¡progreso en español!


I left for Mexico City on the last day of my Spanish class, a perfect segue between theoretical practice and putting it all into actual practice. My hope was to get a full immersion experience, use English as seldom as possible, and come back speaking Spanish leaps and bounds beyond where I started.

Problem is, I don’t know that much Spanish to begin with. I’ve learned two forms of the past tense but not the one that seems most important, the simple past. Likewise, I know the easy form of the future tense (ir + infinitive), but not the more sophisticated one. I am clueless when it comes to using verbs with se at the end, because I keep projecting the French rules for reflexive verbs onto them, and they just do not follow those rules. And my vocabulary is severely limited.

It’s not easy to immerse with such a small tool set. So, my level of success was varying. Sometimes, due to accents above all, I could not understand a single word a person was saying, and they could not understand me either. Many times, I thought I was cleverly and rather poetically working my way around the words I didn’t know, when in actuality my creative expression was only further confusing things. Often, I swapped similar-sounding words and wreaked havoc on my intended meaning, as when I told a man that my job was to make girlfriends – novias – instead of the news – noticias. (Akin to when I kept referring to hair – cheveux – as horses – chevaux – in France.)

I had better luck once I accepted the fact that I had to think my words through more carefully before spitting them out, even though I was already talking at a snail’s pace. After a slooooow conversation with two local men towards the end of my trip, one commented to another, “Ella habla muy despacio pero cada palabra es perfecto.” I was thrilled at the backhanded-compliment – despite their obvious belief that I was too slow to understand what they were saying about me.

And eleven days of semi-immersion is all it takes, apparently. By the end of my trip, when I was in a taxi returning to the hotel in Mexico City after my Elsewhere adventure, I became a veritable charlatan. (Not a pretender, as in the English definition, but rather a chatterbox, as in the Spanish. Intriguing, no, that there is an etymological connection between lying and over-talking?) I was making crazy confident conversation. The words were flowing. I understood the cabbie, he understood me. It was like I had hit my Spanish flow.

The same thing happened in France, though on a much higher level. In Mexico, I was ecstatic to find I could form complete sentences with the correct tense and conjugation. In France, I was astounded when I could carry on the same conversations I would have had in English. But in both cases, I kept hitting a wall, hitting a wall, hitting a wall, and then went to bed one night and woke up the next day speaking the language.

In short: immersion makes miracles happen.

[Photo: Wendy]

French is a many-humped camel

camel face

The rule I had set for myself in France was to spend no more than one cumulative hour speaking or being spoken to in English during the first eight days before my English-speaking friend arrived for the final weekend. I ended up playing a little fast and loose with that rule but on the balance I would say I spent 90% of my time living and breathing French.

It was the first time since I learned to talk that I relied upon a language other than English for longer than a few hours. I hadn’t anticipated how emotional it would be. In fact, it felt sort of like going through the seven stages of grief, sped up:

Shock: On the first day my sleep-deprived mind went blank and I was basically mute.

Denial: On the second day I literally stamped my feet and had a temper tantrum (though at least it was in French!).

Bargaining: On the third day I tried to convince Philippe to speak to me in English, even if I wasn’t allowed to speak it myself. Thankfully he resisted my whining.

Guilt: On the fourth day I started missing my three year-old niece and by the fifth day it had gotten so bad that I had no choice but to Skype with her, which of course I had to do in English.

Anger: On the sixth day I used my French to mock the French language and all of its busted rules. Why on earth would a civilized people so unnecessarily complicate things by assigning genders to objects? WHY??? And why would anyone with any mathematical logic whatsoever call the number “98” four-twenty-ten-eight instead of ninety-eight?

Depression: On the seventh day I had to think through something important in English. I found myself braindead and unable to recall the simplest words. I felt like I had somehow lost my native language in the space of a week, yet come nowhere close to gaining a new one.

Acceptance / Hope: On the eighth day I scrolled through my list of all the new words I had learned (more than 200!) and realized that for the first time in the year since I revived my French practice, I could actually feel the progress. When you’re learning incrementally, inconsistently, and non-contextually, progress is only visible from a distance of months or even years. But with just one week of immersion, I noticeably reduced the amount of translation I did in my head, I started talking more quickly, and I felt more capable of conveying complex and abstract thoughts. I began to notice that French people could understand me (albeit with difficulty) and I could understand them (when their speaking speed didn’t panic me). Crazy! Miraculous! Proficiency no longer felt like an impossible dream, and it seemed likely that if I just keep at this, I will one day be a true French speaker.

So I think I got over some sort of hump in France. Not the final hump (fluency) or even the close-to-final hump (proficiency), but a hump nevertheless. It’s the same sort of hump I had to get over to learn clarinet, video editing, and driving a car. The one I never think I am anywhere near to cresting until the moment after I get to the other side, as if by magic. Looking back, it feels like everything has changed overnight and I finally have an innate understanding – if not yet a mastery – of the thing that felt so foreign and frustrating to me the day before.

I’ve heard this moment referred to as the “epiphany point,” which seems fitting for such a momentous occasion… one that took 22 years from my first French class to get to! I can only hope getting over the next hump doesn’t take quite so long.

(photo: Adam Foster)

Si se puede! Jordan Helton edition


‘Si se puede’ is a series (God willing) in which I grill talk to people who have successfully learned a second language in their 20’s, 30’s or beyond, to find out how they did it. I need proof that it’s never too late to learn a foreign language!

First up is my colleague, Jordan Helton, a whip-smart, wry and upbeat journalist from a tiny town in Oklahoma (1,800 people!). After graduating from college in Illinois, she moved to China and spent the next eleven months teaching English to K-12 students in Hangzhou, an hour and a half outside Shanghai.

Why China?

I knew that I wanted to go abroad right after school. I had never been to a foreign country, never even been to Canada. I wanted to work in some international aid field so I thought that would be important. I took three years of Russian in college, but I didn’t really want to go to Russia. So I started looking for ESL teacher jobs. If you have ever looked for a job as an English teacher abroad – it’s so easy to be hired in China. There are hundreds of job openings to teach English to kids.

What was your comfort level with Chinese when you first got there? 

I did not speak a word of Chinese.

How did you feel about that? Were you scared?

I just assumed everything would work out. Learning languages is one of my favorite things to do, just period. It makes my brain hurt in a good way. Learning languages is really difficult for me, but it’s a type of mental exercise that I don’t necessarily get in other parts of my day.

Did you set a goal of how much or how quickly you wanted to learn?

It was such a daunting task when I first got there. I knew that I wanted to speak the language but my first goal was just to be able to feel like I could survive on my own – that I could get to my house, if I got lost I could ask for directions; that I could go to the cafe and order a coffee. I need to count to ten. I need to be able to buy something at the store and understand the amount that he’s telling me to pay. And then once I became comfortable with that it was wanting to be able to have a conversation on a particular topic. And then it was, Christmas is coming up, I want to be able to discuss Christmas with the kids that I teach. So I think that I never had a long-term goal; I broke it up into short goals that I could meet and feel happy and accomplished about.

Christmas in China

So what was your process for learning the language?

As soon as I got there I started looking for a private language teacher. With Chinese you’re not just learning one language; you’re learning two different languages. You’re learning spoken and hearing and you’re also learning how to recognize on sight an image and know what that stands for. And so, when I first got there, learning characters and reading was extremely difficult and I really didn’t get into characters until about three months in. So I started out, I met with my private teacher twice a week for two hours each time. For the first three months we just focused on speaking and listening. For the first half of the lesson, we would go over textbook work, and then the second hour we would try to have a conversation, as much as we could. And then after three months I finished one textbook and I got to level two, and that was all in characters. I tried to learn ten new characters a week. I was living with someone at the time who was also learning Mandarin with the same teacher, so we would study together for a half hour every day.

And I had a lot of Chinese friends. My Chinese teacher was only a year older than I was and we’d often hang out and try to speak Mandarin as much as possible. I was really good friends with the teaching assistants at our school who were Chinese students studying English, so I spoke Chinese with them as much as possible, too.

Jordan & friends

Did you have an “a-ha moment” when you realized you had gotten over the hump and could speak the language?

I don’t know if this was a turning point but it was definitely something I took a lot of pride in personally because it was the first time I really had a long conversation about a complex topic that was also a joking interaction where I understand the humor. I was taking a cab to the train station and just having this amazing conversation with the cab driver. The conversation turned to politics and he was like, “What do you think of Obama?” We were having this back and forth, and then the cab driver was like, “Oh, I hate Obama. He’s not a good president. A good president, that’s Richard Nixon.” And I was trying to explain to him, “In the U.S., he doesn’t have the greatest reputation, actually.” That was probably five months in. Whereas five months before I couldn’t even say hello. But it was just being immersed in the culture and taking the time to study every day, having to use the language every day. It wasn’t a choice for me; I had to use it.


[That’s Jordan in the blue coat, above.]

How was learning Chinese versus learning Russian?

Russian was the sort of language class that you had every day for an hour, five days a week. I took that for three years, with an hour of homework every night, trying to watch Russian language movies, having little tea times that our teachers set up to speak. But even after three years I felt that my proficiency then was still not as high as one year living in China hearing it every day and being forced to speak it every day. It’s hard to overstate how big of a difference being immersed in both the language and the culture makes versus a sterile academic environment.

Just for fun… what was the biggest language faux pas you made? 

I would have the perfect example in Russian. Just based on where you put the accent in a word, like “ya pishu” means “I write.” “Ya pishu” means “I piss.” I’ve done that before. In China, nothing comes to mind. My Mandarin, horrible though I know it was, was always received with the most patience and just like, gleefulness, of the person, knowing that a foreigner was trying to learn. So I think that if I ever did make a big faux pas, it wouldn’t have been a big deal. Everyone who I interacted with was happy to listen to me just brutalize their language.

Magic Bell at Pagoda in Xi'an

Now that you’re back in the States, how do you maintain the proficiency you’ve achieved?

Here in the U.S. I feel like I have to push myself to find those opportunities to keep working. A friend recommended Conversation Exchange, a website to find language exchange partners. It’s like online dating but for language learners. So I used to meet every Sunday with a language exchange partner. I actually had two, secretly – but I never told the other one that I had another person I was speaking Chinese with because I felt like I was cheating on them. You know in those sitcoms when people schedule a date right after a date and everything goes wrong and in the end it’s such a stressful experience? That’s how it was with me and my language partners. I tried really hard so that they never met each other. So I’d meet one at Union Square and then I’d travel up to Bryant Park to meet the other one. Four hours every Sunday.

Do you have any words of wisdom for other people trying to learn another language? 

I think being passionate about the language that you choose is extremely important, otherwise you’ll just float away. Know why you’re learning the language before you start, to keep you committed.

Thanks, Jordan, for indulging me in this little exercise! Inspiring evidence that even the hardest of languages can be conquered when you are a fearless badass and put in the time and effort.