Total immersion is the only way to learn a language (Lessons from Guatemala, pt. 1)

Recently my wife and I returned from Guatemala, after spending a month learning Spanish, living with host families and traveling. I’ve told countless stories to different friends since we’ve come stateside again, but I wanted to group some of my recollections into observations here.

When it comes to learning a language, immersion really is the only way…

We studied at ICA, a small Spanish school in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.
We studied at ICA, a small Spanish school in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.

Learning languages is a tricky thing. At some point, you have to realize that you’re not learning how to translate that language into your mother tongue. Your learning how to think, act, talk, live in that language. The difference is distinct, and yet I run into so many folks who don’t catch it.

Take learning Spanish in Guatemala, for example. We stayed with a host family in Quetzaltenango, and after one week of fetching the dictionary from the other room to facilitate conversation with our host family at dinner, we finally realized it was more trouble than it was worth. We stopped attempting to translate every word and phrase into English, and started piecing together the meaning of conversations from context.

The remolachas effect

At first I may not have understood what remolachas were, sure. But I knew that when our mamá shredded them up, soaked them in vinegar and dumped them in a heaping mound on our plates, I’d be stuck eating two portions because Laura couldn’t stand them.

And just as we left the dictionary in the other room, we left phrases such as, “¿Como se dice … en ingles?” at the door, so to speak.

When I returned from Guatemala a friend of mine told me a story of an immersion program he’d heard of. Basically upon admission students pledge not to speak in their native language for a month, except for emergencies.

Have you ever tried learning a language? Which ones? Got any tips?

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