She clasped the outline of her ribs and fell to the ground with such uncontrollable laughter that any passerby would have been forgiven for thinking one of her organs was trying to escape from her body. I was just as confused as to what triggered the outburst.
“What did I say?” I asked as I waited what seemed like an eternity for her to regain her composure enough to not sound like a cold, sputtering engine.
“Estoy caliente,” she started, “doesn’t mean what you think it does!” My face invented new shades of red as I anticipated the rest of the story. “You just told me that you are super horny!”
And with that, the most impactful language lesson I’ve ever had in my life commenced and finished faster than any occurrence of actually being horny would have. That evening, on a dark Costa Rican side street in 2010, is a moment I’ll never forget, and one that is important on many levels.
“She” in this story is Pamela, a dear friend for a wide variety of reasons, not the least of which is her being the sole reason I’m a fluent Spanish speaker today. She forced me to push myself.
I have never taken a Spanish class in my lifetime. “How did you learn?” is a question I get a lot. This skirts the obvious: the classroom is not necessary for learning. That is, not the traditional classroom.
What about thirty-year-old wooden desks, four plastered walls, and a whiteboard is intrinsically conducive to learning? The instructor is there, sure, but are there not experts available to you outside the confinements of the classroom?
What if you were your own expert?
The most important step in acquiring something new? One must learn to learn. The world, I propose somewhat sheepishly, is the most robust, interactive classroom that exists. Learning opportunities surround us at every turn.
Are you present enough to absorb them?
Fast forward to 2018, and Pamela is inspiring me once again. This time, though, she doesn’t know it. The first-language interference error I made in 2010 will stay with me for the rest of my life. Not simply because it was funny (and trust me, it was hysterical), but because I learned that our language ability is developed through our mistakes.
I’ve never made that mistake again. Nor have I made the mistake of being afraid of making mistakes.
This year, I find myself in the traditional Spanish language classroom for the first time. Not because I’ve reverted back to unknowingly making perverted remarks – I humbly submit that my Spanish is fairly solid – but because I’m not satisfied with the learning I’ve done lately.
Becoming satisfied with where you are is the kiss of death of any learner.
Life, complacency, and language are fickle beasts; they blend together like neapolitan ice cream: it’s easy to see all three flavours in the bowl, but as you consume them, they’re difficult to separate. Pushing ourselves forward and challenging our egos to constantly take a reflective step back helps to avoid the mundane.
Never stop learning. Take chances. Make mistakes. Learn how you learn. And then do it again. Life is the best classroom out there. All you have to do is realize it.