awkward turtle / expat / learning / transitions / yoga

Day 2/28: Learning Spanish

One of the first challenges I took on when I moved to Guatemala was making a commitment to learning Spanish. In Houston, I made a few small attempts working with a couple of tutors, teaching yoga to Spanish speaking yoga students, and brushing up on Pimsleur and Coffee Break Spanish before I went on vacations in Barcelona, Mallorca, Quito, and The Galapagos.

In a lot of ways, I believed learning Spanish would be analogous to realizing that you are pregnant with a third child in your late 30s. You’re obviously excited about the first kid (fully engaged and reading up on all the books about child-rearing) and eventually keen on having your second child (your first child will have a sibling and your family is growing). I’m totally comfortable with English (my first kid) especially since I have a degree in English literature. I went into lots of depth with my first language and eventually used my writing skills successfully in my nonprofit career.

My second kid was French. I spent my first six years in a bilingual environment hearing English and French in Montreal. It was easy for me to pick my accent back up. I really excelled in French in high school and invested a significant number of years furthering my French studies in my late 20s and 30s. For me, learning French was fun for me especially when I got to travel to Paris, go back to Montreal, and speak a language I fell in love with year after year.

Finally, at 38, an age I thought was impossible to take on a third child, I was faced with the challenge of learning Spanish. My mind didn’t have the flexibility it once had. I made the excuse that I was just too damn old to take on another language. By this point in life, you have this “been-there-done-that” attitude about raising kids. You’re just tired and want to cut corners. Spanish was out of practicality and out of necessity.  In the beginning, there was nothing romantic about learning this language.

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Attending Spanish Boarding School
Being overwhelmed by how big Guatemala City was, I went to Antigua. I opted for living in a hotel for two weeks which was within walking distance to school and attending a Spanish immersion school.

The thing that makes this immersion program so effective was the fact that I was given one-on-one conversations for FOUR HOURS a day. Also, their main focus is on you talking and listening. Only about 30 minutes to an hour was focused on learning from a workbook. Any irregular verbs or vocabulary words were left for you to study on your own. The majority of our time was focused on having a conversation with my teacher and notebooks and pens were put away.

Those first two weeks of Spanish school were atrocious. My teacher Maria did most of the talking. I just sat there and listened to the words flow. The only conversations I had with her were limited to food and what life is like in America. For a long time, Maria was my only “friend” in this town. Since I had a limited point of reference, she encouraged me to go on my own personal field trips for my homework. She’d send me to the market so I could learn how to buy my food, encouraged me to climb a volcano or tour a coffee plantation. My afternoons and evenings were devoted to studying the language and getting to know the Guatemalan culture. I’d write up a paragraph in Spanish, study my vocabulary words, play on DuoLingo, and/or watch Netflix with Spanish subtitles.

I was also very strict with becoming friends with fellow English speaking classmates. I figured if I wanted to party all night and speak in my native tongue I could do that back home in Houston. Since I have brown skin, black hair, and a Spanish last name, a lot of my classmates didn’t really talk to me anyway because I was often mistaken for being a local Guatemalan Spanish teacher.

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Branching Out to Living with a Family and Teaching Yoga in Spanish
After two weeks of living in a hotel, I decided I would upgrade my experience by living with a local Guatemalan family. I had a nice set-up: a room with my own bathroom, a view of Volcano Agua, three homecooked meals, and the mother of the home was also a teacher at my Spanish school. It was a 24/7 experience. You couldn’t switch to English during meals or when you had to ask for directions to the pharmacy. There was someone patiently listening to my awkward Spanish at home and at school. The school also provided me with a more experienced Spanish teacher.

There were occasions where I would slip up. For whatever reason my natural default in speaking a foreign language is to speak French. One of my housemates from Quebec City didn’t know English very well and was a beginner Spanish student. So, oftentimes, I’d be having a full blown conversation at the dinner table with him and not realizing I was speaking in French.

Eventually, I decided that I needed to narrow my focus and start creating some relevance for my Spanish education. I devoted another four weeks with the goal of being able to teach yoga classes in Spanish. My Spanish teacher Carmen never took a yoga class before in her life. It was a pretty eye-opening experience for the both of us. We’d devote three hours to Spanish conversations and dedicate the last hour on me translating a yoga sequence I already knew.

Carmen was such a good sport as she patiently listened to my instructions. I was able to see how Spanish words landed in her body and learn how to become a better teacher. Since I had two years of yoga instruction under my belt in Texas, I took a lot of my English instructions for granted. I had a newfound passion for my role as a yoga teacher in Guatemala, and discovering a place for me to be excited about with my Spanish lessons was a very huge win for me.

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Returning to Guatemala City
Eventually my comfort level with Spanish surpassed my level of understanding French. In a short time, I was able to survive and function. I was also starting to think in Spanish instead of having to think of the English sentence then translating it over to Spanish. With only six weeks of formal Spanish instruction, I had the audacity to believe that I was ready to go back to the capital and start teaching yoga. Let’s just say that ignorance is bliss sometimes, but I will leave that for a later post.

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