Distance. Whether metaphorical or physical, distance prevents us from creating connections. Connections are key to understanding, and understanding is key to language learning. Jonathan tried to learn Spanish from a distance, until one day he said enough. He adopted a sink or swim approach…and he swam.
Swimming on the Surface
Spanish was with Jonathan since elementary school. When health issues forced him to be home-schooled, his contact with the language lessened. Many would have abandoned the idea of learning a language at that point, but he got back to his Spanish studies the moment he got back to school, eventually also taking it as his minor at university.
Jonathan has a tendency to get immersed in topics. His room is decorated with flags from the Assassin’s Creed videogame series: evidence of his deep involvement in the series. “I’ve always been a very hands-on person,” he says, and this enthusiasm shows. It was on his own initiative that he wrote to HelloTalk with a plan of campus activities at Columbus State University, where he studies. That’s how we connected with Jonathan.
As we talk, it becomes clear that Jonathan is passionate about marketing, a topic he has explored since high school. “Marketing is about getting yourself out there, showing people who you are.” Here he refers to products and services, of course, but as we’ll see later this is the same mindset he employs in language learning.
Just like in elementary school, Jonathan’s university classes also take an immersive approach. Jonathan points out, however, that in a predominantly English-speaking environment there are limits as to how well this can be implemented. “You get ‘switched into’ Spanish in class, but it doesn’t really work outside of university, unless you have Spanish-speaking parents or friends.” This way of learning was a little disheartening. Jonathan even “betrayed Spanish” for French in his second year! The similarities between the two turned out to be, perhaps paradoxically, rather a hindrance. He returned to Spanish, this time feeling surer that this was the right choice for him. Though still, he was making little progress.
In June, after his second year at university, Jonathan went to Mexico, and that’s when things changed.
Sink or swim?
“Mexico was incredible!”, Jonathan exclaims when asked about his experience. He stayed with a host family in Cuernavaca, Morelos, where he went to school. “There were mountains as far as the eye could see. You’d drive and there was a giant mountain peak just in plain view. That’s something that never ceased to take my breath away.”
Levels of immersion were also very different than in the artificial class environment. “When barely anyone speaks English, you’re forced to use Spanish everyday, and you either sink or swim,” says Jonathan. Needless to say, it leads to much quicker improvements in any language.
Progress with Spanish is just one thing that happened during that trip. Mexico opened his eyes to a different word. He admits many people in the USA “have very negative connotations of Mexico: of drugs and human trafficking. When they hear that I not only went there, but plan to go back, they are astonished.” For Jonathan it all depends on communication. “If you can build connections with local people, you feel and are safer.”
Since the trip, which was also his first time abroad, Jonathan gained a new aspect to his passion for languages. He describes cultural education—both through travel and language learning—as an essential step to widening people’s horizons and building bridges. Travelling dismantles damaging stereotypes, and lets both sides challenge their world views, which are not always accurate.Travelling dismantles damaging stereotypes on both ends. Click To Tweet
There is a lot that Americans can learn from Mexican people, Jonathan says. “The country is very poor and the minimum wage is low, but people don’t let it define them. In the USA, a lot of people complain about not making enough money, but don’t usually do much about it.” He admires how in Mexico everyone is an entrepreneur, and tries to make a living on their own. As a symbol of this lesson Jonathan wears a bracelet bought from a local artisan in the Zocalo (or the Centro), the centre of Cuernavaca.
“There is this stereotype of an American: a heavy-set dude refusing to speak anything other than English. I saw it myself in Mexico. I think one part of my goal is to not hold true to that stereotype.”
After the trip to Mexico Jonathan admits he can’t go to the same “Mexican” restaurants anymore — “it’s not the same food!” He says he managed to locate a few genuine Mexican places in Columbus, where he can enjoy his favorite dish, tacos al pastor — tacos with pork marinated in pineapple juice.
Before arriving to Cuernavaca Jonathan posted a Moment on HelloTalk about his upcoming trip. This connected him to Arely, a girl he met with when he arrived. This friendship still continues. “What I like about HT is that you can see a little bit of the world without leaving the house. It’s like Facebook, but better because you can also engage with people who you haven’t met before.” His HelloTalk in-app “travels” lead Jonathan across the Spanish-speaking world, from Chile to Spain, a place he plans to visit next.
The trip to Mexico re-ignited Jonathan’s drive for hands-on involvement. This time his mission is about creating opportunities for cross-cultural connections outside of the school curriculum. He identified HelloTalk as a tool to create opportunities to practice. “I mentioned to my professor how much the app has helped me. I thought, if it worked so well for my Spanish, it could help others too.”
Through his connections on campus, with the Konan Language Lab and the Center for Global Engagement, Jonathan wants to spread the word about HelloTalk. “It’s a valuable tool that I would just hate to get swept under the rug.” He would pitch it saying “It’s like Facebook, but tailored for language learning.”
The trip to Mexico turned Jonathan into an ardent advocate of travelling. His advice to language learners?To those who haven’t gone abroad yet: go out there and do it. It’ll be worth it. Click To Tweet
“To those who haven’t gone abroad yet: go out there and do it. Get out of your comfort zone. You can always go back home, but you will never experience the world unless you travel. Do whatever you have to do to make it happen. It’ll be worth it.”
What better message to close an article, right? As Jonathan plans his next trips, to Mexico and to Spain, we’re curious to hear from you. What’s the latest trip that changed your perspective on the world?
Written an interviewed by Marta Krzeminska.
Cover photo by Ricardo Esquivel from Pexels.