Immersion: I was in “Spanish mode” and forgot to switch back to English

I have been thinking in the bilingual brain and how it works without our help.  When I was learning English, I stopped translating when I was completely immersed in English (my second language), I could not just float in the bilingual waters, it was time to swim!

Here is Rebekah’s immersion experience in Guatemala, or as she called it her time to dive in head first and go for it!

When I started learning Spanish it was kind of a “eh. whatever.” thing for me. I enjoyed learning it, it came fairly easily for me, I just didn’t see the point really, you know.

In the summer of 2010, I had the opportunity to go to Guatemala. That was the first time I was surrounded by Spanish for more than 2 hours at a time.

It was so neat to be able to understand what people were saying (or at least get the sorta-kinda gist of their conversations) and to be able to speak to them in my broken, sprinkled with mistakes, Spanish.

And that’s when I decided. I decided I want to be fluent. Almost 3 years later, no hablo con fluidez, but that’s okay, I’m still working towards it.

It scared me at first; actually, it still scares me, that’s something I’m working on. I’m too worried about messing it up and sometimes I miss opportunities, but that’s another story.

El verano pasado, I had the privilege to be able to take a second trip down to Guatemala..and use that Spanish I had been working on. It was one of the best experiences of my life.

It scared me at first; actually, it still scares me, I’m a bit of a perfectionist so messing anything up kind of bothers me, so I’m learning that sometimes, you just have to dive in head first and go for it.

In one town we worked, we built chicken coops for two families. Porque I spoke the most Spanish of the group who went down, I was the one who was sent on walks to la tienda with someone to get food for lunch or other various things.

The things we talked about weren’t really of much importance. Hablamos del tiempo y tal cosas. I asked if the ladies I saw were haciendo tortillas para venderse. They asked what part of the US I was from. Those conversations weren’t deep or profound, but they meant a lot to me, they built Spanish speaking confidence and made me remember how much I liked speaking it.

Those little walks stretched me—I was so worried about messing up, but you know what, they didn’t mind if I mixed up a feminine or masculine article every now and then. They appreciated anyone’s efforts to speak any Spanish to them. And were excited when someone spoke just enough to engage in some decent small talk.

I was able to connect with the people who spoke absolutely no English. Can people connect even with a language barrier? Absolutely. But there is just something so special about being able to converse with someone in their native idioma.

I was able to laugh at at a joke while riding in the back of a truck. I was able to ask questions about a store, I was able to order at a restaurant. I was able to give other people in our group rough translations.

Oh—and funny story, in the Guatemala City airport, as we were going through security one of the employees (a Guatemalan man) asked me, “Is this your bag?” to which I responded:

“Sí, es nuestra.”

“Oh! ¿Hablas español?”

“Sí, yes, I mean, no. Well, English is better.”

After getting over how awkward that was, I realized how cool it was. I was in “Spanish mode” and forgot to switch back to English. That was the first time I ever really spoke without thinking at all. I want to be able to do that, all the time. To be able to Just hear something and just switch over to español effortlessly. That’s bilingualism.

And that’s the goal.




Why learn a second language?

I am an all-around American girl. I don’t have any relatives that are Hispanic. I live in rural(ish) Virginia. Sweet tea is a staple in my diet. ¿Por qué aprender otro idioma?

Knowing another language really is beneficial.

Much to some people’s surprise, there really is a great world out there, outside of the United States. After Mandarin Chinese, Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world.

If you want to travel, that is one more reason I would encourage someone to study another language, not just buy the “Spanish for Tourists” books. A group of language students were asked why someone should learn a second language and one under-grad student replied, “If you are travelling around the world, speaking the language is better than shouting”

Believe it or not, I actually think learning Spanish has helped me with English too. I was in the car a few days ago and I couldn’t remember whether ‘antebellum’ meant the time before the war, or right after. And then I thought “oh, antes, means before, so antebellum is basically just before-war.”

Studies have shown that being bilingual helps you to ditch an egocentric way of thinking. Realizing that more than just your way of speaking exists, helps you keep an open mind. The entire world is not the United States.

By knowing a second language you get a bonus skill to put on resumes. If there were two job candidates with the same degree, who were equally qualified for a job, but one of them was proficient in Spanish which one do you think they’d choose?

It’s beautiful. I like Spanish, it just seems to flow so much better than English. (That is, when it’s spoken proficiently, sometimes mine contains a lot of “uhhs” but I still say “uhh” with mi acento de español , so that’s good enough, right?) But seriously, hearing someone speak Spanish is much more pleasant to listen to.  I always feel like when people are speaking Spanish everything just sounds so much more profound. “Saca la basura ahora.” Oooh. That was deep.

The music and writings in Spanish are so much better appreciated in their natural form. Just like if you translate something into Spanish it might sound weird, the same thing happens sometimes when you go from Spanish to English. Also, being able to read/listen to a piece in its original language state can help you to become a more well-rounded person.

Mastering a language can provide a great feeling of satisfaction. Now, I have in no way mastered Spanish, in fact, I’m not even sure if I’ve mastered English. But there is a sense of happiness every time I master any tiny little thing, like finally being able to say “hamburguesa” correctly. I don’t know why I thought that was so hard.

Knowing another language, or even just studying one, can help you relate better to other people. One thing I hear a lot is, “if they’re going to come to our country, they need to learn our language.” Which yes, in the U.S. it is very important to speak English, and I do think anyone who lives here should make an effort to learn. But that does not mean that the second someone steps off of the plane they are going to be magically fluent. Learning a language is hard. Immersion aids tremendously in learning, but it is still hard. Learning a language helps you to be more sensitive to that.

Es divertido. My favorite part of Spanish is not learning the conjugation irregular verbs, believe it or not. I love learning the phrases that, when translated to English make no sense, but are still things you can say in Spanish. Such as, “si esta víbora te pica, no hay remedio en la botica.” If I said that to someone in English, they would look at me like I was insane.

Learning a language can form you into a more well-rounded person. It provides you with advantages and opportunities you would not have had otherwise. You can appreciate Spanish literature and music. And oh yeah—it’s pretty fun too.


Learning is a lifestyle.

It is a pleasure to welcome Bekah to Spanglish House. She is American and she has what it takes to be multicultural. She loves Spanish, she is very interested in Hispanic culture and she has the desire not just to know more about Spanish speaking countries, but she wants to live in one. 

When I was in 3rd(ish) grade, my mom signed me up for weekly Spanish classes. Those only lasted for a few months, and when I was in 4th grade I started having weekly sessions with a tutor.  That tutor randomly stopped showing up to lessons after a few months, so I started studying some en mi casa. In 8th grade, I started weekly tutoring with Cecy. (who don’t tell the others, but she was always my favorite)

Being homeschooled, I thought it was normal to start learning a foreign language so early, I never thought about it twice. I remember thinking it was a bit odd that my friends couldn’t count to at least 30 in Spanish, they didn’t even know how to ask, “Como estas?”  That being said, I was no Spanish mastermind, and I couldn’t conjugate a verb to save my life until I was 12 (and even then it was pretty rough for a while).

If you ask the question, “do you speak another language?” the typical response from high school graduates is, “Well, I took some in high-school, but I don’t remember much.” If you ask someone still in high school, the answer is most often, “Yeah, I’m in Spanish II.” But if you ask them what they know, it turns out, it’s not very much.

Puedes memorizar un idioma o puedes aprender una idioma.

I recently took a Spanish class at a local community college, and to be completely honest, I learned nothing. I have my 4 credits, but no real new knowledge.

Classes are teaching us to think about it. They teach us the exact proper way to say things. We can say things like, “El caballo es azul.” Or “Me gusta la camisa.”

If you can tell me every color, count to 600, name every animal in the zoo, but you can’t politely order a chicken sandwich at Pollo Campero, you’re doing it wrong. The slang, the funny little expressions, that’s what really makes a language unique.

To fully know a language is to be able to say what you want fluidly, without having to stop and really think about it.  The best things I’ve learned have come through just talking to other people. A person can read all the textbooks they want, but a person can never communicate well without actually using it.

If you try to teach your children, or anyone, to speak perfect Spanish all of the time, it won’t work. Just speak to them, teach them by example.

I have learned more Spanish while taking a 15 minute walk to a tienda en Guatemala con una mujer que estudiar un libro de texto por una hora.

Learning to be bilingual doesn’t come from a textbook. It comes from life.