We often hear that complete language immersion, living in a country where your goal language is spoken, provides the ideal situation for language learning success. As a nomadic, Spanish-learning hobbyist currently in Asia, I have extremely limited opportunities to hear or practice my target language.
I think it would be wonderful to travel through Latin America to pick up and practice as much Spanish as possible. Hopefully one day I’ll get there, but for today, there are heaps of places left to discover in Southeast Asia.
While in Asia, the special, unexpected opportunity to meet three truly phenomenal women from Spain gave me the bonus of a language exchange as we traveled together. Without Spanish, our travels would stand out just as spectacularly in my mind. But I discovered that the things my Spanish friends taught me seemed to stick in my mind with ease.
The ease seemed due to the relation of a Spanish word or phrase with a particular, location-specific memory. I was able to reach back in my thoughts for a Spanish word they had taught me, and find a good memory wrapped up with the word I wanted. One of the major keys for mastering a language lies in the somewhat tedious task of memorizing vocabulary. “Que rollo!” or, “what a bore!” as my Spanish friends might say.
Learning a language with a friend while you travel makes memorization fun, interesting and more effective, because the words you learn can be related to a both new experience and new place.
I can’t promise it’s an easy situation to come by, but to conquer a language, try to find yourself a native of the language you want to learn, then travel together!
Travel far, travel long: the more scenery, the more experiences, the better. I know this probably doesn’t happen regularly, but if it does happen, you’ll have spectacular memories and specific locations to relate your new vocabulary to.
You’ll learn quickly, colloquially, and uniquely.
Step One: Find Your Target Language Travel Buddy (ies)
It was a bumpy night, the first we had ever spent on a bus with actual beds. My mom, sister, and I were on our way to Don Det, one of 4,000 (roughly estimated) islands in southern Laos. The night bus contained twin-ish, Asian-sized beds, which just meant that anyone over 5 feet 5 inches would have to bend their knees in a bit.
Each bed was to be shared between two people. Realizing that, as an odd numbered family, I would be sharing a bed with a stranger that night, I quickly made sure that the unknown person would at least be a female. I was assured that they would be.
I shook hands with the girl assigned to bunk with me and learned that her name was Maria and that she was from Spain. I introduced her to myself and my mom and sister who were just across the isle. Upon learning that Maria was from Spain, my mom asked Maria to speak to me only in Spanish since I was trying to learn. Maria volunteered that she was trying to better her English, so maybe we could switch off between languages to help each other. The exchange was greatly unequal, as Maria’s level of English was superb and clear, while I still couldn’t carry on a decent conversation about the weather in Spanish. Maria was very kind-hearted however and did her best with me.
There were a couple times in our duo-language conversation that we were at a loss at how to translate something. In those cases, I would jump up to ask Maria’s two friends in the bed behind us. Both her friends just happened to be Spanish teachers.
A scream split through our conversation. We looked over to see my mom scrambling to grab her shoe. She began hitting her boot against the mattress all over the place. “A cockroach just crawled across me!” she frantically explained. Maria’s friends behind us sat up to ask what was going on. “Hay una cucaracha!” Maria informed them.
Now we were all disgusted and checking behind our pillows and under the folded blankets. The cockroach disappeared without getting killed, a prelude to the roach-infested nightmares we were sure to have. My mom pulled out her handy-dandy bug spray and lightly covered the sheets. She handed it off to Maria’s friends, Virginia and Elena, who were as eager to avoid any more cockroach encounters as we were.
The night left us quite deprived of sleep, but at least no more black, oval bodies with little legs made themselves known.
Sharing in the episode with the cockroach helped to catalyze a great friendship, a month traveling around Cambodia together, and a month long intercambio, or language exchange.
Step Two: Match Your Travel Itineraries
Since we were all on the same bus, we quickly discovered that we had also chosen the same island, Don Det, to visit. On that account, we headed there together.
My mom and I quickly recognized how thoughtful and kind our new friends were when, time after time, they waited patiently for us, as everything took about 3X longer with my handicapped sister, Grace.
They were also beyond hilarious. There weren’t many moments that we didn’t spend doubled over with laughter. We made light of all our crazy experiences, including the credit card thin “chicken” burgers that everyone (except for me, I had potatoes, haha!) received at the island restaurant.
The 4,000 islands were ridiculously hot and had only received electricity a few years prior. As the islands were still lacking air-conditioners, we couldn’t bother staying more than a couple days. We had been there and Don Det (get it?), so off we set, a little prematurely, to cross the scary border to Cambodia.
Despite all the troubling stories we had each read about the tempestuous task of crossing through a border with completely corrupt officials, we plucked up courage as we faced it as a group. We got through just fine, as we didn’t argue over paying the two bribe fees, one of about $2 and the other of around $30. One man, crossing at the same time, did decide to pick a fight about the illegal fees.
He was simply denied entrance into Cambodia and told to return to Laos. The guy paid the bribe in the end. The Cambodian government was fully aware of the illegal fees being collected on its borders, but continuously chose to do nothing.
Although it was a far trip, both my family and the tres españolas had decided to make the city of Siem Reap the first stop on our tours of Cambodia. So, again, we went together.
Learning to Joke at Angkor Wat
Siem Reap is the most tourist visited city in all of Cambodia, for a good reason. It’s home to the incredibly vast ruins of the ancient Hindu civilization, Angkor Wat.
We took two tuk tuks out to the ruins early in the morning to see the sunrise over the massive structure of the main temple building. We explored the highlights until midday when the heat grew strong and we were worn out and had seen our fill.
On our way out, walking through the Angkor Wat complex, we drifted into somewhat random conversation. Somehow we got on the topic of jokes and the English expression to say that someone is pulling your leg. It was on that enormous, historical land that I was taught the Spanish phrase equivalent of
¿Estás tomando el pelo?
or, are you pulling my hair?
Quite the setting for a Spanish lesson if you ask me.
Step Three: Choose, Learn, and Sing a Travel Theme Song in Your Goal Language
Naturally, the well-known tune, La Cucaracha, (although originated from Mexico) a song about the cockroach, became our often-sung traveling theme song. We belted out the chorus while bored on long, hot bus rides and sang the whole thing while waving to passing bamboo trains.
The first sweaty bus we sang it on was from Siem Reap to Battambang. Most of us scored the backseats with leg room. All of us tried to splay out and air out as our hopes for air-con were crushed.
In the heat, we somewhat deliriously sang our song, and I tried my best to learn all the lyrics, although it took some practice.
La cucaracha, la cucaracha,
ya no puede caminar
porque no tiene,
porque le falta
las dos patitas de atrás.
In English: The cockroach, the cockroach,
Can’t walk anymore
Because it doesn’t have,
Because it’s missing
Two little back legs.
It was also then that I learned the ever useful phrase
or, I’m melting!
We really were.
Someone opened a small shaft on the roof of the bus to let some air in. Not much air made it through, but dust from the dry, parched roads sure did. Maria became affected by it and said, “there’s a lot of dust.” The Spanish word for dust is “polvo.” My badly untrained ears picked up the word “pulpo” instead, which seeing as that means octopus, made me terribly confused. But in the end, my vocabulary grew!
Step Four: Travel, Laugh, Speak the Language
More Bumpy Roads in Battambang
In the crowded backseat of a 4X4 while visiting a killing cave, bat cave and a viewpoint in Battambang, we crashed along a rocky mountain road, holding on tightly to avoid falling out. I realized I had no idea how to say “bumpy” in Spanish. I’ll not likely forget learning
Hay muchos baches en la carretera
(there are a lot of bumps in the road) while being thrown up and down in a jeep because of them.
Once at the view point, we were in the middle of a conversation in which I was about to say that “I am an old soul” in the only gringa way I knew how: “Mi alma es vieja.” Only the two words “mi alma” made it out of my mouth, however. All the girls gaped at me exclaiming “no way!” before I could finish. I quickly made an internal check of what I had said, but was sure at the meaning of alma as soul. What were they so surprised about? After their shock wore off, they filled me in: “Girl, who has been teaching you Spanish?? Mi alma is a colloquial phrase used only in a very small area of southern Spain, our area. And you used it perfectly in the context of what Elena just said!”
Well, what do you know. I didn’t mean to do that, but hey, that’s another colloquial, real Spanish phrase down!
Idioms, Colloquialisms, and Cambodian Beaches
While waiting and waiting for our food to arrive, seriously famished after a day of travel to the beach town of Sihanoukville, mis amigas expressed all of our thoughts with
or something like, “it is taking a long time, it is behind schedule.”
We found that phrase just about as useful as estoy derritiendo during our travels in Cambodia and beyond.
Similar to the estas tomando el pelo phrase, on the sandy beach, where my mom and Maria faced off in paddle ball matches, I picked up the phrase
¿Estás de coña?
or another phrase to say, “are you joking?”
We took the ferry and moved along to a big island recommended to us called Koh Rong. While swimming in the waves, the girls taught me the meaning to
a phrase they regularly threw around amongst themselves. It’s pretty much used to call someone silly or slow, but in a friend-to-friend manner.
Leaving the waves, the girls said,
El agua me da hambre
or, the water makes me hungry. A very true statement, that one is.
Calling out Moochers over Dinner in Kampot
During a dinner where we split a massive 1.5kg of ribs, Elena and Virginia explained that you could say
¡Que morro tienes! / Que cara mas dura
to someone who is always asking for things without giving back, or for example, eats off of everyone else’s plate instead of buying their own food. (We weren’t talking about each other!) They weren’t sure if there was an English translation for this. It took me a moment to remember what we English-speakers would say, but eventually remembered about the people we like to call moochers. Moochers, morro and ribs are all entangled in a single dinner memory.
I also received a stellar lesson there on the different ways to call something gross:
¡Que asco! / Eso es asqueroso / Esto esta asqueroso.
And walking back to our hotel in Kampot, not many days before we departed to different countries, they to Vietnam, and us to Thailand, one of my last lessons taught me the different ways in which to say “that’s funny!”
¡Que gracia! Eso tiene gracia. Que divertido/ Que gracioso.
Elena, Virgina, and Maria all taught me tremendously more than just these phrases, but most importantly we had a lot of fun while doing it. This could also serve as an example of the power that alternative learning, or more specifically, learning outside of a classroom, holds.
Leave the textbooks, venture out, grab a language buddy, hit the road and sooner than you’d think, you could find yourself fluent. What’s to lose if, while adding to your foreign language vocabulary, you’re gaining a broader view of the world as well?