Learning to Speak a Different a Language: Sharing Words and Cultures
Abstract: Encountering a different language may be the hardest part of travelling abroad. However, being forced to communicate in a foreign language is an incomparable learning experience!
Has anyone ever told you you’re shy? Do you ever get nervous when you have to make presentations in class? What about stage fright? Have you ever stumbled over your words because you’ve been so nervous?
Everyone knows what it’s like to be nervous to speak. Your hands might start to sweat, your legs might start to shake, and suddenly, your mind goes blank! Beginning to speak a different language is sort of like suffering from a bad case of stage fright. At first, it’s difficult to find the right words to say, and even the thought of speaking out loud makes you nervous. But as you learn more and more every day, speaking in a second language becomes as natural as speaking your first!
When I first arrived to Colombia, it was very difficult to express myself. On one of my very first days in Medellin, my cousin took me to the supermarket. She pointed to the fruits and vegetables and asked me to name them all. However, as I took a look around, I saw fruits and vegetables I had never see before! I didn’t know the name for them in either English or Spanish! I had only gotten through about ten percent of all the produce before I gave up, and asked my cousin to tell me their names. After that trip to the supermarket, I knew I had a long way to go before I learned Spanish as well as I wanted to. I also knew that I had to make it a goal to try every single one of those delicious, tropical fruits!
I began to study every day. I studied when I was at home and practiced outside with friends. I listened to the radio, watched TV, and read newspapers in Spanish. I even began to talk to myself, and practiced forming simple sentences out loud. Soon, my hard work was paying off! I noticed that I was able to carry out conversations in Spanish. Even though I was listening a lot more than speaking, I soon reached a point where I was comfortable holding conversations! I began to understand more than I ever had before.
As I saw myself make progress with Spanish, I began to think about my grandparents and their journey to learn English. If I was struggling to learn Spanish and to become accustomed to a new city, how did my grandparents feel when they first arrived to the United States? When my grandparents were in their early 30’s, they moved to New York City. My grandparents were both raised in Colombia and had never been exposed to English before moving to the states. Growing up, I had never thought about how hard it might have been for them to adjust not only to a different culture, but to a different language!
I realized how difficult it is for immigrants to adjust to life in the United States. At 30 years old, my grandparents already had a family. They had to find a way to find jobs in a country where everything was different, including the mode of communication. With a seven year old daughter and five year old son, my grandparents were forced to adapt to their new environment quickly. They weren’t studying abroad or going on vacation for a month or even a year. For them, moving to America was a life-long decision!
While I’ve been living in Colombia, I have met tons of patient people who are not only willing to teach me Spanish, but also are willing to help me when I am lost. I think we can do the same thing for immigrants in the United States. Have you ever tried to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak English well? You might help someone who is working to learn English and adapt to a new culture. You may also learn something new and useful from them! People have many interesting stories if we are just willing to listen.
When I went to school in California, I worked as a teacher with Mexican immigrants. I taught them basic phrases in English so that they could communicate in the workplace. In return, they often told me about their lives back home. Many of them had wives and children. They came from colorful pueblos in Mexico. They described the cows and chickens that lived in the ranches. Even though I had never been to Mexico before, listening to their stories was a way of getting to know the country. Did you know that you don’t have to travel in order to experience a different place? The next time you really want to travel to a different place, why don’t you find someone from that country and ask them to describe it to you? Their stories might just surprise you!
In New York City, we are lucky to live in a place that is full of people from all over the world. This week, take advantage of all the different cultures in the city! I challenge you to try to speak a different language, perhaps when you are in a store or restaurant. It can be just a few words, or a full conversation. Have you ever wondered how to say something in Korean or Arabic? Why don’t you ask around? Challenge yourself to learn something new!
Learning a different language is not only about learning different words. It is about sharing one’s cultures and stories. The best part about learning Spanish has not been being able to name all the fruits in the produce section. The best part about learning Spanish is that now I have the ability to communicate with 406 million more people in the world! Even though it might be scary and might make you nervous to speak in a different language, by doing so you will open up a world that you had never known before. Don’t you think taking the risk is worth it?