The steep climb literally took my breath away. It was Day 2 of the Inca Trail, the most dreaded climb to the Dead Woman’s pass. I was exhausted, plagued by headaches, onset by the altitude at the 4,215m elevation, while I fought off sharp pains in my legs and in my chest that was aching for air. But I continued, repeating incantations in my head “I can do this, I can do this.” There were moments when I could have turned back, but I didn’t. I was determined not to let myself down, so I shifted into a zone where I was reassuring myself that I am strong enough, healthy enough, and then I got through it.This experience tested my comfort zone, like many other challenging hikes, bungee jumps, rafting trips and uncomfortable moments in foreign countries.
I’ve always yearned to live in another country. I always wanted to have a personal and cultural experience living somewhere else. It’s not that Troy and I don’t love Canada, but we have lived there our entire lives. Living in a new place meant communicating in their language, not mine. Acquiring a new language is a personal goal of mine, and it’s even more critical now that we want Colombia, South America to be our home base for part of each year.
Learning a new language is by far my biggest comfort zone challenge. It hits me hard at the core of my being. My self-respect and confidence are put to the test. It butts up against what I value in my life – my ability to contribute to inspiring conversations, my self-worth professionally in offering my marketing consulting expertise to my clients, and my desire to be an active voice in experiences, wherever I am in the world. Language is the center of my insecurity, of not being good enough, or smart enough.
Today, I received a call from my Uber driver ready to pick me up at my current home base in Medellín, Colombia. As he talked in his rapid pace (rapid enough for a Spanish language learner like me), I felt completely helpless, unable to tell him exactly where I was located while wondering why his GPS couldn’t possibly do the job (which is the advantage of using Uber in a foreign language country). I felt tense in my shoulders and neck trying to push away the stress, unable to get what I need, in an otherwise simple human to human transaction.
Learning Spanish tests me in some many ways and I find it mentally but also psychologically challenging. I blame my age (isn’t it typically harder to learn a new language later in life?) and my lack of focus in managing a full-time job. But the primary culprit is me – inside of my head.
Learning another language for necessity and personal challenge is nothing like learning a language when I was back in school. For me, learning French in Canada was mandatory, and it turned out to be very limited in necessity or challenge as I rarely used it in my 30+ years of living in the country. In my view, the standard classroom teaching environment is taught entirely wrong. A class of 35 students is expected to understand a language when the majority of the class is focussed on written grammatical exercises with a limited focus on speaking. This experience formed my perception about myself: that I can’t ‘DO’ languages. I don’t believe in my heart that this isn’t entirely accurate. Of course, my environment, circumstances and my state of mind will impact my ability to learn.
My perception of myself is creating my reality. Based on this, I continue to do my tango with the Spanish language. I am motivated one day and completely deflated the next. I am in and out of practice and lessons, hoping to be understood and to understand the conversations around me.
Every week I change my perspective on language learning and this time I’m doing what is right for me! Recently, I’ve had some deep revelations in the process.
Why am I pressuring myself to be ‘bilingual’ in a matter of months? This is not realistic for me. I’ve stopped pressuring myself with this notion that I should be at a certain stage of my language learning process. No time/date stamped progress. Instead, I am focussing on improvements, on progress. After reading this post about my struggles living with a family in Central America learning Spanish, I realize I have completely made huge leaps of progress.
Language Exchanges are informal meetups of Spanish and English-speaking people. They are very popular here in Colombia, and usually in a casual bar setting. It’s an opportunity to practice speaking in your new language and to contribute to helping others with their language learning challenge. I have grown to love these meetups because there is no judging, no criticizing; just warm friendly conversations that usually end up in Spanglish – I answer in Spanish, while my new friend asks a question in English. This scenario minimizes the comfort zone challenge, giving it a warm, inclusive environment.
My reality is that I understand grammar and sentence structure in Spanish very well. It’s when I put it into practice and open my mouth that I make all kinds of errors, with long pauses to think through what I am going to say. Speaking a new language is the most difficult part for me. I’ve recently learned how many Colombians here feel the same way about their English practice as I do with my Spanish. Often, they don’t even attempt to speak English at all, even though they understand it enough to carry on a short, basic conversation. They lack confidence and feel the same stress of making a mistake, looking silly or stupid, as I feel. It has helped me immensely to accept this as a human challenge, not necessarily my own challenge. At the same time, I need to get out of my own selfish head – how do the other millions of people that immigrate to Canada feel when they have to learn English?
For me, private tutoring is the way to go. I tried group classes before, and I found it difficult to
fit within my schedule. Usually, classes are five days a week x 4 hours a day, which is difficult to maintain practice, homework and getting my other work responsibilities completed. More importantly, I found a teacher that motivates, inspires me and gives me the confidence to keep on going even when I have a frustrating day of Spanish learning.
Immersion in a language is important for me. Speaking English all day to work, then switching to Spanish sporadically doesn’t work for me. Our first month living in Medellín this year we rented a room from a woman here, and we spoke only Spanish during the day (other than our work commitments). It was uncomfortable and arduous at times, sounding like a cave man when I spoke, and listening intently to understand her. Yet, I found my progression and comprehension improved every day, even though I know my speaking wasn’t articulating the way I would say something in English. It was mostly basic sentences, yet I was understood. Troy and I also lived with a family during Spanish school in Nicaragua. It was a high comfort zone challenge, yet a rewarding and growing experience for us.
I never thought I would enjoy Enrique Iglesias’s music, but I really do now. I appreciate the simple lyrics, and how he and other Spanish musicians have grown my comprehension of constructing sentences! It’s pleasurable to understand and listen to music in Spanish where I feel as though entertainment also has a bonus – helping my language move along.
We use Language Zen – and online language tool that uses music to learn a language with audio and written lessons. I really enjoy this approach. Alternatively, I recently discovered I could watch anything on Netflix and add Spanish subtitles – a language learning game changer for me!
So the moral of this story is, despite my helpless moments on my journey of language learning, I am convincing myself that little by little I can do it, just as a climbed the Inca Trail years ago, one step at a time.
What are your experiences with language learning? What is your biggest comfort zone challenge? We’d like to hear from you.
Dorene is a marketing consultant and freelance writer. She quit her 20-year career in marketing to redesign her career and lifestyle on her own terms by living location independent. Now with her husband Troy, she helps people who want to redefine their midlife and make conscious changes at TravelLifeX. She also trains & coaches travel and hospitality clients to improve their marketing at TravelLifeMedia.com