When I pictured learning Spanish in Ecuador, I imagined myself swimming happily in a sea of language that I could just absorb and spit back out. But after six weeks of one-on-one Spanish lessons, hours of online practice, and spending three months immersed in a Spanish-speaking country, I’m still learning the doggy paddle. Rachel, who had the foresight to take three years of lessons before we left and had studied Spanish in high school, is at least in the deep end. Neither of us is doing laps yet, but thanks to her, we can get where we need to go.
Trying to learn Spanish is just one of many learning adventures this year has offered, but it’s probably the most challenging and important one. It’s helpful, for example, to be able to read signs like “danger” (right) and “caution, do not leave the trail” (above). Fortunately, I have mastered those words, but I have also been surprised by how much work learning Spanish is for me. Not because I thought learning languages was easy, but because struggling to express myself, to find a word or construct a sentence, has been seriously humbling and frustrating for this English major, editor, and writer.
I started with a handful of words that were most useful to me: una cerveza, por favor. Gracias. Baño? I had done a few weeks of basic vocab online so I had a few travel words, too—maleta (suitcase), boleta (ticket), passaporte. Taxi, aeropuerto, and hotel were easy enough. I was ready to go, right? Then on my first day of lessons in Cuenca, my instructor launched into reflexive verbs, and I realized how much of a fog I was really in. Fortunately, he soon backtracked to the basics, but the experience also made me realize that I don’t even know most of the grammatical terms in English! When was the last time you thought about reflexive verbs? Past pluperfect subjunctive anyone?
Fun fact: the Spanish word for retirement is “jubilado” (as in jubilation). We seriously need to reframe retirement in the U.S. #ReframingAging
In my first three weeks of lessons, I did manage to increase my vocabulary exponentially. I took 30 pages of notes, did homework every night, and began to learn present-tense conjugations. Rachel would quiz me on our long walks to school. I could understand more and more words in conversations with locals, but still couldn’t fully comprehend or respond coherently. Missing just one word would throw me off completely. Most of what locals said was still foggy for me and what I said was, at best, toddler-speak. It felt like my brain was flipping through an ancient card catalog to find each word as I struggled to construct a sentence.
I started feeling a bit more confident when I realized I could more or less make out what museum exhibit descriptions were saying, with only a few assists from Google Translate. Guides and shopkeepers, who speak way too fast for me, were another level of challenge, but after a month or so, I was starting to feel good about the progress I had made.
After a few weeks in different places, we landed at the coast for a month, so we signed up for another couple of weeks of lessons at a different school there. We had been trying to keep up with daily Spanish practice, but we both felt like we could use a booster. I was feeling more confident about my conjugations—even the irregular verbs!—and my vocabulary list was continuing to grow slowly. My confidence grew unrealistically when our new language school tested us to determine our levels, and I skipped one! (I later learned that I had simply gotten lucky on a few questions… and that was just the beginning of my humbling.)
Fun fact: the Panama hat is actually from Ecuador. The straw hats made by indigenous locals eventually became a finely woven export that Theodore Roosevelt brought back to the U.S. after a visit to the Panama Canal. The press named it after the wrong country.
Realizing that my grasp of reflexive verbs was tenuous at best, my new teacher started there, and this time I was more ready for it. By the second week, we had worked our way into very basic-level future and past tenses. It was then that my head exploded. I felt like my brain was already chock full of new words and ways to use them, and now they tell me that all those same words have different endings for different purposes?
I realized at that point that I thought I had been learning to play baseball, but in reality I had been hitting a ball on a tee. Now they’re throwing actual pitches at me, and then after I swing, I have to know what to do next! Just as in baseball, the urge to duck is strong; it comes in the form of my blank stare and mumbled “lo siento, no comprendo” (I’m sorry, I don’t understand). But then I realize that ducking won’t help me get better, so I haltingly take another swing.
I have also found that no matter how great my teachers are, if I don’t practice what they’ve taught me nearly every day, the learning begins to dissipate almost instantly. Turns out immersion is not enough. We are not doing home-stays, where you speak the language constantly. We do use Spanish when we are out in the world—well, mostly Rachel uses it, but I’ll chime in occasionally and even venture out by myself from time to time. While plenty of people do speak English here, Spanish is necessary in situations from grocery stores to taxis to restaurants, especially in the smaller, less touristy towns. We also try to use Spanish because it is the polite and respectful thing to do. But using it for practical purposes only is not enough to help us maintain and advance our learning. I imagine it’s like staying fit as we age—we need to regularly exercise our language muscles. Use ‘em or lose ‘em!
Fun fact: The length of the current-day meter—1 ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the equator—was determined by a European expedition to Ecuador in 1736, because at the time, Quito was the most accessible major city near the equator.
Fortunately, if we practice, Spanish is a cumulative learning adventure. On the other hand, every time we change places, we start the “new to town” learning all over again. There is some cumulative knowledge, of course: just knowing how to find out the essentials is a skill that we have practiced now multiple times. But in each place, we need to learn what’s most interesting or useful, where to find what we need, what’s common knowledge to locals but completely new to us. In Cuenca, for example, we learned the hard way that buses do not accept cash—you need to buy and add value to a card. (Fortunately, a kind-hearted local woman let us use her card to pay the fare the first time.) In Loja, we learned that no one really seems to know what parks or museums will be open when, so you just go and hope it’s open. In Manglaralto, we learned that apparently Band-Aids (or anything similar) are not something you can find in small-town farmacias. And we’ve learned that taxis beep their horns a lot, but not in anger: it might mean “watch out,” “I’m passing you,” “holá, fellow taxi driver,” or “hey, pedestrians, I’m available, need a taxi?”
We’ve also learned some of the history, nature, geography, food, and culture of each place we’ve visited, as well as other regions. For example, we learned that Guayaquil was once one of the biggest ship-building ports in South America and Vilcabamba was the last refuge of the Incas. We learned that family time on Sundays is an almost sacred tradition every place we’ve been—families play, picnic, and relax together all day. We learned that cuy (guinea pig) is only served in the Andes but patacones (fried plantain cakes) are a staple everywhere. And we’ve learned more about what we are looking for in a place to settle in for a while—the slow pace and friendly welcome of a small beach town felt much harder to leave than the faster, more populated cities, no matter how much there was to do there.
Most recently, we took our first surfing lesson! After a few sudden splashes, we rode waves for an hour, feeling the rush of adrenaline when we stood up, the pride of gaining our balance on the boards, and the security of learning to tumble off safely. Then we saw some real surfers tackle some real waves, and were humbled again. We had been on the “bunny slopes”—small, regular, waves after they had already broken, using extra-big surfboards that are easier to stand up on. Yet another happy-but-humbling adventure.
One of the biggest pleasures of this journey we’re on has been all the learning—but the joy of learning begins with the discomfort of struggling with something new. That’s not a new thought—there are hundreds of articles and workshops about “why discomfort is the key to success.” But experiencing it is sure harder than talking about it.
We have now been in Ecuador for three months. We have learned so much and have so much more to learn. We are planning to be here another three months, starting with three weeks in the Galapagos, where we just arrived. Can’t imagine we’ll learn anything new here…
Fun fact: Ecuador is the closest country in the world to space. Due to its rotation, the Earth bulges at the equator, so if you measure from the center of the Earth, Ecuador's Mount Chimborazo is actually 1.5 miles taller than Mount Everest.