Take Care: On Moving Between Cultures

Reverse Culture Shock.

It happens to most of us – you leave your native land and assimilate into a new one. You don’t feel quite as home in the new one, but comfortable enough. Then you have the chance to return back to your native country, either temporarily or permanently, and suddenly, everything has changed. Nothing was as you remember it. You can’t remember words or phrases in your native language. You forget some of the customs, driving styles, or just the pace of a city or town. Suddenly, you feel lost – not belonging to either country or culture, but understanding and loving both.

I experienced reverse culture shock when I left Madrid (population about 3.3 million) and went back to my native sleepy Ohio town (population about 60,000). Suddenly, me speaking Spanish was frowned upon. Family and friends had limited patience as I surfed through my mental dictionary to find the English equivalent of batido or sartén. I had never completely fit in with this town, but now I felt like even more of a stranger.

Spain was no different; I was on my own. I never felt as though true friendships could be made with my classmates there, and I couldn’t get over the poverty hump – the chip on my shoulder that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to really let go of until many years later. There was something off with me in Spain; the locals knew I wasn’t one of them. It was a big identity struggle: if I never felt comfortable in Ohio, wasn’t fitting in with my fellow students, and couldn’t fit in with the locals, who was I?

Now, part of this was probably the original angst of a 19-year old. Though this certain type of angst doesn’t apply to everyone going abroad, it’s no less valid. And part of it was due to the culture shock, the identity of leaving everything you know and living elsewhere for months or years. It truly is transplanting yourself – your customs, thoughts, worldly possessions – into another location. It’s difficult, and at the end of the day, it’s totally worth it. To truly live in another country – not just go to the American bars or shop at the American stores – to truly live in another country, is a gift that everyone should experience.

And it’s important to be on guard for the reverse culture shock… the aftershock of such a wonderful gift. Maybe it’s your driving style, the music that you listen to when you’re in a mood, taking shoes off before entering a house, the way you say a word or phrase… it will come. And it’s OK that it does. It’s OK to think of yourself as in-between people, cultures, or worlds.

It’s OK to do so because this is ultimately part of your journey. The experience of living somewhere different, of transplanting yourself, forms your identity and sense of self – in essence, you. Reverse culture shock is not something to “beat”, “win over”, or “get over”. It’s simply part of the course, and part of the journey.  

You're Missing One Big Thing:

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Whether a recent graduate or someone who is looking to make a big move, we all have our checkboxes and lists:

Degree or diploma? Check. Housing? Check. Yelp, Google Maps, and music apps downloaded? Check.

By any other standards, you are set to go out into the real world, venturing one by one into the abyss of cubicles, a standard work schedule, and an environment where “ergonomic office equipment” gives you a slight shiver of excitement.  

Yes, you have the corner pieces of the puzzle: education, a semblance of a plan, and some semblance of support (financial and emotional). Yet there’s the other, large corner piece of the puzzle missing:

MENTAL STRENGTH. 

What comes to mind when you think of “strength”- athletes and bodybuilders? Picture your brain, the center of your emotions, as an athlete. To me, mental strength has many parts: people skills, conversation skills, analytical skills, the ability to reflect and adapt, and most importantly, the ability to transform a hazy idea of a notion (such as success) into a feasible concept, and then into a reality.

Mental strength cannot be learned from a PowerPoint presentation or a textbook; there is no secret weapon that you may buy or learn. As every athlete does, you need to treat your body with care. Focus on gratitude and work on people skills by actually interacting with people. Reflect on what you enjoy doing and your goals, and think about your strategy to get there. Build your skill toolbox, so you can truly start believing that people do the best they can with their individual circumstances.

The hardest thing to maneuver in every work setting can be the people, but I’ve found through research (read: years in retail and restaurants) that the more time you spend with people, the easier they are to read. Look to how they treat their superiors and inferiors, and ask them what makes them tick early on. Find how they prefer to communicate, and if they’re intrinsically or extrinsically motivated.

Mental strength tends to come in waves, and is so subtle you don’t realize when or how it happens. More nuanced aspects of mental strength include the ability to command a conversation, the tact and grace that is necessary in an office setting, and the importance of resilience. Below are some tips as you work to define and refine mental strength:

1.     Know how you define success, and then determine how your surroundings fit into that vision of success.

2.     Rarely anyone will get their dream job right after college or a big leap. Think of your job hunt as a rung in the jungle gym, not a rung on a ladder- you may not know where the next step takes you, but every job is temporary, and adapt your job search and networking skills as such.

3.     Once your problems have solutions, they become obstacles. Work through them the way anyone would: by analyzing the issue, proposing solutions, and then commit to a solution. If that solution fails, adapt further by committing to another solution.

4.     When it’s time to continue on your career path to a different department, company, or project, trust your instincts. The interview process is your opportunity to screen a company or position just as much as it is for the hiring manager. Once you deny a job opportunity based on a gut feeling alone, you know you’re trusting your instincts.

5.     Keep trying and keep improving. As humans, we aren’t set in stone. We’re ever-changing and evolving our stories - both those stories we tell ourselves, and the stories we tell others - to fit our new version of reality. To me, this is one of the most exciting things about coaching - there can literally be no obstacles in our way! Though it’s also the toughest part about coaching - when you don’t realize that you’re getting in your own way, or holding yourself back out of fear.

Mental strength will never truly be ‘done’, and there is always progress to be made. With a bit of planning, a lot of grit, and a graceful smile, you can work on your mental toolkit to curate the job and lifestyle you want to truly thrive.

Education is Only 50% of the Equation

Life is a collection of experiences, a collection of reactions and predictive actions. We tend to act based on current knowledge of how things work and why some people do the things they do: a result of previous experiences or knowledge.

In order to learn something - to truly learn it - you must combine education and experience. On one hand, education gives you the confidence, context, and verbiage necessary to successfully live out an experience. On the other, experiencing something without truly learning anything from it belittles the experience in itself.

For example, you must have education to have the best reaction to an experience, even if that education is predictive knowledge (Billy is always grumpier in the morning). And likewise, you must have experience to have the best reaction (Billy hit me the last time I stole his crayon, and since I just stole his marker, he may hit me now, too).

These are instances that could happen in a kindergarten classroom, and they usually increase in size and scope as you progress in age and education. In this instance, I’m using education like previous knowledge, and not a degree in any sort – education is spending time with people, studying how they work and interact, and basing assumptions, stereotypes, and predictions on these interactions. It all changes when the language changes, and there is no longer the opportunity to completely understand or be completely understood.

For all intents and purposes, experience follows the dictionary definition of ‘a particular instance of personally encountering or undergoing something’ (Dictionary.com). It does not have to be limited in size and scope; an experience is as small or life-altering as you let it. For language-lovers, an experience could be a semester abroad, Gap-year travels, or attending a conversational language meetup in your city.

What we live is a series of experiences and moments, those which can change our path or ideology. In order to truly grow, we must first have the educational components of growth: a growth mindset, curiosity, and the ability to communicate. Growth precedes experience, and in order to take advantage- aprovechar – all of life, both experience and education must work together.

One Key to Master Learning a Language

Why do we use language?

At its core, we use language to navigate the world more easily. Travel, work, commerce, can all be done internationally if we have a shared language. But even if we all speak the same language doesn’t mean we’ll have a shared language. No, a shared language is when each person participating in the language has a uniform definition for something – for example, a traffic light, or a computer. We all know these things by what they do or the utility they provide.

Shared language around intangibles is easy; it’s when we try to put constraints around concepts, deep-seated cultural norms, or thought patterns that disparities emerge.

Though some cultural norms we can see, the majority we cannot. Knowing the existence of a cultural norm is one thing; knowing why the norm exists is another. This is why history is so important. Want to know why pork and ham products are so populous in Madrid? It goes all the way back to the Spanish Inquisition, and was one of the ways the Moors were flushed out of the city. Curious about coca usage in Colombia? Spoiler alert: it’s not to make cocaine; it’s rather a centuries-old practice to handle the altitude and altitude sickness. Why are there so many anti-drug policies and attitudes in the U.S.? It’s due to the “War on Drugs” policy and slogan from the Nixon era, specifically, 1971. Why is racism so prevalent in Latin America? It goes back to the encomiendas framework, which came about after the 1492 Conquest, and the fact that Europeans played off on the racial tensions that already existed in order to ensure their new social order didn’t unite against them.

These are just a few examples of why people do what they do. While you don’t need to study every scrap of history and memorize exact dates of every important event in a country, it helps to know key cultural facts and key historical events- especially in relation to the rest of the world at the time. The 1940s were a tumultuous time for many: Spain (Franco dictatorship begins), Germany and Western Europe (Hitler takes over many cities and countries by force), the U.S. (Pearl Harbor and the entrance to World War II), and Japan (the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Simply being cognizant of the country’s history will break down so many barriers, and in turn, make your language learning journey so much easier.

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Bilinguals and polyglots – what are your favorite history-related anecdotes? What made more sense after you learned more of the history of a country?

The Problem With Language

Language is bound to creativity. One must be able to express oneself succinctly and creatively. There’s so much freedom in words and expressions – from inside jokes, generational idioms or song lyrics, and now with technology-based invented words (Google as a verb; gif, meme, etc.). The best part of language is that for the most part, it’s not fluid. Because language is not static, it changes and adapts to its users through time, space, and location. Fun fact: when I started university in upstate New York, I used “mad” to mean “really”. Yes, this small Ohio farmgirl would say things like, “That’s mad cool” – not because I had a sudden interest in slang, but I wanted to fit in and have a shared language with my NYC friends.

However, language has one big problem that no one can escape: its users.  

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Most of us are lazy with our language – we say “awesome” when something does not, in fact, fill us with awe. We use “wonderful” or “fantastic” as corporate cheers, when there’s nothing fantastic or wonderful about cheering someone on to do their job. We change the meaning of words without even realizing it. For example, if “fantastic” becomes the new normal, what is more than fantastic? If “awesome” is said each time a student gets a B+ on an exam, what will you say to that student when they get an A?  

Yet this one big problem is also language’s main strength: its people.

Language connects us to our emotional selves. Not only is it our primary communication tool and one of the main reasons humans are separated from the rest of the animal kingdom, but it also is full of nuances – tone of voice, facial expression, body language, word choice, nuance, and connotations all play seamlessly into an automatic orchestra. Even not speaking the same language, we can still get by with hand gestures, tone, and a general sense of bewilderment and wonderment. Language adds spice to the mundane. We know something is truly awesome or wonderful based on the context. How boring would it be if your boss simply said, “adequate” every time you turned in a deliverable?

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As language changes, we study it. We go online and in person, asking questions and gathering information (What, truly, does yeet mean?) We continue harnessing and harmonizing with this tool that is truly, literally, amazing: our language.

The Flexibility of Liberal Arts

Liberal arts degrees get a bad rap in the United States, but for a multipotentialite, they are the best fit for a less-than-perfect situation.

From a young age, school counselors, parents, grandparents, and teachers are obsessed with one idea: What do you want to be when you grow up? And for someone who likes multiple things and ranges from average to pretty good in a slew of activities, that is the most stressful question.

I was that person who stressed out who and what I wanted to be – and it’s fun to note that some people will ask “who” you want to be, and others will ask “what”. There’s no winner between the “who” and “what” camps, as the “Who do you want to be” will ask the child or teenager “Who do you want to emulate or copy?”, and the “What do you want to be” focuses on a job, as though a job or industry creates us at our core.

I’m a living example of how this is all bullshit. My 8th grade aptitude test (yes, we did career aptitude tests at age 12) told me I should be a mechanic. My friends expected me to be a teacher or something. I wanted to be a horse trainer, and possibly work with movies in Hollywood (blame the years of watching Westerns on TV). And my parents wanted me to be successful – those were their requirements.

So I applied for tuition aid (a lot of it), attended college, and graduated with a double major in International Relations and Spanish Language, Literature, and Culture, all to…

  • Be a front desk receptionist.

  • Answer phones.

  • Help people find their passwords for multiple systems.

  • Explain to someone that you can scroll on a mouse using the middle button.

  • Get in an argument about the merits of the Oxford comma.

  • Prepare coffee.

  • Reset passwords for those multiple systems, when people couldn’t log in.

  • Create design mockups for IT systems that never came to fruition.

  • Write countless technical requirements for IT systems that never came to fruition.

  • Draw process maps for processes that ceased to exist the next day.

  • Give a presentation on Excel Basics.

  • Train on the merits and navigation of SharePoint.

  • Migrate documents from one site to another.

And tons more… you see, this is the validity of my liberal arts degree. It’s malleable. It allows me to travel between industries, between clients, and between levels of responsibility. Long gone are the days when you apply to a company, receive a pension plan and benefits, and retire after 20 or 30 years. Now, due to the multiple recessions and depressions, people are more cognizant of what “at will” employment truly is. Now, the focus is on skills, merit, and experience – not necessarily on specialized degrees.

At this point, I’d like to point out the obvious. I’m speaking specifically about multipotentialites and liberal arts lovers. Of course, you’ll need to get a specialized degree to become a NASA engineer, data scientist, nurse, or doctor.

And back to my story – I love language, linguistics, and helping people. I’m also a nerd when it comes to process, procedure, and creating new IT toys to play with. I can translate language or technology, and as long as I’m translating, I’m happy.

There are secondary benefits – my English has improved from becoming bilingual in Spanish. Bilingualism is a true skill to have, and gives you more power and prowess of your native language. There’s also a direct tie into communication and relationship building – you must speak the same language to truly communicate, whether that requires translating words or functions into something your audience, client, or reader will understand.

At its core, language really exists to allow us to communicate each other. I was in the JFK airport once and was in a line to purchase food. I made my purchase, and went on my way. As I was putting my card back into my wallet, I realized the woman behind me spoke Portuguese, and the clerk did not have a single clue what she was saying. From my travels to Portugal, I knew Spanish was easier to understand from Portuguese, so I took a leap. Here I was, late at night, interpreting between Portuguese, Spanish, and English – when I didn’t even speak Portuguese!

To me, this is language – flexible, adaptable, and human connection at its finest. It wasn’t the most grammatically correct conversation, but it got the job done… which reminds of one of my favorite quotes from college:

Ask yourself if it’s good enough. If it’s good enough, then stop. No one needs to be perfect.

Language Survival Before Living Abroad

Moving to a new location gives us all a bit of anxiety mixed with excitement – after all, what’s life going to be like in a new place? It can be a new adventure, or the experience could become a disappointment when you realize living in a new place doesn’t magically make all of your problems obsolete.

All this anticipation becomes tenfold when you’re moving to a place where you either don’t speak the language, don’t speak much of the language, or haven’t had the opportunity to speak with native speakers. After all, learning Spanish in school can only take you so far, as Ecuadorian Spanish is different than Costa Rican Spanish, which is different than Argentinian Spanish, which (spoiler alert) is different than Castilian Spanish. Andalusian Spanish is different than Madrileño Spanish; the same as speech patterns are different in Lubbock, Texas, versus Aberdeen, South Dakota.

Not only are pronunciations, idioms, bedtime poems, and accents different between countries and regions, but there are also different uses of language. Though you may have the best grammar in the school, that won’t help you with street slang. And though you may have a few idioms or metaphors that are commonly used, if you don’t understand the accent, you won’t get too far.

The first use of language is the most overt – spoken / heard / understood. When someone speaks, you have to hear them in order to understand them (this may seem like common sense, but wait until you’re trying to talk to someone at a discoteca). While this is the most overt, it can also be the most difficult to get used to. Due to someone’s upbringing, they could speak in a way that is difficult to understand, full of slang (which could be different slang than where you’re living), and they could have a wildly different accent. For example, I used to help with a court mediation program mostly within the Central and South American communities. We had a bilingual mediator who would come in and help triage cases. The only challenge was that she was from Argentina, and had a different pronunciation for the “y” sound (like in yo or llaves). While everyone understood, there had to be some clarification, and it definitely caught some folks off guard when they first sat with her. While in some degrees Spanish is Spanish, it’s certainly different and can take some time getting used to.

The second use of language is the easiest to practice on your own – read and written. When I first moved to Spain, I collected the free paper from the Metro each morning, and would take it home to read each evening. I read certain articles aloud, others to myself, and highlighted words I didn’t know to look up. Reading is the easiest way to practice the subconscious part of language immersion, and writing in another language is harder than what it seems. Finding the right word for a feeling or idea is something I’ve struggled with since college, and now as I translate, I always have multiple tabs open – an English dictionary, a Spanish dictionary, an English thesaurus, a Spanish thesaurus, and a blank search page. If the whole point of language is to communicate, reading someone else’s thoughts and feelings in another language, as well as writing your own thoughts and feelings in your target language, is some of the best practice you can get. To add a layer of complexity or learning, read passages aloud to practice your accent.

The third use of language is specialized – those niche words in industry or location, as well as metaphors and analogies using cultural references. This language use can label you as a foreigner in a group faster than a beggar asks for change. Unfortunately, this language grouping takes the most research – for industry niche words, it takes a lot of reading articles in your target language (which requires at least basic translation or educational knowledge). Industry niche words can be anything from the buzzwords “from soup to nuts” or “level up” to more specific “request for proposal (RFP in English)” or “revenue at risk”. If you’re moving to a new country for work, ask for a specific glossary or guide – or make your own in your native language, while slowly filling out the target language words.

As far as metaphors and analogies using cultural references, a lot can’t be done beforehand. Instead, it’s all about getting to where you’re going, then figuring out what’s popular within which age groups. It could be beneficial to know certain pop singers or when a dictator ruled the country, though odds are, you don’t have time to dive into the complete history of some of these countries – which spans centuries.

From someone who lived somewhat successfully abroad, I can tell you one thing – Life goes on. It’s important to be kind to yourself: moving to a new location is exhausting, and constantly translating in your head is a sort of mental drain that I can’t even describe. Take time to integrate yourself socially, and a lot of the questions you have will be answered by your peers. Observe the world around you, and catch snippets of conversation. I used to practice in my head and out loud before going to a shop or going to buy something, which helps qualm some of my anxiety. And at the end of the day? The worse thing that could happen is that someone doesn’t understand you, of which there can be two outcomes – they’ll ignore you and move on, which allows you to find someone more understanding, or they’ll stand around and try to figure out how they can help you. Having a map or phone for directions is great, though you’d be surprised at how much body language can assist you.

Those that have successfully lived abroad – do you have any survival tips? How was your experience?

Five Key Verbs You'll Need to Know

There are some verbs out there in the stratosphere that you won’t use more than a few times – such as “escarmentar” (to learn a lesson) or “tropezar” (to trip or fall), but others you’ll use the most. I’ve whipped up this list of the five most common, key verbs you’ll use in your Spanish journey:

Hacer

This verb can mean “to do”, “to make”, “to produce”, “to cause”, “to prepare”, “to be” (regarding the weather only); when made a reflexive verb, it can mean to “get used to”, “to accept”, “to move”, or “pretend to be”.

  • As you can see, hacer can be a difficult one, simply because it can mean many things all at once. A few tips:

    • Boil the regular verb down to do / make / cause / weather. Remember these four topics, and hacer will come more easily… and it’s not wrong. “Produce” and “prepare” are synonyms for “make”.

    • Remember the reflexive happens to someone or to yourself. Once again, lump in get used to /accept / move / pretend to be to make it easier to remember.

    • With the reflexive verb, there comes some gray area. Pretender is a good verb for pretending, though it only works on inanimate objects – “la leche de soja pretende ser leche”, versus se hace feliz cuando la tía le abrazó

    • Also, se pone feliz is different than se hace feliz at its core, though I’ve seen and heard both used. Por ejemplo,  

      • La pelota se pone feliz = He is happy with the ball.

      • La pelota se hace feliz = The ball makes him happy.

      • Él está feliz jugando con su pelota = He is happy playing with his ball.      

Haber

This verb is the inclusive “there is / there are”, “be”, “take place”, “should / must / have to”. It’s pretty key when talking about events, responsibilities, and anything that is material.

  • Por ejemplo,

    • ¿Hay un partido de fútbol hoy? ¿O es mañana? = Note the different verbs here. “Is there a soccer game, or is it tomorrow?”. The more grammatically correct would be to use the future tense of haber: habrá, though common usage will flip between the two, since mañana is a point in time.

    • ¿Hay chocolates en este pasillo? = “Are there chocolates in this aisle?” Notice though the subject is plural, the present-tense is still “hay”.

    • Había un montón de nieve, entonces hacemos muñecas de nieve. = “There was a mountain of snow, so we made snow angels.” This is the first example of a past-tense use of haber.

    • Cuando alguien se pone presidente, hay que asistir a muchas fiestas y reuniones. = “When someone becomes president, they have to attend many parties and meetings. This is a very formal sentence that goes into the responsibilities – “hay que [infinite verb]” is used in this case.

Ser y Estar

Both verbs mean “to be”, and are one of the biggest pain points for beginning Spanish students.

  • Ser is to be used when something is permanent – for example, soy pelirroja, soy baja (I am redheaded, I am short). These are characteristics that are not going to change.

    • Also use ser with:

      • Time (son a las cuatro y cuarto)

      • Origin (soy de Inglaterra)

  • Estar is to be used when something can be changed – for example, a location, condition or mood, or while traveling (estoy en camino).

    • Some other examples:

      • Estar de pie = to be up

      • Estar abierto/a = to be open or receptive to something

      • Estar borracho/a = to be drunk

      • Estar ancioso/a = to be anxious

      • Estar en moda = to be fashionable 

      • Estar bueno = to be in good health, to be good-looking

Tener

This verb means “to have”, though it also is used with an infinitive verb when talking about “having” to do something; i.e., “Tengo que leer 500 páginas para la prueba mañana” (I have to read 500 pages for the quiz tomorrow). 

  • Tener is also used:

    • with age; Tengo 30 años (I am 30 years old)

    • with medical issues; Tengo un dolor de oído (I have an earache)

    • faith; Tengo fe en algo (I have faith in something)

    • want (or not wanting) to do something; No tengo ganas de montar bicicleta (I don’t want to ride my bicycle)

There you have it! These five – to do, to be, to have, and there are – are the five most basic verbs that make up the majority of elementary discussions.

Are there any other crucial verbs you’ve found in your language journey?

Happy learning!

Packing Yourself with Purpose

Travel. Even writing the word sends little shiver of excitement up my spine.

It seems a little strange to those who know me that I am obsessed with travel, because I am a total homebody during my ‘normal’ life. You know, the one that requires a 45-hour workweek and being a doting wife to my amazing husband. Plus, the workouts, extra work, all while daydreaming of travel *wipes drool off of chin*.

Yes, I’m a type-A, list-making, orderly and routine person; I love planning trips, researching cultures, and travelling. I love meeting new people and listening to their stories. I love climbing pyramids and mountains, and dancing bachata at night. To me, it’s not until we change our environment that we can truly enrich our lives, finding other worlds outside of our own. Travel definitely isn’t a one-pill cure, though, and will not completely cure those big questions that life hands us all: What sets our soul on fire? Who do we wish to spend the rest of our lives with? Where and how do we really and truly belong?

The biggest mistake people make with travelling isn’t necessarily about packing lists or cultural norms – though these things are relatively important – but it’s about the purpose. Why are you going to where you’re travelling to? The purpose dictates your attitude around it. When we go somewhere new, where we know no one, we tend to reinvent ourselves. “I’m a suave businesswoman” [though I travel for work 1-2 times a year]. “I’m a social media influencer” [though I’m constantly sweating my metrics and am obsessed with getting new followers]. “I’m a laidback girl who’s just here to relax and see some sights” [though I had to make 20 lists just to feel more comfortable about taking off time at work and pack the right things].

Even the things we carry with us tell about our adventures and how we feel about the trip. Truly, to travel, we don’t need much – I like to think that our ancestors successfully invented the term “travelling light”. Goal-oriented people tend to overpack *raises hand guiltily* because we want to do All the Things – “This is the trip I work out in the hotel gym”, we think. “This is the trip I’ll read. One book? Not enough. I need a plane book, a beach book, and a return trip home book.” Two suitcases later, we read nothing because we’re too busy people-watching or catching up on our favorite online listicles.

There’s something magical about packing your most favorite things, boarding a small metal box, and defying gravity to find something new. Even those boring business trips you could do with your eyes closed can bring something new and exciting…. It just takes a bit of exploring. When it takes simply a few hours to transport yourself to another place, truly anything is possible.

This One Phrase Will Help You Learn Any Language

Fear definitely holds people back from truly becoming their bilingual selves, and the fear consists of many things – embarrassment, using the wrong word or sentence and saying something offensive, not understanding whatever is said back, fear of being seen as a failure. While fear associated with language learning is definitely another blog post for another day, I want to focus on the one phrase that will help break through some of those fears:

Do a little bit each day.

This phrase represents the mindset shift that needs to happen for true language learning to take place. We tend to look at language as a chore, a task, a goal… we rarely look at it as a habit. Building a habit and routine around learning a language is going to be key to truly becoming comfortable with it, and eventually mastering the language. (Key note – mastering a language takes monumental time and energy; while it is an attainable goal, it’s more of a slow burn that will take years).

With language, practice needs to be constant and consistent. Learning a language in school eases this, as you are expected to speak, read, and write in your target language almost each day. Homework reiterates what you’ve practiced in class. Skipping a day will show – and many adults who are trying to learn a language may skip two, three, or seven days at a time. Your brain cannot retain key grammar rules and niche vocabulary words without this constant / consistent practice time, yet life tends to get in the way. There’s a huge project at work and you’ll be working late. You oversleep and can’t practice during your usual morning routine.

Learning a language is hard. It seems like a monumental task – there are the different types of language (see my related article here) and simply learning a vocabulary word a day can be overwhelming (is it used in one country or another? How common is this word? What’s the pronunciation again? Are there different spellings depending on the target country?) Learning takes brainpower, and requires a certain amount of skill and effort – it’s not something you can necessarily do on autopilot. This is where creating a habit and routine around language comes in. 

Establishing the habit is the tough part, and the more it disrupts your daily routine, the harder it is to establish. Waking up early to practice a language will be more difficult than listening to a podcast, music, or auditory lessons in your target language during your commute. For example, I started to learn Portuguese when I had an hour+ commute… it was easy to focus, simple to add into my routine, and I wasn’t too embarrassed of mouthing “Bom dia” over and over again. 

Below are some key tips for establishing a language habit:

  • Build on small steps – Rome nor vocabulary word banks were not built in a day. If you have 5 extra minutes, play a game, listen to a sport or music, or follow along during a lyric video. Use these “micro-moments” to your advantage.

  • Figure out what works for you. How is your commute? What’s your daily routine? Learning is done best when your chronotype (morning bird vs. night owl) is at its peak performance. Not everyone is the same; we all have differing routines and priorities. Figure out what truly works for you – not your family or your spouse – and pepper in as much time as you’re willing to commit.

  • Focus on input and output. Input is what you take in from your target language– the telenovela or show you’ve started to watch, the music or audio you listen to, or the blogs or books you read in your target language. Output is what you say, think, or create in your target language. For true practice, you should balance both.

  • Clearly list out your “Why”. Learning survival Welsh for a weekend trip, or Japanese for a job abroad require two different levels of effort. What’s your goal, and how do you see yourself using this target language? Obviously, the bigger the goal; the bigger the overwhelm, so start as small as you want, and slowly scale up.

The fear of saying the wrong thing or embarrassing yourself will always be there – language is full of nuance, and cultural backstories most books can’t teach you. Once you’ve established a language habit, you’re on the right track to enjoy new cultures, new countries, and create new stories.

Tips & Types of Language

Have you ever been in a crowded place, and you couldn’t ask for help? Or you didn’t know where the restroom was? Or you had car trouble in a new location?

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Living or traveling to a foreign country simply increases our anxieties around accidents or emergencies happening. The language barrier is real, and it’s easy to overcome – if you know the formula.

There are different types of travel that require different types of language. Based on your age and travel type, you may need more or less help than the phrases below – for example, if you’re on a guided tour, the guide will help you experience the country or place you’re visiting. If you’re on your own, you may run into a language barrier. It’s all about being prepared and learning some of the key phrases below.

Traveling abroad –

Weekend – learn key phrases; shopping, transportation

  • Know how to ask for help, how to see if anyone speaks your native language

  • Know spellings – don’t be afraid to write it down

  • Practice phrases beforehand – who you are, what you want to see, where you’re going

  • Key phrases –

    • Where’s the bathroom?

    • Do you take [credit / debit] card? Where’s an ATM?

    • Table for [number], please

    • Check, please

    • Taxi signals

    • I am [at a place] and want to go to [another place]

    • Small talk – it’s nice weather / it’s shit weather; Hello, How are you, Thank you, Please

    • I’d like / I want / Do you have

Remember, the longer the trip means more vocabulary you’ll probably have to expend. These are simply key phrases; you’ll probably want to know more directional (south / west / east / north) words, and to make things easier, download a transportation map beforehand to use as you navigate throughout your trip.

Semester abroad –

(The below truly depend on if you’re already studying the language, and if so, at what level your language skills are)

Key phrases

  • How to ask for help

  • I’m a student studying [major or specialization]

  • How do I get to [place]

  • Mass transportation

  • Small talk

  • Order coffee, tea, water, alcohol

  • I’d like / I want / Do you have

  • How much does that cost

  • Excuse me

Working abroad -

  • Key phrases

    • How to ask for help

  • Cultural references

  • Work niche phrases

  • Work niche vocabulary

  • Small talk

  • Food and drink

    • Order coffee, tea, water

    • Order food

    • I’d like / I want / Do you have

    • We’d like / We want

    • How much does that cost

    • Do you deliver

  • Excuse me

  • How do I get to [place]                

Be aware of:

  • Curse words or slang, especially those sexual in nature

    • Example: chaqueta is jacket in Spain, and condom in Mexico

  • Historical sensitivities (try to stay away from politics or hard-lined opinions)

  • Present-day sensitivities (try not to cause an argument about a current event, lambast the country’s politicians, or humiliate / criticize an entire group of people).

It’s important to note that attitude is everything. We all have our patriotism, our stereotypes, and our biases – travel with humility and grace, and you’ll find more people are willing to talk or interact with you. To find out more, check out my Solo Tips for Travelers here.

 

These phrases were borne of my own experiences traveling and living abroad. What are some of your favorite or key phrases for travelers to learn?

Top Tips for Solo Travelers

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Traveling solo, to me, is the epitome of freedom. Going to a new place, and being in complete control of your schedule is one of the most liberating experiences – and my opinion is that everyone should do it at least once. I’ve completed trips with one other person, with groups, and solo –they are all nuanced and bring about their own benefits and challenges. Below are some things I’ve learned through traveling alone.


Scale for you

When people think of solo travels, they probably think about that one person they know or saw on Instagram that took a year off and traveled abroad. That’s an option, but it’s not the only one. The first solo trip I took was the most liberating and the most frightening thing I had done at 18 years old – so I made it as low-risk as possible. It was a three-day trip across the northern border to Canada.

Loneliness is not an option

When you’re alone, you will battle loneliness. It will hit usually when your defenses are down – for me, it was most apparent watching couples obviously in love, and at nighttime. Work through your loneliness by journaling, or distracting yourself by doing something that you enjoy.

Interact with the Locals …

One of my most favorite things to do while traveling is to talk to others, specifically locals, about the location and things to do. While Yelp and Google are worth their spades for research, the random dive bars and parks are mostly in the locals’ heads. Usually there’s another location that provides just as good of a view / drink / food (insert other point of interest here) that is less crowded, less expensive, and less touristy.

… But be wary of strangers

The hardest most paranoid part of traveling alone is the wariness of strangers. What should you say, how should you say it? Were you followed? Are you paranoid, or is your wariness founded? Will you get raped in your sleep? (No? Just me? OK…)

The biggest tip I can give in this sphere is to be cordial, polite, follow your gut, and know your emergency exits. It’s important to connect with people, but it doesn’t necessarily mean to trust them. Hollywood may show us meet-cutes by two strangers bumping into each other, but they usually don’t show the other side of the story.

Balance

Live is all about balance, and travel can sometimes show us all the extremes. As a solo traveler, you’ll need to balance how much food and drink you partake, and where. I’d like to think that not everyone can dine in Michelin restaurants, but taking yourself to a nice meal is a great experience… that can be balanced by shopping at a local supermarket or buying a snack at a street stand. You don’t want to be the drunkest person at the bar, but if you like to drink, have a few – just don’t get out of control.

The type and duration of the trip needs to be balanced, too. You don’t need an hourly schedule, but you should know local police station phone numbers and locations, know where you’re staying in relation to where you’ll be during the day, and know how you’ll be getting around. You want enough time to fully take advantage of your location, but take into account that especially for smaller places, boredom can seep in fairly quickly.

Disconnect

All types of solo travel should have some disconnection in them. If you’re texting, calling, or interacting with only your phone, you aren’t truly enjoying the beauty of the trip. Even for those business travelers, put the phone away and learn to be content with your surroundings. This is where nature walks, early morning sunrises, or sunsets can be their most potent. Nature doesn’t perform for your Instagram feed, it performs for you. So, let it.

10 Tips to Help You Learn a Language Faster

Learning a new language is hard work, but there are some tools you can use to make it a little easier for those words or phrases you use a lot in your target language. Below are some of my favorite:

1.       Use music to your advantage.

Music is everywhere, and in every language. Singing along to the words in your target language is convenient with the use of YouTube or your favorite app or website. It’s even better if you have the lyrics in front of you to follow along as you sing.

Want to know more about my favorite Spanish music? Check out this blog here!

2.       Have a cache of words or phrases to use while you’re thinking of the word you want to say.

Also known as “filler words”, this is something like “like, so, and”, etc. in English – and can be something like “ah, así que, entonces”, etc. in Spanish. This doesn’t have to be an exhaustive list, but we all tend to have our own filler words in the midst of a conversation, since it lets the other person know you haven’t found your word, but are still intending to finish the thought.

3.       Start thinking around a word or topic, instead of finding THE word.

We all get caught up trying to find the perfect word, which leaves the other person in the conversation bored. After all, filler words can get annoying if used too much. This is where the true power of language comes in – if you’re looking for the word for “salmon”, for example, try “pescado rosado” – pink fish. Use whatever vocabulary you have to describe what you mean. If we go back to the salmon example, you could also try “Que lo comen los osos” – what the bears eat. Keep trying, and practice expanding your vocabulary based on everyday life.

4.       Make connections to everyday life

Tip #3 bleeds right into this – people talk about their lives. A farmer in the Midwestern U.S. is going to talk about different topics than a banker in New York, and a soapmaker in France. When we travel, we learn idioms (modismos) that tell us a bit about the lives and conversations, but it’s not until we truly live somewhere that we can connect our conversation to everyday life. As much as it pains me, no one really wants to know where the library is (a key phrase we all learned in Spanish class; ¿dónde está la biblioteca? Instead, if you work with accountants, learn some key financial terms. If you work in construction, learn basic tool names. If you remember these vocabulary words, move onto verbs, and as you say them in English, practice saying them in Spanish. 

5.       Use TV shows or movies to learn different phrases

This is by far one of the easiest tips. If you’re already following a show, turn on your target language subtitles. Stream a movie in Spanish (“Pocahontas” and “Aladdin” are my personal favorites). Listen to something that is either a basic level, such as Disney, or a level above. Some of my favorite movies include “También la Lluvia”, “Maria, llena eres de gracia”, and “Secuestro Express”.

6.       Focus on your senses

This may sound a bit more out of the box, but it helps expand your vocabulary. Take an apple, for example – what is apple in Spanish? (manzana). What do you do with an apple? La comes, la masticas. How does an apple taste? How does it smell? (Huele como fruta, tiene sabor dulce, etc.). Instead of learning your regular vocabulary words, expand them so you can speak about these topics the same as you would in your native language.

7.       Learn the basics, focus on conversation, then revisit the basics

I’ll be the first to tell you, verb tenses are confusing! It’s so much easier when you’re in conversation or mid-sentence in your book to comprehend what’s going on, instead of pulling out your magnifying glass like, “Hark! I see a pluscamperfecto verb here!” And I’ll again be the first to tell you, you need to know what you’re saying! The game is only made a game because there are rules and a process – and with every language comes rules and tenses to memorize. Therefore, the first rule is to learn the basics – then, go out in the world and focus on the natural progression of a conversation. The other person or people within your conversation won’t necessarily care what verb you choose, as long as it makes sense. Once you’ve done this, go back and revisit the basics – this is a very important step! Don’t think that just because you can speak with other people, you know everything. People may speak at any time, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that they’ll be understood. Focus on this cycle; respect the cycle, and you will reap the rewards.

8.       Read, read, read!

This is as important in your native language as it is in your target language. What are languages made of? Words. What are books made of? You guessed where this is going – you can only be truly fluent in a language when you can meet anyone of any class or standing, and be able to talk to them – this means speaking to a tradesman about plumbing, a professor about socioeconomic factors, or a mechanic about car issues. When you feel as though you’re using your target language about the same or more than your native language, you will feel truly bilingual. That feeling may stay, especially if you’re living abroad. However, more likely, the feeling will go, and reading will be able to transport you back to that fully bilingual stage.

9.       Use technology to your advantage

There are so many ways to interact with native speakers; either through forums, going on websites such as MyLanguageExchange.com, and social media. Try following some of your favorite locations, and commenting in your target language.

10.   Speak, speak, speak!

This tip is key and it’s also the hardest. To truly master a language, inside and out, you must be able to speak out loud with someone, practicing vocabulary, verbs, subject matter, and body language. Whenever and wherever you get the chance, speak your target language – even if it’s reading aloud, speaking to yourself, or singing along to music.

The Best Artists for Learning Spanish

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A few studies have started to prove what I’ve believed for many years: that music helps us learn another language. I remember taking Spanish classes as a young child, and after so much time, I still remember the song (and therefore the verbs, adverbs, and sentence structure):

“Yo tengo un gatito, Misou, Misou, Misou;

que lindo mi gatito, Misou, Misou, Misou.

Allá lo veo pasar - corre, salta, brinca;

juega aquí conmigo, Misou, Misou, Misou.”

Chill music for studying or working:

  • Bebe – a Spanish singer / songwriter, Bebe first came onto the scene in 2004, and her last album was in 2009. She has breathy vocals and simple melodies, and is always good for listening or following along to the lyrics on YouTube.

  • Sin Bandera – their name literally means “without a flag”, and these two singers originally from Mexico and Argentina prove that Spanish truly is a unifying language. Some of my favorites include “Kilómetros” and “Suelta mi mano”.

  • Ibeyi – this is a new duet I’ve just discovered; their dad was in Buena Vista Social Club (!) and they bring a whole new sound, singing in French, Spanish, and English. If you’re interested in African or an Afro-Cubano vibe, these sisters are for you!

  • Soha – I first discovered Soha when trying to find more French music to listen to. She sings in French, Spanish, and English, and has been a beneficial artist to listen to as I work on training my ear to recognize different languages and the words in each.

Bachata music:

If you’re looking for a bit more of a beat, look no further than bachata. Originating from the Dominican Republic in the 1960s after Trujillo’s regime ended, bachata has been through a bit of development in the past few decades. The recent (1990s to present) versions of bachata have become more fused with pop music. Though there are many you should listen to, the main players are below:

  • Romeo Santos – a New Yorker born in the Bronx, Romeo Santos created two hugely popular bands for bachata music: the group he founded with his cousins, Aventura, and his solo act, beginning in 2011.

  • Prince Royce – also a New Yorker with Dominican roots born in the Bronx, Prince Royce came onto the music scene in 2010, and he hasn’t stopped yet. Duets with Shakira, Maluma, Jennifer Lopez, Pitbull, and four studio albums later; his music has matured, but his sound hasn’t changed.

  • José Manuel Calderón – also known as El Maestro de Bachata, he is credited with creating the first bachata sound in the 1960s. There are four singles that are considered to be the cornerstones of bachata and Dominican culture – “Quema esas cartas”, “Lágrimas de sangre”, “Serpiente humana”, and “Llanto a la luna”.

Pop / Salsa music:

I decided to combine these two because Marc Anthony does it so well – and if he can do it, why can’t I? These artists are always good to listen to if you want a beat and variety. This is by no means an exhaustive list; I encourage you to find your own favorites!

  • Jesse y Joy – a brother / sister duet from Mexico, I love Jesse y Joy’s music for its likability and clarity. As a still-learning hispanohablante, knowing the words without needing the lyrics is key, and the crisp sounds with softer melodies make it easy to follow along and listen to.

  • Marc Anthony – hopefully you’ve already heard of Marc Anthony, but if not, he’s the top-selling tropical salsa artist of all time. His hits span salsa, bachata, and pop music, between 1988 and present. Definitely look him up; I’m sure that you will find something you’ll like!

  • Alejandro Sanz – Alejandro has been in the music space since the late 1980s, covering everything from pop to R&B to rock to jazz. His parents were Andalusian, and his music has incorporated at least a bit of flamenco style with each song.

  • David Bisbal – David was born in the south of Spain, and came onto the music scene via a reality show called “Operación Triunfo”. He’s released five studio albums and has steadily been performing internationally. When I was living in Madrid, the European Music Awards were in town, and I came to know about him through his performance there – he’s amazing live. I love his music for many things – the Spanish “zeta”, the beats and lyrics, and the diversity.

  • Shakira – By this time, Shakira should be a household name; she’s been releasing records since the 1990s and has become an international pop star. From the duets with Beyoncé, Rihanna, René from Calle 13 (below), and so many more, she continues to churn out FIFA World Cup anthems and pop singles. Especially if you’re looking for Arabic influences or powerful rock songs, check out her early albums, “¿Dónde están los ladrones?” and “Laundry Service”.

  • Carlos Vives – Unfortunately, Carlos Vives is a fairly new artist for me; it wasn’t until his duet with Shakira for “la Bicicleta” that I started listening to more of his songs. He’s been on the music scene since the 1970s, and is mostly cumbia, rock, and pop. He seems to be championing the new Latin pop scene; he’s had duets with Sebastian Yatra, Maluma, Wisin, Marc Anthony, and Daddy Yankee.

  • Rubén Blades – Born in Panamá, Rubén Blades is THE person to listen to for Afro-Cuban, jazz, and salsa music. He’s been active in the music scene since the 1970s, and YouTube is full of his music. I especially like to write and jam out to salsa music at the same time.

  • Ricky Martin – has enjoyed a thriving career in the Latin pop world. He first came on the scene as part of the boy band Menudo from Puerto Rico, and has collaborated with Maluma, Madonna, Wisin, Youtel, and Yandel – proving there is life after “Livin’ la Vida Loca”!

  • Maluma – I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention Maluma, one of the biggest hitmakers recently with reggaetón, trap, and Latin pop – he straddles these two genres easily. From Medellín, his songs generally focus on romance, partying, and finding happiness.

  • Chino y Nacho – Chino y Nacho make up this Venezuelan duo that have since broken up to follow solo careers. What I like about their songs together is the same as Jesse y Joy, how it’s so audible and easier to follow along with – no easy feat for a pop group!

Rap / Reggaetón / Trap / Pump-up music:

Even with my classical music upbringing, I do love a good auto-tuned song. These songs are great for cardio, getting ready to go out, or driving fast down the road.

  • Calle 13 – this Puerto Rican trio of stepbrothers and their half-sister brought me into Spanish rap. If you want lyrics with a social, political, genuine feel, with a mixture of beats, instruments, and melodies, you’ll want to give Calle 13 a listen- especially the song, “Latinoamérica”. They went on hiatus in 2016 as Residente focused on a solo career.

  • Mala Rodriguez – I first learned of la Mala when living in Spain, and having a strong voice in good music was so beneficial. She’s known for her strength in lyricism and strong femininity, and has some pretty awesome music videos. I especially like “Por la noche” and “Nena”.  

  • Don Omar – Don Omar is basically known for creating and forming reggaetón as it is today. Active since the 1990s, he’s had hit after hit, such as “Dutty Love” and “Angelito”, among others from his six studio albums. He’s had some drama in the past with Daddy Yankee and being labeled “the best” reggaetonero, but after going on tour together in the mid 2010s, they seem to have settled the feud. I’ll leave it up to you as to which you prefer.

  • Wisin y Yandel – These Puerto Ricans are now broken up, so you can look them up separately or as a band. They’ve done everything from collaborating with Jennifer Lopez to Daddy Yankee, so they have a range of music, but it generally falls between pop, rap, and reggaetón.

  • Juan Magán – A Spanish DJ, Juan Magán has become a household name with his singles, “Bailando por Ahí”, “Ella No Sigue Modas”, and “Por fin Te Encontré”.

  • Gente de Zona – Known for the “Gente de Zoooona” callout in each of their songs, Gente de Zona are a reggaetón duo from Cuba (fun fact – Cubatón is now a genre of music, with reggaeton and Caribbean beats and Cuban sounds), first gaining international popularity with Enrique Iglesias’s “Bailando” in 2014. Since then, they’ve performed duets with Marc Anthony, Jesse y Joy, el Micha, Diana Fuentes, Los del Río, Thalía, and Pitbull, among others.

 

This is by no means an exhaustive list, just some favorites. I remember when I was first learning Spanish, we had maybe one or two artists we used in class – there are so many more, and with the advent of tools such as YouTube, it’s easy to follow along with the letra (lyrics) to learn the words even faster.

Who are some of your favorite artists?

Why Every Student Needs to Study Abroad

When I was a senior in high school, I applied to three schools. Not that I was cocky enough to limit my pool so much, but there wasn’t a lot of options that made the “close enough, but far enough away” requisite from the middle of Ohio. In the end, I chose the most expensive and furthest away (that also provided the most in scholarships) – Syracuse University.

The thing that no one tells you while growing up in a small, fairly rural part of Ohio is that you’ll need the ability to make friends later in life. I was with the same group of kids from kindergarten to 12th grade in high school, and one of my best friends was made at the age of three with this zinger of a line: “Hi, I’m Megan, want to play with my toys?”

As an 18-year-old, that line didn’t quite work. I went to Syracuse knowing no one, but made a few fast friendships from my dorm. Going abroad was thought of as almost a requirement for my International Relations major, and once I made my decision of where (Europe), the only decision left was when. Going abroad in my sophomore year meant more time in the U.S. doing internships and gaining work experience, so, with a little parental coaxing, I found myself in Amsterdam, Paris, Belgium, Geneva, Barcelona, and Madrid at 19 years old.

Academically, physically? I was absolutely ready. Emotionally and socially? Absolutely not. I hadn't taken into account the fact that people tend to study abroad in friend groups, and I was the only other sophomore there (aside from a tall, svelte girl that looked and acted more like 22 than 19). In class, I knew who I was, and I knew what to do to succeed – study the material, memorize a few key words and facts, be aware of quizzes and exams. Outside of class, however, it was a different story. I was trying to keep up on a social, alcoholic, and fashionable level with girls that made everything seem effortless and beautiful. On the outside, I smiled – but on the inside, a casserole of insecurity, anxiety, and depression stewed.  

Everything finally came to a head the night I imbibed too much, and brought a whole other level of shame on myself. I wanted nothing more than to dig a hole and live there for the rest of the semester abroad. Alas, as John Mellencamp sings, “Life goes on”.

If you’ve hung in this far, you’re wondering where the punch line is – after all, the title is “Why EVERY Student Needs To Travel Abroad’. I still think about that semester, and look back on it with a fondness that only time can give.

I say every student needs to travel abroad because I look back on my experience, and the experiences of others, with respect. Going abroad- with a group of friends, or alone- brings about a lot of personal growth. You learn to trust not only in the system set out for you, with schoolwork providing a necessary structure, but also in yourself. You learn to become comfortable with being alone, observing another culture, country, and new groups of people. You learn to go with the flow, roll with the punches, book your own travel, and take care of yourself. Immersing yourself in another language and another culture will pay back in dividends down the road, as long as you keep your mind open and memory banks ready for more. Once thought of as a cushy experience for rich students only, studying abroad can be affordable with the right tools like work study, or finding side jobs.

In such a global economy, international experience will only serve as a benefit, no matter what your major is: Women’s Studies, Business, Finance, Entrepreneurism, International Studies, or Culinary Arts. If history really does repeat itself, shouldn’t we really learn about as much history as possible? To learn that history, what sounds better: reading a textbook on a quad on an American campus, or going to a local museum and looking at the depictions of that history?

As for me? I’m glad to leave those old experiences in Spain, and I know when I travel back, I’ll greet the country again as a whole new me.

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