The first time I traveled alone was to Guatemala for three weeks of study: two in Quetzaltenango, which is a mid-sized town, and one in a rural area. I lived with a host family, had one-on-one language classes, learned traditional weaving, drank the most exquisite hot chocolate I have ever tasted, and had my first encounter with the power of a second language. I communicated. I learned. I navigated strange places by myself. I resolved a massive banking problem and experienced homesickness more powerful than any other episode of my life (the kind of homesickness that leaves you huddled in a corner with an English novel, a precious rice crispy treat, and the Backstreet Boys on repeat, binging on the familiar).
When you’re in class trying to learn a second language in a classroom, you’re surrounded by other people who also don’t speak the language. Learn the vocabulary, study for the tests, and do your best not to stress out about oral presentations or exams. But if you really want to learn the language, you’ll probably have to do it at least partly on your own. And it’s worth it. If you can get far enough into a language, things suddenly start making sense. That’s why you should start with some audio and video, to start training yourself to hear the patterns of how people talk. When I was studying for the AP Spanish test, I read Ramona and her Mother with the Spanish and English books side-by-side. And I read the first Harry Potter book in Spanish. I got the children’s book Caps for Sale on tape in Spanish, and listened to that story over and over. I hadn’t discovered podcasts at that time, but these days I “practice” my Spanish by listening to Spanish-language news and political podcasts from all over the Spanish-speaking world.
It wasn’t until I traveled that I discovered the power of a second language. I had opened myself to conversations with people on a whole continent. By the time I did my official study abroad in Valdivia, Chile for the spring quarter of my sophomore year, I was already at a fluid speaking level. I could interact and make friends. I could talk about ideas and politics and people’s lives. I could ask questions. I could be myself.
Whatever stage of language learning you’re currently at, try to push yourself to find a couple of non-class venues for improving your skills. If you’re in a university town there are probably English language learners looking for language swaps. There are increasing opportunities for formal and informal tutoring online in various languages. There’s an entire cultural landscape in this new language: sports, music, art, travel, TV, business. Anything you’re interested in, there’s probably a way to engage that interest in this second language. If you want an excuse to watch brainless TV, tune in for a soap opera or game show. It’s all out there, it’s just up to you to find it.
Note: If anyone is interested in studying Spanish in Guatemala, I’d be more than happy to recommend places to study. And if anyone wants to swap travel stories from that area, I’d be thrilled to chat about it! Feel free to drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet@kdcollegeadvice
What language learning tips have worked well for you? What have you found to be particularly difficult? Let me know here!
Transcript and Translation
Compare what John and Michelle said in this role play and find out why the examiner gave Michelle a higher mark.
1. ¿Qué tipo de instituto es? - What kind of school is it?
2. ¿Cuántos alumnos hay? ¿Cuántos años tienen? - How many students are there? How old are they?
3. ¿Cómo son los edificios? - What are the buildings like?
4. ¿Cómo es el uniforme? - What is the uniform like?
5. ¿Te gusta el instituto? ¿Por qué (no)? - Do you like school? Why?
6. ¿Cómo era tu colegio? - What was your primary school like?
7. ¿Cómo sería tu instituto ideal? - What would your ideal school be like?
Es un instituto grande.
It is a big school.
Es un instituto mixto. También es un instituto de idiomas y de la comunidad.
It's a mixed school- it's also a language college and Community school.
Hay mil estudiantes. Tienen entre trece y dieciocho años.
There are one thousand students. They are between thirteen and eighteen years old.
Hay más o menos mil estudiantes de entre trece y dieciocho años.
There are more or less one thousand students of between thirteen and eighteen years old.
Los edificios son grandes y sucios.
The buildings are big and dirty.
Creo que los edificios son bastante feos- algunos edificios son modernos pero otros son antiguos y descuidados.
I think that the buildings are quite ugly- some buildings are modern but others are old and run down.
El uniforme es gris y negro.
The uniform is black and grey.
Tengo que llevar un pantalón negro, un jersey gris, una camisa blanca y una corbata negra, lila y gris. Pienso que el uniforme es aburrido pero cómodo.
The uniform is black and grey.I have to wear black trousers, a grey jumper, a white shirt, a black, purple and grey tie. I think the uniform is boring but comfortable.
No me gusta. Es aburrido.
I don't like it. It is boring.
Me gusta el instituto porque me gusta ver a mis amigos- ¡pero me gustan más los recreos que las clases!
I like school because I like seeing my friends but I prefer break time to lesson time.
Era más divertido.
It was more fun.
Mi colegio era más pequeño pero más moderno. Prefiero el instituto porque tengo más amigos.
My primary school was smaller but more modern. I prefer the high school because I have more friends.
Mi instituto ideal sería bonito y limpio.
My ideal school would be pretty and clean.
Mi insituto ideal sería moderno con mucha tecnología nueva. Los estudiantes tendrían ordenadores en vez de cuadernos y habría McDonalds en vez de la cantina.
My ideal school would be modern with lots of new technology. The students would have computers instead of exercise books and there would be a McDonalds instead of the canteen.
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