Today I want to share a personal story about my experience learning Spanish. I want to tell you why living in a Spanish-only home in Buenos Aires was the single most effective and inexpensive method that I found for becoming fluent in Spanish. I want you to take this lesson and apply it to your life as an English learner in the United States. You can master English through immersion just like I did with Spanish. I am sharing my story with you today because I know that language immersion is the key to success. So keep reading for a good story and some great tips!
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What didn't work | Costa Rica through Bolivia
In July of 2007, I left my home in New York City for a year-long backpacking trip through Latin America. But my intention wasn't simply to wander from country to country (although that's ok too). My goal was to attain Spanish fluency. I saw job opportunities in New York that required it and I set my sights on getting there.
My travel partner, a native Spanish speaker from Madrid, was extremely concerned that we would be cheated or scammed if cab drivers or restaurant owners found out that I was an English speaker from the U.S. so I kept my mouth shut and didn't have many opportunities to practice my Spanish. Maybe her concern was valid but it doesn't matter. This paralyzed me and was detrimental to my Spanish learning.
I had quit my job, rented out my apartment and made the decision to travel to Latin America in order to become fluent in Spanish and there I was, letting tons of opportunities to learn and practice pass me by because my travel partner didn't want to lose a few dollars. We traveled for 6 months together through amazing countries like Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. We formed fantastic friendships with locals. However, I always remained on the outside of every conversation. I was afraid to speak and when I did, I only focused on my mistakes.
Here's what I did wrong:
- I relied on my travel partner, a native Spanish speaker, to do all of the communicating, negotiating and bargaining, even socializing with local people. I lost my independence as a traveler and as a language learner.
- I allowed someone else to set the priorities for the trip and I lost valuable opportunities to practice Spanish every day.
- I let my fear of making mistakes become stronger than my original goal to become fluent. I became self-conscious. I lost sight of my reason for traveling to Latin America.
- I got lazy and relied on someone else to do everything for me.
- I didn't build a supportive community of friends around me who wanted to help me reach my goal.
The turning point | Looking for a room in Buenos Aires
The day that I arrived in Buenos Aires and decided to stay for a few months, I knew I had to make a change. This was my opportunity to make up for the lost Spanish learning opportunities during the first part of my trip. But I wasn't quite sure how I was going to improve quickly. Did I need to take a Spanish class? Find a tutor? Get a language exchange? While house hunting one day, I found an ad for a house of Argentines and expats in a cool neighborhood called Palermo Viejo. I walked in and Camille, from Paris, greeted me in Spanish with an Argentine accent. I should admit, I was expecting her to speak to me in English. But no one ever spoke to me in English in that house, ever. No one ever spoke English. This was the day that everything changed.
Next I met the other members of the house, 6 of them in all, there was Louis, from France, Pablo, from Buenos Aires, Bianca from Italy, Andrea from Italy and John, from the U.S.
The house rules that led to my fluency in Spanish
- Speak only Spanish. Always. Share the same goals as your housemates (to become fluent in Spanish)
- Join the house for dinner at least a few times per week (the Italians were in charge of cooking!)
- Sit around together after dinner, speaking Spanish, drinking wine and listening to guitar
- Don't be shy, be a part of the community and don't be afraid of making Spanish mistakes
3 Months later I left Argentina. Fluent in Spanish.
While I thought that taking an intensive English course or joining a Spanish institute might have been the way to gain real fluency, it turned out that the most effective way was both the cheapest, the easiest and the most enjoyable.
I lived in a Spanish-only house, where all members had the same goals.
Spanish was the only way we communicated but we didn't dissect our grammar mistakes.
We were having too much fun to analyze our mistakes! This method was empowering and best of all, it worked.
It's time for your story...
What changes can you make today to your living situation?
Are you currently living in New York or Boston or another U.S. city with other expats or international students from your home country? Is it comfortable? Are you making any progress with your English that way? Are you paying a lot of money for English classes but erasing any progress you make in class by speaking your native language for the rest of the day?
Living abroad is hard. It is scary. We want to feel the comfort of home. We want to use slang in our native language and make jokes that we can't make in English. But I want to tell you that if you are speaking your native language at home, every day, you are actually doing it the hard way, not the easy way.
But what if you are married and you have relocated with a family? Of course you aren't going to move out of your home to live in an English-only house. Maybe for you, the answer is to find an English-only neighborhood or a great group of friends who share the same goals of learning English.
Mastering English requires not only dedication and consistent practice but it also requires some independence. You need to take control of your environment. If the people around you, like your roommates, are going to take you away from your goal, not toward it, you need to have the courage to say no to that. You need to set your goal and constantly keep it in mind. What feels comfortable (living in a home with roommates from your home country), will not necessarily help you grow. Challenge yourself! Think about how you can change your living situation to get closer to your English goals!
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