By Conor Sanchez
“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
I knew learning a new language would be tough. I wasn’t even learning from scratch like my wife who arrived with virtually no practice, for which I’ll always admire her immensely. Still, I knew how much effort I’d need to devote to gain proficiency.
I had studied Spanish in some form or another since elementary school and continued on and off until my senior year of high school. I graduated being able to count to 100, list off a few colors, and introduce myself to strangers.
Then I went to college, where I started writing papers and reading short novels in Spanish (with lots of help from Google Translate). I scraped by until I reached 300 level courses with sufficient credits for a minor. Still, I could not speak Spanish.
It wasn’t for a lack of effort. I wanted to speak Spanish. I wanted to sound like my older brother and sister who had both traveled and lived in Latin America. One day I wanted to raise my kids speaking Spanish as my siblings have been doing with theirs.
Moreover, I wanted to find that connection with my own heritage as a Hispanic-American, whose grandmother felt she couldn’t teach her children Spanish because of the immense pressure to assimilate (even though she was born in a U.S. state whose constitution was written in both languages).
I also recognized the distinct professional advantages conferred upon those who had a second or third language under their belt. I had read about studies showing that adults who speak multiple languages seem to resist the effects of dementia far better than monolinguals do. Not that I was particularly concerned about losing my mind, but it was clearly a good return-on-investment, if not monetarily, then certainly cognitively.
I graduated from college promising myself that one day I would get down to Latin America to really learn the language. One day I’d devote the necessary hours of being frustrated, practicing with strangers, making mistakes, and sounding foolish in order to gain true fluency. One day I’d do it. But like all “one days,” that day turned out being pretty elusive.
It remained elusive for about five years, until finally, one day, I got an invitation to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a Spanish-speaking country. Michaela (who also had the motivation to learn) and I were both pleasantly surprised. Although we had stated a preference for Latin America, at that time, Peace Corps still didn’t allow you to apply to specific programs and were therefore placed at the whim of whatever program matching your skill set was opening soonest. In fact, we were originally nominated for the Eastern Caribbean.
While a huge part of me wanted to be open and flexible to where my technical skills were needed, I also wanted to build off of the foundation I already had. I felt my passion for learning Spanish would enhance my dedication and commitment to the community in which I served, and therefore make me a more effective Volunteer. In December 2013, my wife and I accepted our invitation to serve as TEFL Teacher Trainers in Nicaragua.
The climb has been gradual, if at times grinding, but with each progressive step it has also been invigorating. I’m nowhere near the top (if that even exists), but I’ve certainly reached a lookout point from where I can clearly see the start-line. In groups of 3-4, we began in August with daily Spanish classes held in the living rooms of our host-families. I arrived as novice-high and by the end of training I tested out at intermediate-high.
Then, last week, Michaela and I returned to our training communities to attend our last language workshop, a four-day intensive training focused purely on the advanced aspects of grammar like present subjunctive and imperfect subjunctive.
It was a linguistic nerd’s dream. It was also my first time back to my training community in three months, allowing me to compare my current level against my previous one. People in the community who I hadn’t spoken to in months could understand me better. I was able to communicate more freely with my host family, conversing about more nuanced topics that required me to express hypothetical ideas and conditional requests. It was a relief. It was motivation to keep going.
It was then that I realized that learning a new language is like stepping into another universe. In learning Spanish, I have not only learned to see a bigger world, but I’ve also realized I am at the tip of the iceberg. I imagine it’s comparable to how one must feel after grasping the potential in using poetry, music, or artwork as its own unique form of expression; once you know how to do it, there is simply so much you want to say!
It amazes me that I was once entrapped perfectly content within the confines my own linguistic borderlines. Although one day I’ll have to return, at least I’ll have a passport to leave, and not just to pay a visit, but to really explore and interact with a world that would otherwise be closed off to me.
The big costs have been, and will continue to be, my time, my level of comfort, and to some extent my pride since my command of the language is still relatively weak and I often end up saying some pretty ridiculous things.
But it’s so worth it. Intensive, immersive, communicative – in my mind, there is no better way to learn a new language.