Tag Archives: Spanish

Learning Languages for Fun, Travel & the Fountain of Youth

Apart from his native English ability, Paul’s profile lists professional working proficiency in Portuguese and German, limited proficiency in Spanish, and elementary in French and Italian.  Here he hints at how he acquired these other languages and why he doesn’t intend to stop there. Do you speak a second language?  Why not? According to Science Daily, “The majority of people in the world learn to speak more than one language during their lifetime.”  However, I don’t think native-born North Americans are pulling their weight.

English: A USSR stamp, 70th Birth Anniversary ...

English: A USSR stamp, 70th Birth Anniversary of Nelson Mandela. Date of issue: 18th July 1988. Designer: B. Ilyukhin. Michel catalogue number: 5853. 10 K. multicoloured. Portrait of Nelson Mandela (fighter for freedom of Africa). Русский: Марка СССР Н. Мандела (1988, ЦФА №5971). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Learning other languages – even just a nodding acquaintance – makes travel so much more rewarding.  Opening a conversation with a few words of the native language transforms us from tourist to traveler in the ears of the person we’re addressing.  According to a Czech proverb, “You live a new life for every new language you speak.”  Learning other languages may even be the key to peace and reconciliation.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.  If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart” – Nelson Mandela

At my age, I’m often tempted to say, “I’m too old for this.  Our sensitive period for language learning goes downhill after age seven!  On top of that, my hearing is going, and even understanding English is getting harder!”  You look at initiatives like “Fluent in 3 Months” or “Fluent Every Year” and say, “Yeah, but, those are young folks!” If that’s your excuse, perhaps it’s time to set it aside.  There may even be more at stake than getting around Paris, Venice, or Dubrovnik.

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

Every year, new studies come out showing that learning a second language is one of the best ways known to reduce or postpone age-related cognitive decline – even Alzheimer’s.  A recent study in Toronto suggests that learning a second language can delay the symptoms of that brain-wasting disease for years.  Lead neuroscientist, Dr. Schweizer, said that a second language appears to delay the onset of symptoms by four or five years.  “This is fantastic,” he said, adding that no existing medicine is that effective.  Perhaps only social dancing has a stronger effect, but not every senior is able to take up dancing. There’s also good news on the other side of the equation.  New research in neuroplasticity is showing that the brain continues to develop throughout our entire lives.  Books like Norman Doidge’s “The Brain that Changes Itself” offer remarkable and inspirational stories about this phenomenon.  While we seniors may have to adapt the way we use our brains in order to learn new languages, such adaptation is possible, and science continues to understand it better.  This excellent if lengthy article, “Memory Problems in Seniors and Learning a New Language”, offers some surprising advice based on recent research.

“How a child learned this was from hearing and using the constructions thousands of times before ever beginning their formal education.  The child associates images with the words and phrases – he can use grammar correctly because he heard and repeated correct grammar over and over again!  What an adult does, most unfortunately, is not associate images with words and phrases in which correct grammar and vocabulary is learned, but rather tries to remember words and phrases in the foreign language as an association with words and phrases in his native language.  He is constantly, and erroneously, associating the foreign language with his native one.  This short-circuits the second language learning!

This emphasis on how children learn language is a key one, especially now that we know that we retain a considerable amount of the child’s neuroplasticity all our lives.  Not only does learning a second language keep us young, but also it may be necessary to “think young” in order to learn that language.

Practicing German with Swiss cyclists in Brisighella, Italy

Practicing German with Swiss cyclists in Brisighella, Italy

I’ve taken that one step further.  From my own experience, I’ve concluded that to learn another language most efficiently, you need to become as much like a child as possible.  In a blog post a few years ago, I recounted my experience learning my first foreign language in my early twenties.  The principles I distilled pretty much sum up the way a young child comes at learning their first language.

  • Put something at stake that’s more important than looking good.
  • Cut off all escape routes.
  • Stop trying to translate everything.  Learn how to think in others’ terms.
  • Trust the “music of the language.”  Don’t let the words get in the way.
  • Unleash your natural mimic
  • Relax and have fun!  Enjoy the game!

Perhaps the reason we adults have trouble learning new languages has nothing to do with our ability to act like children.  Maybe it has more to do with our willingness.  It’s just not cool! Others are saying much the same thing.  A new initiative, called Velocity Language Learning, has adult participants wearing funny hats and playing silly games as part of their strategy for getting them back into that childlike state of wonder and learning.

The cofounder of Velocity Learning models a hat

The cofounder of Velocity Learning models a hat

There are so many Internet resources for learning languages, it’s overwhelming.  I listed a few in my earlier piece on “The Language Lab of Life.”  I’ll list a few more links at the end of this article.  My advice is to use those that give you the greatest freedom and incentive to free your inner child – and set her about learning that next language the way she learned her first.  She didn’t engage endless vocabulary drills, or consult translation dictionaries and grammar texts.  Instead, she was born into the pool, and it was sink or swim – and if she was lucky, the adults around her paid more attention to what she was trying to say than how many mistakes she made along the way. So, throw yourself in the pool.  Go join a Meetup for your target language, or try an ESL one or polyglot one where you may find others willing to trade their language for English conversation.  Leave a comment on this post and let us know what you’re doing, or what’s working for learning your new language.

Our AirBnB hosts in Paris helped our French!

Our AirBnB hosts in Paris helped our French!

My own project for the coming year is to move my Italian to the next level for a return trip to Italy.  Some elementary Croatian would also be helpful for the bike tour we’re doing out of Dubrovnik on that same trip.  Beyond that, who knows?  To paraphrase Sandra Martz, “When I am deaf, I shall learn Sign Language.” A few more resources:

I fear that projects like SIGMO or Google Translate will reduce the incentive to learn other languages.  What will keep us young then?

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Travel the World without Leaving your Hometown

(Where Paul explains how we experienced our China and Colombia travel adventures without leaving home…)

In a couple of hours, I’ll be joining a group scavenger hunt on the nearby subway line.

I’ll be teamed up with Peter, a young immigrant father from Guangzhou in southern China, and together we’ll follow the English clues, hunt down items, and perhaps win the prize!

The afternoon event is a creation of our local immigrant services society, a non-profit organization that helps immigrants and refugees adjust more quickly to life in their newly adopted country.  The society offers classes in English as a Second Language (ESL), as well as practical information on “how things work here” for everything from applying for a driver’s license to networking for jobs and business opportunities.

Guangzhou street, about 1919.

Guangzhou street, about 1919.

My involvement started when I signed on as a “settlement mentor” a little over a year ago.  It seemed a great way to volunteer my services, and at the same time satisfy the travel bug during times we were unable to travel.  It’s done that and more.

Last year, I started my assignment with Wei, another young father from Guangzhou.  My commitment was to meet weekly with Wei, and come up with activities we could do together that would help Wei with his English, and learn something about his new hometown.  Over the course of the next six months, he joined us for a Labour Day barbecue, a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, and some family Christmas-season fun.  Of course, it wasn’t all one-way.  Wei and his friends invited us to a fabulous authentic Harvest Moon dim sum lunch at a fabulous restaurant, home-cooked several lavish Chinese meals for us, and even taught our boys how to cook a couple of spicy Sichuan specialities.

Wei must have valued the interaction, because he soon asked whether he could invite a friend to join us.  Over the next few weeks, the circle grew to include Mannie, Meng, Laureen, and Sonny.

Some of the family, and some of the mentees, posing with the Thanksgiving turkey & stuffing.

Some of the family, and some of the mentees, posing with the Thanksgiving turkey & stuffing.

Searching our city for opportunities to visit with the new immigrants took some doing, but it was a novel way to look at familiar territory in a new light.  We discovered interesting things together, including an elaborate traditional Halloween Haunted House that centered on the exploits of the famed 7th-century Chinese detective “Judge Dee.”  My new friends also marveled at an exhibit in the local city museum, featuring some of the stories and living conditions of Chinese immigrants from the 1800s.

We in turn learned a lot about China, some of it surprising.  One of our friends went back to China for New Year’s and came back divorced.  Apparently, a divorce in China is just a matter of signing the proper forms.  We also learned that many of these young people had very little sense of their ancestry.  During Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s, a concerted attempt to erase ties with the past had extended even to destroying family pictures.  Some of our young Chinese had no idea what their grandparents had looked like.  One of those grandfathers had been a well-known stage actor;  the government had burned all of the silk costumes of his profession, so not even heirlooms remained.

A poster from the Cultural Revolution, featuring an image of Chairman Mao, and published by the government of the People's Republic of China.

A poster from the Cultural Revolution, featuring an image of Chairman Mao, and published by the government of the People’s Republic of China.

Even more surprising were some of the things we learned about life for these new immigrants here in our country.  All of them had come from professional or business backgrounds in their home country:  small and mid-sized business owners, accountants, wholesale sales reps, and the like.  Here in North America, their professional experience and credentials meant nothing.  What’s more, without a certain level of English skills, acquiring similar experience here would be very challenging.  All of my charges were highly desirous of improving their English;  they saw it as the key to whatever success they would ultimately achieve here.  They were highly appreciative of even the few hours we could spend conversing.

For a new immigrant, it can be very easy to settle into areas of town where others from your background are living.  The downside is that, for larger communities, it’s possible to live a reasonably normal life without forgoing your native tongue.  You can shop in stores run by your compatriots, work in an immigrant business, socialize with fellow new arrivals, and perhaps even attend churches or temples populated by fellow-speakers.  One of my adopted mentees was a single mom who had left China when her marriage broke down.  In her early years here, struggling to get by and raise her son, she had little time to devote to English.  Now her son, having learned English at school, was losing interest in speaking Mandarin to her.  I talked to her about how hard it must be to have lived here for several years, and yet still feel like an outsider and be unable to work in anything approaching her level of professional training.  What’s more, English-speakers often subconsciously assume that others with minimal English skills are less educated or even less intelligent.  As we spoke, I could see written in her face a deep sadness over how life hadn’t gone quite the way she had hoped when she left the comfort and safety of her birth land to seek opportunity for her son in the West.  She was seriously considering moving back to China.  It was at that moment that I really realized how much of a difference I could make in their lives by simply spending a few enjoyable hours together doing simple things.

A traditional Chinese cake, made with rice, almonds and rose water, was an offering at one of Wei's visits.

A traditional Chinese cake, made with rice, almonds and rose water, was an offering at one of Wei’s visits.

I’ve grown to admire the bravery of these new arrivals to our shores.  My new friend Peter actually placed his two teenage sons in local homestays for six months so that they could learn English faster.  They only saw each other weekends.  Having arrived here with her husband and knowing no one, the young divorcee has now set out on her own, and is taking every opportunity to practice her English.  The young single mother has chosen to stay, and has found new employment.  She and the divorcee have become friends.  Meanwhile, Wei and his newly arrived family decided to move away from the familiarity of their ethnic community so that they could live in a neighbourhood where they only hear English.

We stay in touch with some of last year’s troop, while this year I’m just getting to know Peter.  He’s asked if I’d like to visit the local Chinese Buddhist temple with him one day soon.  Sounds interesting.  And we have several invitations to visit families in China, make some new friends, and no doubt get a unique perspective on the country.

If this account has you interested in doing something similar, you may have to do a little research.  I don’t know what organizations might exist in your community.  Start by searching “immigrant services” on the Internet.  Here, we have a wide variety of non-profit groups that provide these services.  There are also initiatives within the local governments.  If that doesn’t produce results, try contacting some broad-based community groups such as the YMCA.

Dancers entertaining at the volunteer recognition night.

Dancers entertaining at the volunteer recognition night.

A more low-key way to start out might be to join a language group in your town.  Here we have a wide selection that can be found via Meetup.com – try searching ESL, or “English Conversation”.  If there is a prominent language group in your area, then try that, e.g.“Spanish” or “Mandarin”.  Mannie joined a local Mandarin Meetup, and now trades talk time with a local Anglophone who wants to learn Chinese.

Or just keep your ear to the ground.  In our part of town, Spanish is uncommon.  When I ran into a family of cyclists speaking Spanish, I struck up a conversation.  Next thing we knew, we were trading visits, hearing new Latin music, and trying out the favourite drink of Colombia.  Unfortunately, our friends from Bogotá were not able to transfer their professional skills, and when their daughter graduated from high school, they returned to Colombia.  By that time, the political climate there had improved, and things have since gone well for them.  They hope we’ll visit some day.  As do we!

Best Tour Ever?

Cheryl and I recently spent a couple of weeks on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.  We had chosen to stay in a former small fishing village, now growing in popularity with European tourists.  With few North American visitors, there was little English spoken, something that appealed to our sense of adventure.

Gourmet seafood with new friends from the dive shop

Gourmet seafood with new friends from the dive shop

Adventures came from unexpected quarters.  An aborted snorkel trip had led to our befriending the French family who ran the dive shop, and we had joined staff at their home for a gourmet seafood meal.  We’d also put our travel technology to the test.  A family health emergency at home had Cheryl trying to manage doctors’ care and hospital transfers remotely, spending hours every day sitting by the pool on her iPod skype-to-phone connection.  Maybe the stress still won out:  she spent most of the second week knocked out by a nasty bug.  After a week of house calls at the small family-run hotel, the patient was old friends with the doctor.

Doctors still make house calls in the DR

Doctors still make house calls in the DR

On the last day of our stay, I insisted Cheryl treat herself to a massage.  The stomach bugs had canceled a couple of tours so we had a cushion in the budget.  Meanwhile, I spent the morning wandering around town with my camera, taking in the sights.  The air was warming, the sun was growing hot, and I was enjoying the rhythm of the place.  Pretty girls said “hi” in passing.  Everyone seemed happy.

A young man joined me with a friendly “Hola” as I was strolling up the street.  How was I enjoying his country?  He mentioned he was one of the security guards at our hotel.  I couldn’t place him – there were a couple of shifts of each day – but I didn’t let on, and we continued to chat.  I was happy for the chance to practice my Spanish, and he seemed willing to humour me.  He asked if I liked fishing, and said he had a cousin who could give me a deal on a fishing trip.  I smiled.  We’d been declining similar offers all week, and fishing wasn’t my thing anyway.

One of the sites around town that caught my eye

One of the sites around town that caught my eye

He talked a bit about his family, and told me he was worried about his baby son.  A doctor had just told his wife that the baby wasn’t getting enough nourishment, and that she needed to start supplementing with formula right away.  He wanted to get some today, but he didn’t have the cash.  He asked if I’d be able to lend him the money and he could pay me back at the hotel that evening when he got paid.  I thought to myself that I’d likely not see the money again, and immediately felt guilty.  I reasoned that I wouldn’t mind contributing a few dollars to a struggling family.  Our short stay in their town had shown us that many here got by on very little.  I told him I could help him out.

He thanked me and suggested the easiest thing to do would be to buy the formula together, and I could pay the store directly.  He knew a store up the street a bit where the prices were lower, but he was concerned they were about to close for siesta.  He quickened his pace considerably explaining that he knew the shopkeeper and it really would be the best place to go.  As I tagged after him, we continued to talk about some of the things we’d done in the past couple of weeks.  Struggling with more complex Spanish, I told him of our own medical challenges.  A couple of times, I suggested we could stop at another store, but my new friend appeared to dislike the thought.

Out for a stroll on Main Street - what will you see?

Out for a stroll on Main Street – what will you see?

By then we’d left the part of town frequented by tourists.  I suspected that a local on a security guard’s salary would find better deals in the less upscale neighbourhood.  Just as I was about to ask how much farther, we arrived at a small grocery store – with the metal shutters down.  My companion let out an exclamation, then asked a boy sitting out front something I didn’t quite catch.  “Good news!” the distraught father said, “My friend is still inside.”  He knocked on the side door, and it opened to admit us into the dimly lit interior of the closed store.  The shopkeeper behind the counter said hello, and the two men exchanged a few words.  The young security guard asked for the formula and the shopkeeper went to the shelves and brought back a box that looked like it would last until the baby was weaned.  I felt an unpleasant taste in my throat.  While I was still recovering my equilibrium, a case of disposable diapers appeared on the counter beside the box of formula.  At my urging, the bill was quickly calculated, and the shopkeeper held out his hand for the equivalent of about sixty dollars.

At that moment, the growing unease I’d been refusing to acknowledge for the last twenty minutes asserted itself.  I saw I’d put myself into a potentially dangerous situation.  Here I was in a part of town where tourists didn’t go.  I was inside a shuttered store, with two young men, both of whom now looked surprisingly burly.  The young boy outside was probably a lookout.  The young “father” had suddenly grown shrill and demanding – I had promised to pay for the milk, after all.  I was definitely past my physical prime, and with no fighting skills to speak of.

The candidate's message: a much bigger scam?

The candidate’s message: a much bigger scam?

My priorities changed rapidly.  My overriding objective was to get back out on the street.  Giving up sixty dollars to ensure my escape seemed a small price to pay.  I didn’t even blink when the young man grabbed the extra bills from my hand as I was paying the shopkeeper.  Pushing open the door, I burst out into the bright sunlight, stepped over the boy, and high-tailed it back down the street even faster than we’d come up it.  As the shuttered shop fell behind me, I counted my losses, about $75 all told.  I imagined the milk and diapers going back on the shelves.  I wondered how many times they’d been “sold”.

The next day, as Cheryl and I were taxied out of town, we passed the store, now open.  I briefly considered stopping and raising a scene, but figured nothing worthwhile would come of it.  Besides, they’d played a good game and won.  We continued on to the airport without interruption.  Losing the money had been one thing.  The blow to my pride and self-confidence had been much worse.  How had I let myself be taken in?  “I don’t know what you were thinking!” said Cheryl.

We visited this park on one of the legal tours

We visited this park on one of the legal tours

With a bit of perspective, the money ceased to bother me.  In fact, I came to think of this experience as just one more “tour,” an educational one this time.  The price of $75 was the norm for the higher-end tours in town.  I had to admit that this was the most memorable tour I’d had in the two weeks!

Talking to strangers, meeting people when we’re on the road, these are some of greatest pleasures of travel for us.  I’ve always tended to trust people’s motives until proven otherwise – and I don’t really want to change.  Cheryl doesn’t want me to change either, but she does wish I’d be a little less willing to suspend disbelief.  Frankly, I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t fall for a scam like this quite so easily next time, so I spent some time thinking about how I fell for this one, and how I might train myself to heed the warning signs sooner next time.  I’ll share some of that next time, as well as some security tips from travel gurus.

I trust no one reading this will restrict their travels as a result of my story.  In over forty years, Cheryl and I have traveled a fair amount – and I’ve been in a few dicey locations – but all told, we’ve had very few problems between us.  A couple of pickpocket attempts, one successful one during the Munich Olympics.  I’m sure we’ve paid more than we should have for the odd purchase abroad.  In Costa Rica, I lost my electric razor to a “fisherman” – I’ve traveled with blades ever since.

Many years ago, while serving tables in a small town in Germany, I lost a hundred Deutschmarks to a winsome young German lass – almost $150 in today’s money.  I learned from the “polizei” that many other young lads in town had been fleeced during her short stay.  She knew her marks!

This lovely old hotel was the site of Paul's first "tour" - still looks lovely as ever.  I wonder if Brigitte still visits?

This lovely old hotel was the site of Paul’s first “tour” – still looks lovely as ever. I wonder if Brigitte still visits?

What about you?  Have you ever fallen prey to scams or other petty crime while traveling?