The 8-Week Fantasy of Fluency:: and Other Reflections of ECELA and the Language Immesion Technique

April 21, 2007

Tonight I board a plane for Brazil (whooohooo!!!!!) for the last leg of this trip. Since they speak Portuguese in Brazil instead of Spanish, today is my last official day of speaking Spanish all day. Everyone I hear from back home keeps asking me how my Spanish is coming and if I am fluent yet. WHEWWW!!!…..that’s funny!The even funnier part of the equation is that somehow in my mind before I got here I thought that I would leave here after 2 months of language school not necessarily fluent…….. but pretty close. O what a fool I was.  At school we all chuckle about our unreasonable expectations before we got here. One hears so much about “language immersion” and how quickly a person learns when they are forced to speak a language all the time. After having participated in this program, I wouldn´t say that this is altogether untrue…….. just very overstated. In the past 2 months I’ve had 200 hours of Spanish class time and spoke at least a little Spanish every day with locals for one reason or another. I definitely know more Spanish now than I would have learned in the States under any circumstances in 2 months. However, the Spanish that I am most “proficient” in is the everyday stuff. I am very good at what I call survival Spanish. I can get anything done in a restaurant, whether it be asking ingredients, asking for condiments, telling the server the wine is corked, and arguing over the bill……… I can get most things done in a taxi, give directions, insist that they are trying to rip me off and that I may speak English but I am no fool, and I can ask questions and answer questions in stores that sell just about anything, pool halls, bars, and Internet cafes. What I know is survival Spanish, but please don´t get it confused…. its broken, grammatically incorrect and sometimes damn near incoherent to locals, but it generally gets the job done.  I have learned to never leave the house without my spanish dictionary and a pen and paper….sometimes drawing is the most effective form of universal communication.  Drawing and playing charades has gotten me very far in foreign countries.

The first three weeks of the program I would be able to speak in class, but on the street I would freeze up because I was so busy thinking about grammar and trying to come up with correct conjugations that I would just get stuck. Then I started noticing that other students who at first sounded pretty fluent to me, really just spoke a very confident broken Spanish that consisted of a jumble of the necessarity verbs and vocabulary. So at that point I just started to speak. Every week I had my favorite Spanish phrases. For awhile, my feeling about EVERYTHING was…… “mas o menos” or “yo tambien”.  Seeing how everyone down here thinks that I am Brazillian because I am clearly not of Anglo roots, I can´t count the number of times I start trying to stammer through some Spanish and they tell me “I don´t speak Portugese” , and I`m like “well actually I don´t speak Portugese either” at this point they look at me very quizically almost as if to say, well you certainly aren´t speaking Spanish…….it seems Spanishish….but not Spanish.  I even had one woman at a Chinese restaurant say to me very loudly and slowly as if I was deft “DOOOO YOUUUU SPEEAKAA IIINGLES?”. Umm yess, as a matter of fact I do.  I´ve never seen anyone look so relieved to speak English in a non-English speaking country.

I had to chuckle to myself when another student was commenting last night how impressed she is with how well I can get us around the city and get things done in Spanish. I know very little Spanish, this I know to be true.   However, I too have become a master a maneuvering what little I do know to get alot done. Outside of class I use about 15 verbs that I can quickly conjugate in several tenses, I have a decent grasp on the difference between para and por (I´ve decided that para is the greatest connector/preposition/explaining word on the face of the planet), and everyday I learn new vocab. Even though last night I graduated from only the first of three levels the program offers, at this point I don´t think that my Spanish would get much better if I stayed in the school another 2 months. By now, we´ve gone over all the tenses, and hundreds of verbs, hundreds of vocabulary and after the first level they start reviewing and going back and fine tuning some things that were breezed over very quickly. So at this point its about getting more comfortable with speaking with people and practice, practice, practice! Which by the way,  honestly doesn´t happen with other students outside of class in a situation like this. The classes at ECELA are fabulous. They can be very intense 4 hour sessions everyday but that’s what you pay for.   It seems a little strange that you are basically paying someone to talk to you for four hours a day, but how else are you supposed to learn?  And it´s pretty necessary since as soon as students leave class we return to English. They encourage all of us not to, but it doesn´t make sense to struggle to try to communicate in Spanish when we all speak English.   It´s just not natural.  Whenever students are together we will speak Spanish for the first few minutes to each other, but we always end up back at English because our Spanish is so bad that we can barely comprehend each other.  I will say that South America is a wonderful place to go to learn Spanish despite the funny accents that separate their Spanish from Spain Spanish.  The people are lovely and they don´t get snotty attitudes that you don´t know their language.  They are so tickled that you try that they are very helpful and get very excited for you when you finally get it right, but the only problem is that as you want to practice your Spanish they want to practice their English.  I´ve had half hour long conversations with people where I am speaking in Spanish and they are speaking in English.  I think I´ve learned more Spanish from taxi drivers than my teachers.  You are stuck in the cab with a talkative cab driver and suddenly you have no choice but to talk and they have no choice but to teach.

My grammar and my accent are shot to hell but that will come with time, my grammar gets better when I read in Spanish and I plan to continue to read books in Spanish when I return home. I am not one of those people who just love other languages for the sake of learning another language, but I am extraordinarily dedicated to learning Spanish.   I  like to communicate with people and if I need to speak another language in order to do it than so be it. So whats the verdict on ECELA and their Latin Immersion Program? I now have a solid foundation upon which to build my language skills. It was worth the money and the time, not just for the language but because its an experience of a lifetime.  I am no where near fluent, but I am proud at how far I have come.  I can now have conversations with people about basic things and we can even talk about world politics and deeper issues…..a little bit anyway.   It has been a fascinating cultural exchange on more levels than I expected because learning a second language with people whom you don´t share the same first language or culture is a pretty interesting experience.  I knew that it would be a time for me to get the flavor of South America, but I didn´t realize that everyday was going to be a crash course in almost every country around the world from all the different students. I have met people here that I would have never met or hung out with under any other circumstances. Even Americans that I befriended during the program were not usually people that I would voluntarily spend time with in the States. It’s amazing the kinds of things that unite you with other people when you are overwhelmed with foreignness (or underwhelmed in Santiago)… “You live within 20 miles of a Dairy Queen? Me too!!” and then suddenly that`s your best friend for the next week.

Travel friendships can be a funny and fragile thing especially as a single traveler. You are in a new place and suddenly everything is unfamiliar and so you look for comrades, compadres, or just an amigo to eat dinner with. You find people who seem the least bit nice, willing, and probably a bit as fragile as you as well and BLAM!!….you have what feels like a instant family in about three days. The new family does everything together…. you eat every meal together, discover the city together, get ripped off together, and trade scary/disgusting/unbelievable travel stories. You offer tidbits and glimpses of your true person and your “real life” but really noone is interested in all that reality, most people leave the country for vacations from reality. It´s weird because as you are developing what feels like a close relationship with these people and you all pledge to keep in touch and come visit one another deep down inside you know that you won`t. You exchange emails because that`s the polite thing to do, but you both know that you don´t have enough in common to keep in contact across oceans and continents. There are always people that you meet that you will forever think about, and some you will even keep in contact with but those are the exception, not the rule. For most, your friendship was as sudden and intense as a one night stand….and forgotten just as quickly.



  1. Hola,

    Espero que estes ves bien, soy Cecilia Quezada de ECELA.

    Estaba leyendo tu historia.. muy interesante.

    Me gustaria saber si puedo usar parte para mi pagina en la seccin de testimonios.

    Te mando cariños,


  2. A very nice story, you must let us know how you got on in Brazil! Nice weblog.

  3. Hello, just found this blog whilst searching for ECELA to post my review. But I have to say I agree with everything you wrote. I found the professors to be uniformly caring and if you worked hard in class, they responded.

    I hope your spanish has continued to improve since you studied in 2007. Thank you for posting the blog as it confirmed many of my experiences after studying in 2010 with ECELA.

    The “lingua franca” in the modern world truly is English – all the Europeans speak it to each other to communicate. I even met European students at the school who told me their English improved more than their Spanish while in South America.

    I also agree with the unrealistic goal of fluency. Basic spanish is indeed simpler to learn than other languages, but at the intermediate and higher levels it is very difficult. Once the program focused on the subjunctive (obsessively, I might add), my frustrations increased exponentially and my progress ground to a stop. I switched to private classes and shelved the curriculum, to instead focus on integrating other grammar and improving my conversation abilities. Best money I ever spent, as I was feeling quite depressed about my failure to master the subjunctive.

    Best Wishes

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