My grandfather is Mexican. Technically, I'm Mexican too, but at 5' 9 with fair skin and blue eyes, most don't assume I have any Latin roots. My espresso-dark hair is probably the most Mexican thing about me, and I'm the only one in my family who speaks Spanish.
I started learning Spanish in High School. A passion for the language emerged when I took a trip to Central America during the Spring Break of my junior year. I went to El Salvador with a team of medical professionals who traveled annually to the country, offering free medical care in the areas surrounding the capital city of San Salvador. A friend of my family was leading the trip and invited me to come along due to my interest in the medical field. I returned from that trip with an expanded worldview and a new determination to learn the Spanish language.
That trip ultimately led me to take a gap year after high school to live and study in Lima, Peru. I'm forever grateful for the Peruvian family that took me in as their own and shaped my positive experience. I still remember how during my first week with my host family, the father, Ramiro said to me, "Eres mi hija," which means, "You are my daughter." He was true to his word, caring for me as his daughter throughout the entire time I stayed with his wife, Carmen, and two children, Gabriel and Ana Paula.
When I left, the family gifted me a beautiful silver ring etched with a replica of a hermit bird, one of the hundreds of images that make up the "Lines of Nasca" in southern Peru. These mysterious geometrical images, drawn deep into the desert thousands of years ago, are only visible from an aerial viewpoint and remain one of the many wonders achieved by the indigenous people of Peru. To this day, when I wear the ring, I think fondly of my time there and how I carry a piece of Peruvian culture not only by wearing the ring but by continuing to speak Spanish.
Since returning from Peru, I've continued to live among t he Spanish-speaking community as an advocate, a friend, and a continual student. Sixteen years later, I've found that my ability to speak Spanish has been one of the most marketable skills and has provided many job opportunities in social services, non-profits, churches, and education. Though I majored in Spanish in college, I found that true mastery of the language while living and studying in Peru and continuing to speak among native Spanish speakers. I also found that to continue to advance in proficiency, I needed to be humble and confident. Humble in inviting corrections but confident enough to speak imperfectly. I continue to put this into practice to this day as I've seen the incredible benefits of being a lifelong student of the Spanish language.
My first language learning tip would be to find your reason for learning the language. Your motivation in learning will drive the competency that you achieve. I've found that the desire to learn another language is widespread, but the action required to move farther in the language is harder to ignite. I experienced what foreign language educators describe as "living language,"igniting my passion. It's language in its context and not reduced to just the verbs, grammatical structures, and conjugations. You can experience living languages by going to a foreign country, but you can also find it in music and movies created in the native language or among the restaurants and grocery stores of foreign-speaking communities.
Secondly, to learn another language, you have to study it. Painfully obvious, you say? Perhaps so, but I've found it's still an overlooked step. It isn't always necessary to receive a formal education, but you do need to find a way to study the language. You can get a book at the library, take an in-person class or utilize one of the popular language learning apps like "Babble" or "Duo lingo," but you must commit to studying the language regularly. One of the benefits of utilizing apps is the ability to measure progress, which can bolster your confidence to speak the language and motivate you to continue your studies.
My third tip is to find a friend. If your language-learning journey seems a little lonely, then you're doing something wrong. This tip is arguably the most important advice I continually give my friends hoping to learn a new language. You don't need to become besties with someone random to learn a language, but you do need to venture out into your community or inter-webs and try to find someone who speaks the language you'd like to acquire.
You may wonder where you should start? If you're a college student, start investigating international students' events or clubs for opportunities to get to know native speakers. I promise that if you open your mouth and really make an effort to speak in someone's native tongue, you will create an opportunity for authentic connection. Something powerful occurs when you try to express yourself in another person's native language. You've allowed them to share their language and culture with you from a place of pride.
High School and College Students have a unique opportunity to take advantage of study abroad opportunities and language classes. For High School Students, consider taking a gap year to study a foreign language. Many foreign exchange programs offer opportunities for high school students to travel abroad anywhere from a few weeks to a whole year before college. A popular time to travel is often after college, but I would argue that it's better to do this before college. High School students are free of post-grad pressures like finding a job and paying back student loans. Furthermore, experiencing other cultures and languages is an excellent conduit for personal development.
So, why should you learn another language? Will it be for your personal development, to expand your worldview, or to give you a competitive edge in your career field? Will it be to connect in ways that you never knew were possible? Will it be to see outside of what you've ever known? Whatever your reason, I promise you'll be changed for the better when you learn another language.