One of the difficulties of traveling abroad is the inability to understand the language. It can be difficult getting assistance or asking questions when the basics of the language are foreign. While this might be an inconvenience for the average traveler, it can be a serious problem for someone traveling long term or relocating to a new country.
To encourage other people struggling to learn a new language I want to relate how I learned Spanish including the difficulties I went through, the level of work it took, the phases of learning and how long it took before I could start communicating effectively.
When I was 19 I volunteered to become a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It’s a two-year commitment to a part of the world where they believe you are best fit to serve. They sent me to El Salvador and Belize.
It was extremely difficult as I spoke very little Spanish, to clarify I could do simple greetings and ask basic questions, but anything beyond that and I was lost. I also learned that speaking to a native English speaker speaking Spanish is much different than someone who has only ever spoken Spanish.
For the first month I had no one to talk to other than my fellow missionary and wonderful trainer Andrew Briggs. He was patient with me as I fumbled with the language and struggled to grasp what people were trying to tell me. It didn’t help that I was an extremely introverted person in my own language, let alone one I didn’t speak.
So for the most part I was delegated to saying simple prayers, reciting verses of scripture I had memorized, and other basic tasks. To the people’s credit in El Salvador I was never once made fun of or criticized for my efforts, though if we’re being honest I couldn’t have possibly known if they were.
Over time I started learning things about the people we were routinely speaking with. I still wasn’t understanding what they were saying, but I was learning about their personalities. Through their body language and mannerisms I could discern what people where generally talking about. I learned which people had a good sense of humor, which people were kind, which were impatient, and so on, still without speaking the language.
Over time I would catch a word or two, I could understand and guess at what the context was. If trying to have a one on one conversation I was lost, but I could get a feel for what people where talking about if I wasn’t part of the conversation.
For an entire month I studied hard, practiced often, asked so many questions, and paid attention to other people speaking. I never felt like I was making progress and got discouraged often, in hindsight I was steadily learning and things were coming to me, but it was slow and subtle.
When I realized that I was making progress was after a month being in El Salvador. Some members of the church were hosting a birthday party for my trainer as he was a week or so from finishing his two years and going home. At some point during that party I was listening to a conversation and realized that I could understand everything they were saying.
It was literally as if I was listening to two people speaking in English. I didn’t have to translate the Spanish into my own words, I didn’t have to think about context, and I didn’t have to puzzle together what words I understood with one’s I didn’t, I understood it all. The Spanish flowed right into my brain and was understood immediately.
It’s a little hard to explain to others the lack of a need to translate. The best examples I can give are words like taco or burrito. When you use those words in conversation you don’t need to think about what those things are or what the English equivalent is, you just know what they are and use them in your vocabulary. Those are Spanish words and that’s what being fluent in a language is like, the words just flow in and they are understood instantly.
It was a very surreal experience and my confidence soared after that experience. It still took three, maybe four months of practice and study for me to be able to communicate with someone without having difficulties being understood. Within a year I no longer questioned my ability to speak Spanish and no one else did when I spoke.
For me the key to learning the language was being persistent and having dedicated focus. After you’ve kept at it for a while and been diligent at learning you’ll just find it happening, at some point something clicks and then from there it is extremely easy to learn the language.
Sadly, it’s been almost seven years since my mission and my grasp of Spanish is fading as I’m no longer using it as often. I feel like I’ve reverted to that point at five months when I was still struggling to be understood sometimes.
But I know how to get it back and hopefully anyone who has read this article will have some reassurance that learning a language is possible. It just takes time, dedication, and diligence, but it will come, it will click for you. Just be patient and keep at it.
And don’t be afraid to speak, making a fool of yourself in another language is the fastest way to learn
Author: Benjamin Baker
After serving abroad in a religious capacity for two years Ben has felt the pull to travel and explore ever since. This desire was further fueled by his wife Maddie and the two have traveled to many places over the last few years. Ben’s hope is that by sharing his knowledge and experiences obtained while traveling that others can improve their lives and the lives of others through travel. Check out additional articles written by Benjamin.