Everyone knows intuitively and experientially that Spanish immersion is the best way to learn Spanish. However, just because you’re traveling, doesn’t guarantee language growth on Spanish immersion!
We love Spanish Immersion programs for our high school students, undergraduate students and professional clients because we know it puts them in the best situation to learn Spanish. When you’re on a Spanish immersion program, you naturally remove many obstacles and distractions that get in the way and fight for your attention when you’re studying Spanish back home.
Spanish immersion is a significant investment of time and money. And while financial costs are relative (what may be expensive for me could be affordable for you) time isn’t relative – we all only have a finite amount! So, I wanted to share some realities of Spanish immersion and 4 potential obstacles to exponential language growth that you want to be aware of before you travel. Of course, I’m a practical guy, so keep reading and you’ll see that I’ve also added alternatives to the obstacles that threaten to stifle your language progress.
Keep these things in mind and you’ll be ready to learn all that you possibly can while you’re on Spanish immersion!
3 Realities of Spanish Immersion Trips:
- Traveling to a Spanish speaking country doesn’t automatically equate to improving your Spanish language skills
- Selecting a solid Spanish immersion program improves your chances of gaining Spanish proficiency, but doesn’t guarantee it
- You hold the keys to success, your progress with the Spanish language is always up to YOU!
If, at the end of the day, your Spanish proficiency progress is primarily your responsibility, what is the secret? Why do some people benefit more from Spanish immersion trips than others? Overcoming the following 4 obstacles to Spanish growth abroad will guarantee that you maximize the potential benefits of your immersion program!
4 Obstacles to exponential language growth on immersion:
Obstacle #1: Fear
Fear is a killer and a major obstacle to language growth. I’m not necessarily referring to the fear of physical danger (but it is a fantastic idea to pick a safe place to travel – like Costa Rica), I’m referring to the internal fears of how others perceive us when we’re speaking a foreign language. You must train yourself to keep this fear in check if you want to make significant strides in another language. If you can’t wrap your head around sounding silly at times and being okay with it – you will unintentionally hold yourself back forever in the language you’re trying to learn.
This fear shows up in a couple of ways:
- Timidity to take the first step and start out a conversation in Spanish. You can usually meet most of your basic needs with a mix of charades, a smile, and a little English; so if you succumb to timidity to get started in Spanish, you may find that you don’t actually NEED the language to get that soup at the restaurant or hail that taxi.
- The alternative to timidity to take the first step in Spanish is not complicated. Why don’t you spend some time before you travel brainstorming some survival Spanish phrases and conversation starters that you can master and rely on to get conversations going. Once you get started in Spanish, you’ll recognize that you actually can communicate in the language and you’ll naturally keep going in Spanish (and charades too probably). So write down some basic conversation starters and some high frequency replies and you’ll be on the right track to overcome timidity!
- Fear of being misunderstood. One of the realities of growing up and getting older is that now you tend to be right more often than when you were younger. When you were younger, people told you “no” and corrected your thinking frequently. But now at your age, you have a life of learning and experiences under your belt to draw from and much of the time you know the “right” answers to a multitude of questions on a variety of topics. This gives you a certain level of confidence in situations that you face every day in your regular routines and familiar circles of life. But this confidence that you feel is intimately linked to your ability to communicate your knowledge and experiences. It’s okay to not be confident in your ability to communicate in Spanish, but it doesn’t have to equate to FEAR of being misunderstood; there is an alternative.
- The alternative to your fear of being misunderstood is to not care…seriously, who cares? Take it a step further and recognize that this is actually the reason you’re going on immersion! Effective communication takes practice. It took you many years to become an effective communicator in your native language, and it will take you some time to become effective in another language as well. Logically, you should be able to agree with the idea that it’s much better to practice communicating while on immersion (since this is the actual point of you going) than to “practice” with a sick Spanish-only patient in front of you, during an important legal proceeding, or while you’re trying to solve an important HR problem at work with one of your teammates. Don’t wait until it really counts (and the stakes are high) to get your practice in; practice while you’re on immersion and when it doesn’t really matter if you make mistakes.
Obstacle #2: Frustration
Difficulty communicating can be frustrating. You’ve undoubtedly experienced this on some level in your native language (in a relationship, during a heated debate, trying to describe one of those crazy dreams, etc) but it’s not usually every day, and it certainly doesn’t come up during the really simple communication exchanges.
On immersion, however, even the “simple” can get complicated. Here are 4 common frustrations while on immersion:
- Frustration of not being able to say something perfectly, or at least how you would say it in English. You want to say something in a certain way and you simply can’t. You don’t have the grammar for that particular construction in the target language or you lack the necessary vocabulary to say it as succinctly as you might in English. If you let this get to you every day, all day long, you’re going to be one frustrated language student at the end of each day.
- The alternative to this frustration is to leave the translating to the translators! A translator’s job is to communicate the exact same message in an equal tone and register as the source message. You’re not a translator, you’re a person who is trying to navigate meaning across 2 languages. So, shift your communication goals from perfect messaging to meaningful communication. As soon as you make this switch, you’ll be okay with saying something like: “I go to the store yesterday” until you learn how to say “went”. The point is to use what you know to make communication happen even if it’s not perfect.
- Frustration by the extra effort required to complete simple tasks. This frustration is similar to the first frustration of not being able to say what you want the way you would say it in English, but now the focus of your frustration is less on the language and more on the task you’re trying to complete. You are feeling the reality that language is a tool we use to get things done, and when you struggle with the language, you have a hard time getting even daily tasks accomplished. A large percentage of my immersion clients are medical professionals, a naturally high-achieving and wicked-smart group of people. Picture yourself being accustomed to saving lives and all the complexity involved in providing medical care to someone. Now you’re in a Spanish immersion context and you’re struggling to explain to your host family that you’re not sure how to get hot water out of the shower; or you’re at the restaurant and you can’t order a soda with your meal. Talk about frustration!
- Yes it’s frustrating, but frustration undermines your learning objectives. So, the alternative here is to accept that every situation you’re presented with on immersion is a learning opportunity – this is why you signed up – and this is your work for now. Ask yourself, if not now while on immersion, when IS the right time to work on your Spanish? The amount of frustration you feel is really all about your expectations – if you expect even the little things to be challenging, you’ll be in a great position to improve your language significantly!
- Frustration by differences. Now we’re talking about culture and the context or situation of your immersion program. These differences are real and palpable when you are living in another culture; this is cultural adjustment (aka “culture shock”) and most everyone goes through it on some level. When you start your immersion program, every difference is cute and charming; then those exact same differences begin to rub you the wrong way and you get cranky. Basically, you are experiencing that other people do things (and think) differently; and that clashes with what you previously thought was “normal” – possibly even “right”. If you start catching yourself saying “that’s weird” or “I can’t believe that….”, watch out; this frustration by differences is present. If everyone goes through culture shock, is there an alternative?
- Of course there’s an alternative! Recognize that you are where you are, you are a product of your own culture, and the culture you’re living in probably thinks that you do things “weird” as well. You’re probably not going to change anyone else’s way of thinking, so forget about it! Accept the pros and cons of each culture and move on. If you dwell on it, it will produce frustration, so don’t dwell on it! Be thankful for what you have, be thankful for your history and the inherent privilege of growing up in the United States of America, and focus on learning Spanish!
- Frustration by unpredictability. Unpredictability is a natural component of living and studying abroad. It doesn’t really matter which culture you’re traveling to, you can expect that where language barriers and cultural differences exist – certain things are going to surprise you. The reality is that things change frequently. In some cultures these unexpected changes seem more common than in others, but regardless of where you’re traveling to you can expect change. Expecting change is actually the alternative.
- The alternative to frustration by unpredictability is to simply expect unpredictability. The frustration isn’t really because plans change, the frustration is that you expected a certain scenario to be “x” and it turned out to be “z”. If you expect that scenario to be “?”; then every day you’re given multiple surprises!
Obstacle #3: Facebook
No, I’m not kidding; I’m 100% serious. It’s not just Facebook, social media in general is a constant temptation. Countless studies show how social media cuts into your work time and your study time – so this is a documented fact. You probably already know what I’m going to say about this, but I have to say it anyway.
Basically here’s the message: while you’re on immersion, never let social media activity take place of having real interactions with people face to face in your midst. It sounds so obvious, but many students and clients of ours have trouble drawing this line and keeping social network activity to times that don’t threaten real interactions. The basic rule of thumb here is to never allow Facebook or any other social media to take priority over authentic interactions in Spanish while you’re on immersion.
- Alternatives? Yes of course. Keep your social networking to times when you’re alone and it’s not stealing you away from an interaction with your host family, other peers on the program, community members, etc.
Obstacle #4: Friends
I guess friends aren’t really an obstacle, but they are a potential distraction. Many students go abroad with a group of friends (or travel in a group and make fast friends) and naturally default to speaking English with each other. My first time studying abroad was when I was in undergraduate, and I remember that there was a group of my classmates that always went out to the clubs in the evenings and went on weekend trips together. There was nobody “leading” them and encouraging them to speak Spanish, so they naturally defaulted to English with each other. I had to make the conscious decision to spend that time with my host family and make friends with some locals because I really wanted to improve my Spanish.
Hanging out with English speakers while traveling abroad is a real and present danger to your language growth because it feels so natural to just speak English with each other. But please, don’t fall into the trap; at the end of your program you’ll look back and realize that you spent thousands of dollars to go abroad and speak English with your buddies. What a regret! So how do you avoid speaking English if you’re forced to be with other English speakers?
- Is there an alternative? Absolutely there is! This one simple solution will go a long way in keeping you from speaking English and it will actually encourage your friends to speak Spanish as well. Doing this one thing will help you stay in Spanish and will set a standard for speaking Spanish among your peers. It’s simple, commit to starting in Spanish 100% of the time. If you start in English, it’s nearly impossible to switch into Spanish. On the contrary, if you start in Spanish, people will follow suit and the people who want to speak Spanish will gravitate toward you while those that don’t will naturally create distance between you and them. That’s what you want, right? You want people around you with your same goals of speaking Spanish. You definitely don’t want to be the chump who travels thousands of miles to speak English, so start in Spanish 100% of the time and watch how you naturally surround yourself with others that share your language goals!
Spanish immersion is definitely the best way to learn Spanish, but as you can see it’s not automatic. While you’re traveling abroad you’ll face several obstacles that threaten to thwart your language development. The first step in maneuvering around these obstacles is knowing what they are. Now that you know what some of these obstacles are, be intentional to avoid them! Some of them take discipline to avoid, others take courage, and still others require flexibility; but they all require intentionality. Although it’s a challenge, it’s worth the effort. Most people will only have the chance to do a Spanish immersion program once in their lifetime (if at all) – so do it right the next chance you get!