For most people, there’s no greater joy in travelling than the ability to see a new place through one’s own eyes. To me, the greater joy is in being able to see a place through the eyes of the people who define it. I derive great pleasure in getting to the point where the experience no longer feels exotic.
Sure, it’s a pretty tall order. Not only do you need to speak the same language as the people there, but you have to be able to participate in their literature, their society, their history, culture, music, dance, and drama. It’s no short term project, and living in hotels, sitting on the city tour bus and taking selfies in front of the city’s biggest monuments certainly doesn’t do the trick. What you need is complete and absolute immersion.
In May 2013, I decided to take the plunge. I accepted an offer to go on exchange to the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, where I would take all my classes in Spanish. I had studied some Spanish a few years earlier and really loved the language, but was barely capable of holding a conversation in Spanish that lasted more than a minute or two. I would have a long summer (about 4 months) before classes began in Madrid, so I knew I had to improve my Spanish by then.
By word of mouth, I discovered a programme called WWOOF—WorldWide Opportunities on Organic Farms. It seemed to me a revolutionary way to get a thorough immersion. It sounded like the most natural environment to learn a language in, alongside the opportunity to chalk up some very unique experiences. And best of all, it was completely free. You volunteer five hours a day, five days a week, in return for board and lodge at a farm in the middle of nowhere.
My parents thought I was a bit off my onion. My grandparents couldn’t see why I couldn’t just go help them out on their farm instead: after all, they could use the help. To top it all off, I had misgivings myself. Would I really enjoy it? Would farm work be too difficult, too icky, or too boring?
I’ve always been skeptical about organised “immersion” programmes, which are often held over three weeks in a big city, include a number of excursions contrived to involve a variety of themes, and involve living with a host family with whom you spend only a small fraction of your day (i.e. whatever remains of your day after your excursions). Based on accounts from many of my peers, it’s hardly an opportunity to be immersed in the language. Most of them still spoke very little of the target language outside of the classroom since people in the city as well as their host families spoke reasonable English, and they were never placed in a situation where there was no choice but to speak the target language.
I knew that if I wanted to get to the stage where I would be able to participate in classroom discussions, write essays in Spanish, and survive without anybody’s help in Spain, I’d need to be speaking Spanish 24×7 for the entire summer.
WWOOF was perfect for me. I found a nice dairy farm in Galicia (in the northwest of Spain), and called up the owner of the farm. I had to script my conversation, because I had no idea how to ask a good number of the things I needed to know before I could just up and go. One of the first questions I asked was, “Usted habla inglés?” (Do you speak English?). He paused for a second and said, “Lo siento, pero no” (I’m sorry, but no). I didn’t know how to say it then, but I thought to myself, “Don’t be sorry, my man! That’s just perfect! Just what I need”. After a few minutes of talking, we agreed upon a meeting point in the town nearest the village, and I hung up after the longest conversation in Spanish I had had to date. Forty-eight hours later, I was there.
When I got off the bus that took me from Madrid to Melide and Manuel (my host) came up to me from across the road, I wondered to myself how he had known I was his volunteer. It took only a second: I was the only person there that didn’t fit into the landscape whatsoever.
We had some coffee at a local bar and headed to their farmhouse in a glen about five kilometres from the town. I decided to go out for a stroll to survey the area, and as I walked down the path, I noticed people looking out of their windows with perplexion, yet carrying a warm smile. People standing by their picket fences stopped me to welcome me to the neighbourhood and ask where I was from.
Naturally, nobody spoke a word of English. I negotiated my way through a series of conversations, trying to explain how I was born in India, had moved to Singapore a few years back, and was staying with Manuel as a volunteer on his farm for two months before I left for Madrid to study at the university there. I noticed right away that each conversation felt easier than the last. Whenever I was unclear or made a mistake, they would ask for a clarification or suggest a word or idea. By the end of that very day, I felt quite comfortable saying all of that in Spanish to anyone who asked.
Over the course of the next two months, I spoke only about 10 sentences in English, all on the same occasion when I ran into an old British man on a pilgrimage. In my two months there, I was put in a large variety of situations where I simply had to be able to communicate: I fell ill and had to go to the doctor’s; I went travelling one weekend and missed the last bus back to the town and needed to hitchhike; my bicycle’s wheel went flat on my way into town from the farmhouse. And all this aside from the several hours of talking to my hosts, sharing life experiences, learning how to cook Spanish staples, talking about my childhood, and so much more.
There were plenty of miscommunications along the way, but they always sorted themselves out eventually. Given that 3G internet wasn’t always an option, I made sure we almost always had an English-Spanish-English dictionary at arm’s length—one in the living room of the farmhouse, and the other in the farm itself. Apart from that, I looked things up in a book on Spanish grammar every time I came across a confusing grammatical form in the sentences I heard people around me speak. Slowly and steadily, I found myself learning the language, its grammar and its expression without necessarily realising it.
By the end of my nine weeks with Manuel’s family, I had begun reading simple literature in Spanish, could speak fluently enough to chat up the barmaid at my favourite local pub, and was fully prepared for what was to come—academic immersion in the language.
It is my belief that human beings never truly lose the ability to learn languages naturally. We simply erect often-insurmountable obstacles: cultural barriers (being unwilling to assimilate to a new culture), fear (unwillingness to speak a language for fear of being unable to communicate) and pride (unwillingness to speak for fear of being thought stupid).
Language, society and culture are impossibly intertwined. Successful cultural integration requires knowing the ins and outs of the language, and successful language learning requires feeling a sense of belonging towards the culture. As long as you are inquisitive, ask questions, have a completely open mind, are willing to let the new environment, language and culture change you in unimaginable ways, and critically evaluate and monitor your learning process, near-native levels of proficiency in a foreign language will be within your reach too.