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Growing Pains: The different stages of learning a new Language

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

-Anaïs Nin

As of today, November 23, I have been in Buenos Aires, Argentina for 127 days. The time is flying by as the end of the semester approaches, and I have taken time to reflect on my thoughts about learning a new language, Spanish.

I would call my first few months of being in Argentina the “sponge” stage, where I was absorbing and listening to much more Spanish than I was able to squeeze back out. During my time studying Spanish in the US, I had Caucasian, Colombian, and Spanish teachers, so I was adept to a certain accent. My first day here was, without a doubt, the most overwhelming day for many reasons: the Argentine accent is extremely thick in comparison to what I was accustomed to (think: calle – caYe vs. caSHe, or lluvia – Yuvia vs. SHuvia), I had to get used to new vocabulary, including the informal pronoun vos instead of tú, and this was all happening while I was trying to make sense of my physical surroundings  (where was I in relation to public transportation? how do I get to the supermarket? where do I get food?). I experienced the strongest moments of the “sponge” stage in my Argentine classes, where I understood much more than I could speak. I had to get used to a specific, academic vocabulary while trying to get over the fact that I was painfully shy to speak in general because of the fear of messing up. If anything, the sponge stage helped me become a very good listener and good at reading body language.

The next stage that I experienced would be called the “shell” stage. Whenever I needed to purchase something, I waited to find a purchase that would require the least amount of communication between the cashier/vendor and myself. The fear of not understanding specific vocabulary, not calling an item by its correct name, or pronouncing it incorrectly overrode the many missed opportunities to learn. Small mistakes were not moments to laugh and learn, but instead, I found myself beating myself up internally for not grasping the language. I felt moments of failure and loss, as if the years of learning and practice were not coming to fruition. Mornings became heavy, because I woke up every morning with the same realization : I am in Buenos Aires, Argentina (that’s cool!), and I have to speak all Spanish today (a growing dread). Admittedly, I would stay inside my room for longer periods of time just to avoid having to speak with anyone in Spanish. Although I knew that leaving my comfort zone would cause the most growth, my lack of confidence kept me grounded there for long periods of time. But without this dark valley, I wouldn’t be on higher peaks looking down.

The following stage is the “budding” stage. I became more comfortable using the language as a tool, as if I were becoming more comfortable using a pencil (the tool) to write after a couple attempts. Not all my colors were showing yet, but I began to go out more and feel comfortable having conversations in Spanish. An important aspect to this stage was laughing, not only in terms of having a sense of humor and laughing at jokes, but being able to laugh at myself. If I had to describe this stage with a hashtag, I would use #pequeñoséxitos, which translates to small successes. I began to appreciate the small advances that I made, instead of waiting for dramatic changes in a small amount of time. This change of mind allowed my language to flourish into the next stage.

The current stage that I am in is the “blossoming” stage, in which my comprehension is growing at a small rate, but my verbal expression is increasing exponentially. I am no longer worried about how I am using the tool (Spanish) but rather the small, personal goals (expressing an idea, getting to know another person, etc) are guiding me to use the language subconsciously and naturally to reach these goals. You are not 100% comfortable using the pencil in your hand but that is no longer your concern, because you have accepted that practice and time will continue to naturally refine your ability. I like to call this stage the blossoming stage because I think it is when your personality is able to fully manifest within the language – you’re able to express your ideas and opinions with more ease. You’re able to understand and laugh at jokes as much as you are able to make some. You make mistakes, and that’s the same as a flower getting some shadow on a sunny day – the movement of the sun will cause some shadows throughout the day, but you’ll get moments to shine. Getting corrected is a welcomed gesture rather than a painful moment. I am happy to say that I have reached a comfortable level in my Spanish where I am able to write in my personal journal in Spanish without feeling like the language is inhibiting my ability to express my thoughts and feelings.

Many people in my program are at different stages, and I think I am extremely fortunate to have reached the blossoming stage within 127 days. I have to sincerely thank a couple of people and factors for this rapid advancement. I came into this program with the priority of having thriving friendships in Spanish. After my skiing trip in Bariloche, I have made life-long friends with Bolivians, Colombians, Mexicans, and friends from many more countries, both Spanish-speaking and non-Spanish speaking. I have to thank my friend, Erika, who has made it fun and challenging to learn Spanish together. We have many reflective conversations about the concept of language, the struggles that we have faced, the moments of enlightenment, and listening to her speak Spanish has been fun because she, as a English-speaker, is using Spanish differently than I am (think: accent development, vocabulary, variety in verbs, etc). A big thanks goes to my Bolivian friend, Benjamin, who has an incredible amount of patience for my Spanish-speaking ability; we take turns practicing our second languages and have a mutual deal to correct one another. So far, this has been one of the most challenging, yet rewarding growing pains that I have experienced. I am not sure what the next stages are for my Spanish, but I will welcome the new growing pains with an open mind and heart.

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One Response to “Growing Pains: The different stages of learning a new Language”

  1. Michelle Says:

    This is such a great explanation of the language acquisition process, DiemTien!! I’m so glad you actually got to the blossoming stage in your time abroad– it takes a lot of work and courage to put yourself out there. Congrats.

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