Learning a second language has not only become a popular past time, but has also become advantageous for those looking to strengthen long term business relations in foreign markets. If you want to learn a language from the comfort of your home, there are many applications that will help you up to a certain point. But is learning a second language as easy as buying software or an application that teaches you electronically? Is total immersion the best language learning method? Regardless of your answer, learning a second language isn’t easy because at the end of the day, regardless of the method you choose for learning, you’re going to have to manage face-to-face communication and step out of your comfort zone.
I’ve been learning Spanish for the past five years in Buenos Aires and I am a living example that total immersion can be as educational as it is frightening. On the one hand you have to constantly improvise and react in your second language and this can teach you much faster than software if you’re able to learn from your mistakes, but on the other hand these opportunities can put you in some very uncomfortable situations that you might not have ever wanted to experience.
When I first moved to Buenos Aires in 2009 I took Spanish lessons at a university. One day our pre-intermediate class began with a second conditional speaking activity: if you were an animal, what would you be? ¿Si fueras un animal, que serías? The young cute female teacher was also so bold as to ask if she were an animal, what would she be? I should have replied that she was like a swan or even a young lioness, but after fuddling with the few words that I knew, I realized that I didn’t know the word for swan and resorted to the dictionary. Whilst flipping through pages, the image of a charming little mouse flashed into my mind’s eye. I imagined that after hearing my response she’d quietly close the book, ask me to repeat the answer to the class and flash me a gesture of admiration for my advanced vocabulary. So I opened my dictionary that I kept with me at all times and looked up the word for female mouse: laucha. Technically, this is the word for a small field mouse. But unfortunately for me, in Argentina this word can also mean a lazy bum. So, imagine you’re giving a language class and you present this topic to the class and your student replies with a coquettish smile, “If you were an animal, you would be a lazy bum”, and then on top of that, he/she winks at you. I did successfully make her blush, but she politely told me never to tell that to a woman again.
One day, I walked into a kiosk with the intention of buying a simple sandwich. There is a type of bread in Buenos Aires called pebete and you can usually order a pebete de jamon or a pebete de salami. It’s very common for people to just refer to sandwiches as pebetes or migas, thin sandwiches without crust. So I looked at the kiosk attendant in the eye and told him quite seriously, “Dáme un pibe por favor”. Now, in Argentina, there’s a huge difference between pibe and pebete. A pibe is a small boy and a pebete is a sandwich. I had asked this middle aged man for a young boy, “Give me a young boy please”. Now imagine it’s a very hot day in the city, you’re exhausted and about to close up your kiosk and some sweaty pale immigrant casually walks up to your counter and asks you for a young boy. On top of that, imagine your son is in the corner of the kiosk watching cartoons waiting for you to close. The kiosk attendant didn’t quite understand and he tilted his head and asked me “Qué?” what? “Sí, dáme un pibe grande”, or, Yes give me a big young boy. I pointed to the sandwich, not his son, and again asked him for a big boy. The kiosk attendant shouted, “un PEBETE no un pibe.” I left with my sandwich and he with his son; a win-win for the both of us.
Learning with Rosetta Stone or with applications can be an effective way to strengthen your grammar base and practice conjugating. But it isn’t until you get out there and practice what you’ve learned that you can truly start to understand the complexities of language learning. I know from personal experience that putting myself in strange situations like these has helped me not only learn Spanish, but also how to laugh at the strange cultural misunderstandings that inevitably show up when speaking another language.
Written by Brian Athey