1st January 2019 found me in a flophouse motel in a border town in northern Mexico. I rested my weary bones after the mad dash across the canyonlands of south west USA in winter. Between naps and tacos, I reflected on my last four years on the road and thought about the goals I have been working towards. Several of my trip goals have been achieved already. The most tangible objective (but perhaps the most arbitrary and superficial) was that I set out to cycle the length of the six inhabited continents. North America is continent number four, so all is proceeding according to plan on that front. I also wanted to work in another country during my trip, which I did for over a year in South Korea. I wanted to learn to be less of a ‘control addict’, and I feel like I’ve made significant inroads there. Nowadays I am much more at ease with uncertainty than before my travels. I still want to learn patience – lots of work to do on that count. And I said that I wanted to become fluent in another language before I return to my home country.
So I started 2019 with a long-overdue New Year’s resolution: to master Spanish. Hitherto the ‘language goal’ has eluded me. For various reasons, during my travels I have found it possible to ‘get by’, more or less, with only English and a solid repertoire of miming and pointing skills. No doubt I could continue that way in Latin and South America if I wanted. But travelling in this way seriously limits opportunities for meaningful interaction. It places one always on the outside, dependent on the indulgence and linguistic skills of others. And, of course, there is some self-respect at stake. The time has come to shift the focus of my journey from overland progress to understanding and communication.
I have always admired and envied people who can communicate effectively in second and third (and more…) languages. I have a clear memory of a young boy who accosted me in West Bengal, India, asking how many languages I spoke. “Well… one, really” I replied (hesitating while I considered whether to claim my schoolboy French and German as ‘and a half’). The barely ten-year old boy looked at me with puzzlement and pity, straining to understand how I, a world traveller, could possibly survive with such limited communication skills. “Well how many languages do you have?”, I asked. Five, he said, as if that were the least one could manage with.
That this charming, dirty-faced urchin could converse with me, a foreigner, in my language, was not remarkable by this point in my trip. Children throughout Asia had routinely bowled me over with their readiness to transact in English. But to hear that English was merely one of a veritable fistful of languages at this kid’s disposal… that left me dumbstruck and abashed. It struck me that he possessed something precious, something I lacked despite my insanely protracted formal education. True, in his rural home town it was unlikely to open many doors for him. But should he venture forth as a young man, he might open doors for himself, without needing anyone to translate for him.
That encounter left a lasting impression. It cemented my long-standing ambition to master another language. But committed action did not follow. Back in the English speaking world in New Zealand, I warmed up my brain’s language centres with a daily stint on the Duolingo language app. Being already familiar with French, I used the exercises to rekindle the joy of language acquisition, something that schooling had practically eradicated. (In case you haven’t discovered it yet, Duolingo is a genius of an app – intuitively easy to use and immensely addictive). In essence, I was psyching myself up to take on Japanese. A daunting prospect, but one I knew I’d have to at least attempt, because English is not widely spoken in rural Japan, where I would travel.
In the event, my travel plans were derailed in South Korea long before I even reached Japan. In my first few months in Korea I learned the Hangul alphabet and collected useful phrases. But I progressed little further once I realised the commitment required to progress in Korean. For native English speakers, Korean is classified as a ‘group 5’ language, along with Mandarin and Japanese (see this nice infographic). Students of these languages typically take around two years of studying 40 hours per week, including 25 hours a week direct tuition to attain competence. In one busy year in South Korea I was never going to come close to mastery. I decided I would rather spend my time on more immediately rewarding projects. So I didn’t apply myself, although I continued my regular Duolingo practice throughout my time there. I found the learning process rewarding in its own right, and the least I could do given the formidable effort put in by my own students in their English studies. And then of course it was a bonus to be able to supply most of my daily needs in shops and cafes in Korean.
By way of further excuses, I could offer that being a native English speaker is both a blessing and a curse, in so far as it removes some of the incentives to acquire another language. English is the most commonly spoken language internationally, with more people learning English as a second language than any other. If you have ever tried out your go-to foreign language phrases in a new country, only to have the native speaker reply in English (or your native language, if that’s not English), then you know what I’m talking about. Laziness becomes the path of least resistance!
¡Estoy hablando español! If only it was so easy!
Dabbling in Asian languages aside, there was never really any doubt which language I should learn. Continents four and five of my trip – North and South America, where I will likely spend at least two years – are predominantly Spanish speaking. Since I touched down on the the northern shores of Alaska I have been aware of the need to put in some groundwork. I spent many happy hours acquiring vocab during my summer sojourn in Fairbanks. In Montana, a friend gave me a ‘learn Spanish in three months’ book – around three months before I was due to reach Mexico. Perfecto! But, in my pannier it stayed until the day I crossed the border.
As with so many other projects that I imagined I would have time for while travelling, learning a language has so far fallen by the wayside. Which is to say that when I commit to a certain section of my trip, I tend to focus on propulsion and living day to day. Studying a language, much like writing, learning the harmonica, or even maintaining regular contact with the outside world gets pushed aside. And in many respects, so much to the good – ‘here and now boys, here and now‘. In my last three countries – Japan, USA and Canada – there was a lot to ‘see and do’ in a limited period of time (visas and seasons again). So they were not the places to take it slow.
But now in Mexico, I have the gift of time. Here I get a generous six months visa on arrival, easily renewed by crossing a border. I can afford to shift down a few gears. Here I can put my dream into action. Perhaps here, finally, I can resolve the enduring tension between locomotion and creative projects, the old ‘riding or writing’ dilemma.
So here in the Pacific coast town of Ensenada I have languished over five weeks now. I spend around six hours a day studying Spanish and the habit is growing strong. I voraciously consume new vocabulary through listening, and interactive exercises. I make an effort to express myself in Spanish every day, but I am resisting going too far too soon with spoken interaction (patience, padawan). I am fortunate to have made friends in town who are supportive and encouraging of my feeble efforts.
As with anything, my enthusiasm and optimism for learning Spanish seems to come in waves. After early successes I enjoyed a rush of excitement from being able interact with locals in their own language (something I haven’t ever properly experienced before in my life). A few days later that unsustainable high was crushed brutally when I asked a stranger for directions to a lecture on the local university campus. My interlocutor immediately understood my question, but I couldn’t understand a single word of her reply. I couldn’t even parse the onslaught of syllables into separate words! I nodded, mumbled ‘mas despacio, por favor‘, but it was no use, she might as well have been speaking Mixtec or Basque for all that I knew. I shamefully pretended to understand, said ‘si, gracias‘ and shuffled off, aborting the mission. It was a humiliating, frustrating defeat.
And there’s the rub. It’s easy to trick locals into thinking I have some proficiency. Then they speak naturally and I’m lost! But my real mistake – and the real lesson of this early set-back – was not faking competence. The mistake was being too embarrassed to admit my lack of comprehension and giving up too quickly.
You would have thought that after so long travelling the world, mostly outside the English speaking world, I would be okay with bluffing my way through situations like this. And yes, on a good day I can blag it and improvise with the best of them. But because I viewed that particular interaction as an early test of my progress, because I was anxious about being late for the lecture, and because I’d claimed I could navigate my own way there, I was not in a relaxed state of mind. Because I was uptight, I couldn’t take a step back and think clearly.
Perhaps I might have made it to that lecture if I had slowed things right down, admitted that I couldn’t understand, perhaps got out a pen and paper or had them type into my phone. At the very least we could have tried Google translate. The person I’d asked was approachable and willing to help, the pressure was all invented by me.
But then again, in that case I wouldn’t have learned such a valuable lesson so soon. Now I know a relaxed attitude is the key to persistence, to achieving flow in my target language. I no longer feel the need to prove anything. I accept that I am going to suck at Spanish for a long time to come! I don’t expect to be discussing quantum mechanics in Spanish by the time I reach Colombia. But I do intend to have a lot more fun with the language in the meantime.