A view from Café Universal, in downtown Cuernavaca

One of the things on my list of lifetime goals is to become fluent in another language. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but quite honestly didn’t make the time or space for it.  Then several years ago, I met a good friend through the Central Ohio chapter of ASTD, and she happens to own a Spanish language company in the Columbus area called Speak Our Language. Through a combination of timing, the practicality of learning Spanish, and having this goal on my list for way too long with no real action, I finally took the plunge and got started. I even talked my husband into joining me (luckily for me he’s a good sport, but I’m sure I’ll be reminded of this for years to come!).

The journey began with group lessons last fall, and I was a total beginner.  The only Spanish I had was one semester in college to satisfy a language arts requirement, and that was long forgotten.  And in June of this year, I took my first real (read: non-tourist) trip to Cuernavaca, Mexico to study the language for a week and absorb the culture.  I began thinking about how this entire experience relates so well to our work as training professionals.  I’ll share few lessons I took away from this trip, and how they’ve helped my perspective in working with our clients at Impact Instruction.

As you read through these, think about your learners.  How might you adapt your approach to training design and delivery?  Especially with an initiative that’s complex, requires buy-in from your learners, and requires long-term change.

1. Getting started is usually the hardest part.  This was true of getting started with lessons, or even going to class in Mexico that first day. There were times I simply had to take action, and that created the motivation to keep going.

Another view overlooking the city of Tepotzlan, from the top of the Tepozteco pyramid.

2. Building relationships with the others in my class made all the difference in my motivation to continue, and take the study trip.  This entire experience was new, and having a group of people in the same boat provided a sense of familiarity.  There was one student in my group, a 75-year old man (with hearing aids no less), traveling to Mexico for the first time!  I was completely inspired by his courage and willingness to learn.

3. I was exhausted by day three.  It takes tremendous brain power to process constant new information like vocabulary, conversation, grammar, and culture.  The brain can only handle so much information at one time.  It was tempting to revert back to the familiarity of English, but the teachers wouldn’t let us!

4. Climbing a pyramid cleared my head.  I climbed several pyramids actually, in beautiful cities like Tepotzlan and Teotihuacan.  We also walked to school each day.  According to Brain Rules by John Medina, exercise actually acts on the brain and improves your mental acuity.  It increases the flow of oxygen to the brain, and more oxygen means better mental sharpness. It also increases the creation and survival of your brain’s neurons, so they better resist stress.

5. Practical and cultural context made a big difference. We had about 4 hours of formal class each day.Then the remainder of the day was ours.  I had the opportunity to get out of the classroom and into Mexico. I practiced my Spanish in the city, in the marketplaces, and in the restaurants. Practical and cultural context allowed me to take what I learned in the classroom and apply it that same day, and that helped me to better remember what I learned. But if I couldn’t remember a word or phrase I had to adapt and find a way to communicate. I became comfortable with improvisation.

Taxco, built into the side of a mountain, and known for its silver.

6. One week was not enough.  I was only in Mexico for a week, and what I’m realizing is that there isn’t a real finish line to the goal of becoming fluent. I’ll be always “practicing my Spanish,” and true change takes time. But I’m looking forward to continuing on the path with more lessons and a return trip to  Mexico next year!

Also published on Medium.

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