Struggling to Learn a New Language

I’ve never been one of those people who can pick up a language easily.  Everyone has a friend that knows at least a few words from every place they’ve ever visited.  It’s impressive – and intimidating! I’ve lived, worked, traveled, and researched in many countries before: Uganda, Australia, Nepal, Ghana, Bangladesh… But the working language has always been English.  I may have struggled to haggle with women selling fruit in the market, or tell the taxi driver where I’m going – but I was always okay in the office, doing my work in English.


Now I live in Bolivia, so everything has changed. I won’t just be here for a just few weeks (able to just stumble my way through and get by with charades), I’ll be here for an entire year! Although my director speaks English, every other person at my office is entirely Spanish. They can say “Hello, how are you?” in English, but that’s about it.  In fact, the job I applied for required almost fluent Spanish.  Thankfully (for me), my field is very specific (Industrial Design), and my organization struggled to find someone with the appropriate skills. Not only did they have to find a designer, it had to be someone who wanted to work in the non-profit world, who was willing to relocate to another continent, learn a different language, and work for a small stipend – not an easy find! In the end, they figured it would be easier to teach someone Spanish than design, so I was hired!


When I accepted the position, there was an understanding between myself and the organization.  I would learn as much of the language as I could in the 4 months before I left, and they would provide some money to take classes when I arrived in the country, so I could get off to a good start.  Even before I started work, I went around the city to check out my options.  Thankfully Sucre is full of language schools.  Many people come here to learn Spanish, since this region is known for speaking slowly and clearly (in comparison to Latin American countries for example – where they speak really quickly). We managed to find a class right by our house (less than 2 blocks away) that was well known and reputable.  Since there were 2 of us, they gave us each a discounted rate, since we would be taking classes in a “group” of 2.  We would start on the second day of my work, and we agreed to take 2 hours of class each day, 5 days a week.

20160824_203303254_iosThe first week was pretty easy for me, but tough for my partner (Steve) since he hadn’t taken any classes before arriving.  We went over conjugating simple verbs in present and various vocabulary sets that might be useful in everyday life (a lot of our first classes involved sorting words like this one on the right – the Spanish days of the week).  However, as the weeks progressed it got harder and harder.  At this point I know the verbs in present, but then I also have to know which of the 4 past tenses to use, and which of the 3 future tenses to use (and that doesn’t even include conditional tenses which I haven’t learned yet!).  I’m not going to pretend that I never feel overwhelmed and want to give up.  But I’m the type of person who perseveres.  Yes, this year is going to be difficult, but if I spend a year exploring a new country, getting an exciting new project off the ground, and I learn Spanish – wow!  Won’t that be something 🙂

2016-09-29According to this YouTube video (which is an excerpt from TedEd – The benefits of a bilingual brain by Mia Nacamulli), bilingualism can have really interesting effects on your brain.  Although it may cause you to make a few more mistakes in each language, or respond more slowly (especially when you’re learning), it has also been shown that people who speak multiple languages actually think differently. While learning a new language, you actually see the world through that lens, and evidence shows you are less likely to have emotional bias, and you are more rational when learning your second language. Apparently being multilingual can even delay the onset of Alzheimer’s/Dementia for up to 5 years!  Another benefit is that it’s been shown to improve executive functioning (including problem solving, switching between tasks, and focusing while filtering irrelevant information), which sounds helpful.  Obviously the biggest benefit is being able to speak to more people around the world – which opens up a lot of opportunities for work, travel, and meeting new friends! As Nelson Mandela once said:

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Based on this video, I would be classified as a “subordinate bilingual”, which means that I’m learning a language (Spanish) by filtering and translating from another language (English).  I think this is the hardest way to learn, since your mind is constantly translating everything. It’s especially difficult when you know some of another language (like French), because the second word your mind reaches for may be in the wrong language.  This is why I would recommend not trying to learn more than one language at once.  It may be possible for some people, but it’s way too confusing for me!

20160824_185955435_iosI’ve been taking classes for over a month now.  I’m definitely not perfect, but I can see progress.  In fact, I remember the first time I had an entire conversation with a native Spanish speaker, with no English to lean on.  I was sitting at my colleague’s desk while she printed out a few documents for me.  It wasn’t a very in-depth conversation, but we chatted about the weather, and what we would do on the weekend, and what I thought about Sucre.  I’m sure I made a lot of mistakes but the point is that she understood me, and I understood her, and isn’t that the whole point of communication anyway?


Learning a new language definitely isn’t easy.  Some days are hard, and some days are impossible! On those days you should take a little break and go get ice cream in the park – it’s okay, you earned it! But some days will go really well.  You’ll have a conversation and you’ll feel understand.  Hopefully with a few months of practice, those few simple words will turn into lengthy conversations. Before you know it, you won’t be translating and you’ll just be speaking! That’s my hope anyway…

So that’s my mission – learning Spanish – poco a poco!


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