Learning a Language For the Right Reasons

November 15, 2016

I learned a language to be more marketable. By that I mean, because I thought I had to, and I was okay with that. But what a miserable, superficial way to learn another language, am I right? Unfortunately, I think this is a thought shared by many students not just in the United States but around the globe – we share this idea that the only way we are going to be truly competitive and successful in our course of study is if we are able to speak another language. Sure, being competent in more than one language can make you more competitive, intelligent even, but it should not be your motivation for learning another language.

Earlier this semester, I celebrated my first month studying abroad in Ecuador and I was reflecting on my goals for the semester which mostly consisted of language literacy, comprehension, etc. I assessed my improvement and was not impressed, to say the least. Yes, I have been having the time of my life at La Universidad Casa Grande and I have made plenty of connections on campus, but I realized that none of my prioritized goals included finding friends, going to local theater productions, reading an entire book of fiction in Spanish or curating a playlist of Latin American music. All of these things are things I would do in Nebraska, so why wouldn’t I try to do the same in Ecuador? I was trying to make studying Spanish strictly academic. I also put unnecessary pressure on myself to learn a language in one semester and therefore, felt the need to create a high-rigor curriculum.

I was motivated to learn a language for purpose of being more marketable, not because I was genuinely interested in the language.

As I saw it, I was left with two options: get out or get interested. And seeing as how I had almost four months left in Ecuador I should consider the latter.

So recently, I began to take more interest in the music. I was asking classmates for song suggestions which would then turn into coffee shop hunts and study sessions. I watched a movie in Spanish on Netflix and even found two Spanish podcasts that I listen to while I’m waiting for the rest of my classmates and professor to show up 15 minutes late for class because who shows up to class on time? Me – the guilty American. That’s who shows up on time. I show up early as a matter of fact. But because idle hands are the devil’s play toy I decided to plug in my ear buds, play my Spanish podcast for intermediate learners and go to work. And I had fun.

As a result, I have become more fluent in Spanish during these last time than I have in the entire month I had been here – because I took interest. I had to do some classic Carlin sleuthing to find what aspects of the language I enjoyed most, but nevertheless, I found it. I discovered that although I do not like reading books in Spanish, I do enjoy reading them out loud. I found podcasts that allow me to continue my audio obsession and learn a little language at the same time. I made friends with locals that share the same political interests as me, leading to spirited Spanish discussions. And finally, I uncovered a new-found love for reggaeton. That’s right, reggaeton.

But without these things, without these interests in Spanish, I highly doubt I would return to the United States much different than when I left. And I’ll be damned if I have had to pay as much as I have to return to the United States monolingual, yet again.

I also think another reason it was difficult to take immediate interest in the language, and Ecuadorean culture for that matter, was because I was so worried about memorizing vocabulary lists and practicing conjugations that I didn’t allow myself to be vulnerable and learn the language with ease and with fun. “Fun” is also something I think we should be more passionate about when it comes to learning, but that’s a different post for a different day.

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