After my big move, I didn't have any choice but to learn the native language of Paraguay, Spanish. It's been a long journey, but I'm proof it is possible to learn a foreign language! Here are some of my tips and experiences while learning Spanish.
To learn a language is to have one more window from which to look at the world. -Chinese proverb
When I first moved it was really challenging and honestly terrifying to try and communicate with non-English speakers. I had taken three years of Spanish class prior, but it didn't prepare me for real-life conversations. Even with my chosen family, a lot of them speak English so I always ended up reverting back to English and never speaking in Spanish.
So I did what any sane person would do and put myself in a situation where I would have no choice but to speak. And let me tell you, it was definitely interesting.
Gotta Start Somewhere
In Paraguay, the school system is opposite of what it is in the States. While I had just finished in June, they were already halfway through their school year. Of course, this made it difficult for me to find the right time to start school again. On one hand, I wanted to enjoy my summer vacation, and on the other, I was already bored since I had no one to do anything with. So around the end of June, about three weeks after I had arrived, I began my junior year at a high school in Areguá.
Areguá is a small artisanal town located on Lake Ypacaraí, not far from where I was living. This is where I began to really understand what I had gotten myself into.
When I began school I was petrified to enter on the first day. I had no idea how I would survive speaking with everyone, especially when I knew they would be so curious as to why I was there. And let me tell you after class was over on that first day, my brain was dead. Because not only do they speak Spanish, but they also throw in words from their second national language, Guaraní.
However, even though my brain killed for the five months I spent in that school, it really did help with learning Spanish. My brain had to work overtime to try and process and understand what everyone was saying that as time passed, it eventually got easier and easier to communicate.
BUT BE CAREFUL!!! When you find a common language with someone you can end up wanting to speak with them in that language because it's easy. It's understandable to want to do that, even today I do it with certain people, but it's NECESSARY to find people who will ONLY speak to you in the language you are learning.
This has happened to me multiple times, first living with my aunt and uncle who both speak English, and second in the high school where it was easy to become friends with one girl because she spoke English.
These experiences definitely put a dent in how fast I learned Spanish, but my experiences at this school put me on the path to really understanding the Paraguayan culture and learning Spanish. And even after leaving the high school I continued to put myself in situations where I would have to speak more and more Spanish.
Letting Go of Fears
During the time I spent at the high school and even after, I was scared to speak Spanish. It's easy to get caught up in your head and to worry about making mistakes. That was probably the biggest challenge I had to overcome before I really began to learn.
I can't say exactly when I stopped caring if my grammar and pronunciation were perfect, or when I stepped out of my shell and re-became who I already was, (someone who is not often shy around people), but it was a weight off my shoulders. The entire time I had been holding myself back, not letting myself learn. The pressure to learn Spanish didn't help me either, nor did competition with my mom who is also learning Spanish. It really did overwhelm me.
However, after I let go of this fear and idea of perfection my Spanish improved so fast. Suddenly I was able to respond faster, translate the moment someone spoke, understand everything someone was saying. It was honestly an incredible feeling. Even today I sometimes comment on it because I still end up surprising myself by how far I've come.
It's hard for me to give an exact method on how to 'let go of your fears', but part of it definitely stems from believing in yourself. If you don't, it's easy to start thinking that you can't do it or aren't capable of doing it. I say this from my own experience which led to my idea that when I spoke it needed to be perfect. Thankfully, the Paraguayan people are very kind and appreciate those who are trying their best to communicate with them. I can't speak for other cultures, but I think having the freedom to make mistakes without fear of being judged or criticized really helped with learning to believe in myself.
What I've Learned
I love commuting between languages just like I love commuting between cultures and cities. -Elif Safak
Sometimes I forget that now I'm considered bilingual. That the amount of cultures I can now communicate with has increased. Honestly, it's weird for me to even think that I didn't speak Spanish before. No, it's not perfect and far from it, but I do speak it. And it's that thought alone that astounds me and keeps me moving forward in my pursuits.
I've gained so much since learning a foreign language. In fact, I plan to learn another language because my experience has inspired me to do so. When you can communicate with others who you couldn't before, you get to see a piece of how they view the world around them. You gain a deeper understanding of cultures, of people, of life. Maybe it's hard to understand if you only speak one language, but truly it's eye-opening.
Now It's Your Turn!
Here's my push to you to learn a foreign language! It's something I would encourage anyone to do no matter what age. You really will learn more about the world and even yourself. Take a leap and try it!