersion program and in that case, International Experience Canada offers programs that would help you do that while living abroad temporarily.) I’ve learned that small actions move the needle and add up. I make an effort to chat with folks in my neighbourhood, only date in Spanish, start interactions in Spanish even when I know someone is probably fluent in English, I have a group of bilingual friends, and joined a hiking group which encourages me to practice. Sure, it’s no 5 a.m. study session, but it works.
7. Other people aren’t judging your mistakes.
A little secret: nobody cares when you slip up. Literally nobody. Speaking specifically about language, not a single soul is judging my conjugations, accent errors, or work-arounds when I don’t know something. (And believe me, those can get interesting…) That’s true for most things most of the time. If you’re on the road, ask for directions, admit you’ve never tried a certain local cuisine, and ask the “dumb” questions. The only people who care are the jerks.
8. You’re capable of learning hard things.
Travel is one of the best examples of the kind of thing that gets you out of your box and makes your comfort zone wider and wider. Piecing together parts of a language bit by bit is also like that. All of a sudden you realize that you are capable of doing the hard thing. Hearing my friends’ smooth-as-butter foreign tongues, I was in awe. “I’ll never be as fluent as her.” “You have to learn a language as a child or else it’s nearly impossible.” “Bilingual people are SO smart!” I told myself all of those things.
Five years later, I see I downplayed my own potential. We’re all capable of learning new, difficult things. My friend, take that solo trip. Go to that faraway place you’ve always dreamed about. Commit to that multi-day trek you think you’re not strong enough to do. You’re capable, trust me.
P.S. In writing this, I’m committing to a month of intensive Spanish to bump it up a notch. You know, just to put my money where my half-bilingual mouth is.