Do I really want to do Spanish immersion?

PUEBLA, Mexico.  I am writing from The Spanish Institute of Puebla, the place where I learned to speak and write Spanish, and integrated much of the culture as well.  It seems only right to begin the discussion here.

Do I really want to do Spanish immersion?  l’m not a college kid anymore – I’m set in my ways,  why would I want to do that?  There are lots of good reasons, and I’ll give you a few.

Communication is more than words – I had vocabulary and grammar but couldn’t speak.

Culture is an important aspect of communication – nuance, situation, context – we’re not cyborgs.

Communication is something we feel rather than think, even when we think out loud, we express our thoughts with emotional energy – it comes from the heart, even when we’re thinking.

Interaction with others produces energy in a way a CD doesn’t – hard to have an emotional relationship with your laptop.

Immersion helps us feel the language – and we feel something in ourselves, as well.

Our attitude in approaching language can make all the difference in our success.  I learned it the hard way.

What is your model for learning Spanish?  In the beginning, I thought learning Spanish would be like learning carpentry – just follow the rules of grammar and: ‘voila!’  fluency.  I took classes offered by a Minneapolis cultural center, finished the Beginning sequence, and entered Intermediate classes.  So far, so good.  I racked up a useful vocabulary, learned the basic grammar forms, and verb conjugations.  But Intermediate classes focused on conversational exercises.  That’s when I stuttered, stammered, and froze up.

What was missing?  The right attitude, for one thing.  Humility for another.  It’s hard to learn anything until you admit you know nothing.  And I wasn’t ready to admit that.  And I was too proud to let others – especially better and younger students – see me make mistakes.  Frustrated, I thought of quitting.

Fortunately, Carlos, a former teacher, believed in me.  Although he tried to help me with informal Spanish conversatons over coffee, when the Spanish got tough, I switched to English.  Frustrated by my stubbornness, Carlos told me I would never learn to speak Spanish in Minnesota.  “You have a good vocabularly, you know some grammar, but you must go to Mexico for a month where I can’t speak English.  Then you will learn to speak Spanish.”   He was right and I did.  Carlos saw something in me I couldn’t see by myself.  For that, I’m forever grateful.

I left Minneapolis for my first immersion, my stomach full of butterflies.  About my host family I knew nothing except their last name.  What I knew of the city of Puebla came from the website of the Spanish Institute of Puebla.  And most of all, I still believed I might be too old to learn Spanish.  I boarded the flight lugging my worries like carry-on luggage.

What I didn’t know then, is that learning language has an emotional component that carpentry and other skills lack.  Language is intrinsically human, social, and emotional.  Very quickly, I realized it’s difficult to learn a language well if I keep people at a distance.  You might say learning a language isn’t intellectual as much as it is social and even emotional.  Immersion is interactive learning, in and out of class.

The first day in Puebla was a Sunday, and my host family – Julián and Lupita – retirees in their 70s and 80s, took me to an afternoon party at the home of a friend.  No one spoke English.  After introducing me around, Julian settled me into a conversation with one of the guests, and then went off to talk to others.  I was on my own!  That’s how it starts.  I will come back to this later.

Spanish immersion in Mexico offers lots of options.  Virtually every major city has one or two language institutes.  The common elements are: small classes with options for individual classes or tutorials, specialized language classes for clergy, social workers, businessmen, etc., cultural excursions, and living with a Mexican family.  All of this is designed to put you into a bubble of language you will find hard to escape.

Some midlife acquaintancess cringe at the idea of living with a host family, total strangers.  What if they don’t speak any English?  What if we’re incompatible?  What if I don’t like them?  I like to be in control of my life.  And so on.  It’s true, we’re pretty set in our ways by the time we’re 50 or 60.  And maybe we don’t like to upset our routine, step outside the world as we know it.  But maybe that’s just what we should do.  Language immersion will take you to a new comfort zone – if you let it.

Some of my acquaintances say they’ll buy a set of CDs instead of immersion.  True, CDs are cheaper than immersion.  I tried that, too.  It had no impact on my Spanish.  You can learn a lot of words with CDs and build a good vocabulary, and maybe some grammar, but learning to speak requires someone to talk with.  Interactive computer programs lack an essential emotional component.

Breaking out of our settled routine is just the thing to open ourselves to learning, to shed the carapace we’ve all built up as parents, professionals, citizens; to free ourselves from the accumulation of promotions, titles, positions, and other accomplishments that may define us.  These things are irrelevant to learning Spanish, and no one south of the Rio Grande will be long impressed by them.  Immersion is an opportunity to learn language while adapting to a new context.

Now, to return to the afternoon party: my companion was a lawyer who jump started the conversation with simple questions.  I’m sure my responses came in broken phrases, ‘pidgin Spanish’ of poorly conjugated verbs and incomplete thoughts.  But as we talked (and finished several bottles of Corona), I began relaxing and as I did, the words flowed more easily.

Why?  Intuition plays a role in this.  As we talked, the conversation moved away from me, my work, and my family to broader topics that involved opinions.  I was far out at sea, dog-paddling along, searching for words.  Now and then, English words came to mind – English words with Latin roots.  They are called ‘cognates,’ and often mean the same thing in both languages.

I seized on cognates the way a drowning man grabs onto driftwood.  Conjugating as best I could, I floated my creation in a sentence, followed by a question: “Es claro?”  Meaning is it clear or correct.  Invariably, they answered “Sí.”  Affirmation gave a small boost to my confidence.  No one was laughing, or judging my Spanish; most of all me.

We talked for an hour or two, the words came out more easily but not necessarily grammatically because I relaxed.  Already, the affirmation from my companion was giving me confidence in myself.

The day ended, we said good bye, and went home.  I went to bed tired but excited, pumped up and unwilling to stop talking, I was on a roll!  Gone was my fear it was too late to learn.  I’d just finished seven hours of conversations!

Here’s a tip: Many English verbs ending in “-ate” are cognates for Spanish verbs.  For example: Incarcerate (to imprison) is encarcelar in Spanish.  English nouns ending in “-ion” are often the same in Spanish, such as: Information – información.  Some of the English cognates are little used now, like masticate (to chew) but current in Spanish as masticar.

The next post will continue this line of thought.  Hasta pronto!

2 thoughts on “Do I really want to do Spanish immersion?

  1. I’ve often suspected that the only way I will be comfortable speaking Swedish is to go there for a month. I’ve done classes, used Rosetta, lots of other CDs. The most successful times I’ve had were visiting older cousins (yes even older than us) in Sweden. They needed me to speak slowly and I had to. At least I have learned enough to be able to read the books and records only available in Swedish – which is what started me on this journey – wanting to read my grandmother’s letters in order to know her. One second cousin I met a year and a half ago – then 101 – said that when a journalist asked her the secret to living so long, she replied “Jag är envist. Jag vill har allt.” “I am stubborn. I want it all.” Perhaps we could say the same Newell.


    • Sonya, what you have done gives you a good base for fluency but only immersion will take you where you want to go. Being surrounded by the language in all its varieties and settings, will embed it deeply, deeper than thought, until its automatic, like an emotion. With immersion you will get to a point when you aren’t conscious of the language you’re speaking, and you may answer an English question in Swedish without realizing it.


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