Natural Language Learning through Travel

Natural Language Learning through Travel
January 6, 2015 Lainie Liberti

The water drops glistened like a peeled grape in the early morning Guatemala sun. My cheeks were starting to warm but I could still see my breath. I watched light transform the fountain into a stage where dancing water droplets bounced up, then dove down onto the surrounding concrete creating a impressive misty haze. Lost in the splendor, I found myself transported to a faraway place from my childhood. Then suddenly I realized I was in a far-away place in the present, with my 10 year old son Miro. Our lives were no longer a day dream, they had shifted into a life of perpetual travel.

On this crisp September morning, Miro and I became united with the rhythm of Parque Central the main hub of Antigua for locals and travelers alike. Antigua was to become our new base for the next eight months, and this particular morning was among one of our first mornings there. After three months of non-stop travel, Miro and I decided to slow down and make the energetic Colonial town nestled between three volcanoes, our new temporary home.

Just months before, neither Miro nor I spoke a word of Spanish. But that morning in Antigua, I realized Miro had a much better grasp on the new language than I did. As I reflected, I noticed that not only were our learning styles vastly different from one another, we both had completely different aptitudes for learning a new language. At the time, I was 42 years old and Miro was just 10 and neither of us had ever learned a second language.

Just a month prior, Miro and I studied Spanish for two weeks in Nicaragua. We paid upfront for ten private classes reserving one teacher for the duration. My son and I sat in our classes for five hours a day over the two week period. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it didn’t turn out to be the best approach for neither of us. My initial thought was it might be fun to learn with my son so we could practice together and hopefully converse after two weeks of classes.

But that is not what happened.

During the first week of Spanish classes, our teacher Maria approached class by introducing vocabulary, speaking phrases and having us repeat words back to her. Unfortunately, that approach didn’t work for either of us.

Miro absorbed the lessons but was easily bored. After the first week, Maria shifted approaches with him and began playing board games with Miro giving all instructions in Spanish. My clever 10 year-old son was up to the challenge and gleefully engaged in every move and learned Spanish quickly.

But for me, things couldn’t be more difficult. I was a complete failure in class and in fact it took me almost a complete year of full immersion to simply recall the phonetic rules. In my two weeks of classes, I had no ability to retain, remember or even process new sounds or words. As quickly as Maria gave me a word, it would seem to slip out of my memory like water escaping through my fingers.

Language classes didn’t work for me, but a 10 year old Miro absorbed quickly through playing as if his mind were a sponge.

That first morning Antigua came alive, colors became more vivid as the sun grew larger in the sky. I watched pigeons gather around the fountain, crowds of indigenous women merge and tourists pull out their maps. Miro and I knew we belonged there but we felt the barrier of language alienating us from integrating within the natural movement.

I sighed, pulled out my journal and started to write about the beautiful things I was observing that morning. Miro was hungrily reading a book on our shared kindle, accustomed to devouring a new book every few days.

“What are you writing, my love?” An ancient voice, belonging to an old man in a blue sweater vest and a gray newsboy hat inquired. He had just silently sat down next to me. His heavily accented English told me he was local, but his words were very precise.

I looked over at him and said, “I’m writing my reflections about this beautiful park and how excited I am being here in Antigua.”


The man smiled and nodded. And I continued “however, I realize I’m sad I am that I cannot communicate with that woman over there.” I pointed to the plump dark skinned woman in the colorful embroidered skirt and pale blue cotton lace shirt . She had an angelic baby blissfully sleeping on her back, secured by similar cloth to her skirt. “I wish I could speak Spanish, I wish I could speak to everyone in this park,” I replied.

“You may not have the language my dear, but you can share a million words with your smile,” the old man said.

His words held deep meaning for me. Later, I reflected that being able to speak in the native language is an important aspect in creating a meaningful cultural experience, but for now, my smile and non-verbal communication was the most valuable tool I had. Communicating relies on many things other than words. I realized body language, tone and volume, extrapolation and smiles were equally important. These were my early tools, my non-verbal modes of communication which helped me communicate with natives and have a more immersive experience with a limited vocabulary.

As the air grew warmer, I loosened the scarf around my neck. I sat up on the stone bench listening to the old man’s stories and watched as Antigua came alive around us. His colorful stories were laced with history, culture and personal triumphs. Then, the old man, turned, looked at me an asked me to repeat after him, “muchas gracias”.

I repeated those words. I knew instinctively those words meant “thank you very much”. Was he thanking me or giving me a Spanish lesson?

“Muchas gracias” I said again. The old man smiled. My smile widened. We had connected, I had learned.

Next, the old man said “buenos tardes”. I understood as Miro glanced up from his reading, then went back to his book. He too, had a smile on his face.

“Buenos tardes,” I said back to him. I was speaking basic Spanish with him. My pace was slow, but in this moment, I was engaged. The old man was deliberate with what he was doing and I was happy to allow him to guide the experience. The last words the old man said to me before he stood up to continue his morning was, “Mucho gusto Lainie and always remember to smile.”

For many months, the old man’s words prompted many reflections in me. I examined how different the learning styles were between Miro and myself in the case of language. Even though we both had the desire to know the information, learn Spanish, we both absorbed new information differently. I looked at my reaction to forced learning from a teacher who’s intentions were good, but who’s patience with me was limited. My own inability to absorb the new information straight away by being “taught” directly created an extra layer of resistance within me, which certainly did not support further learning.

On the other hand, Miro’s experience was very different as was his aptitude for learning. In Antigua, Miro had met a group of local Spanish speaking boys in our neighborhood he created friendships with. He continued to play which encouraged his learning. And within the first eight months without any further Spanish classes, Miro became a fluent Spanish speaker. There were no grammar lessons. There were no long hours of instruction. There was no struggle. The approach that worked best for Miro was immersion and play, and without effort, natural learning happened.

Five years later, I can finally pronounce words correctly and speak Spanish at a basic level. I have not taken additional classes either. The first challenge I had to overcome with the idea that Miro and I should learn the same. Once I realized I could only learn how I could learn, and could only achieve what I could achieve and that my individual learning did not need be compared to any one else’s, I experienced a sense of freedom. My personal learning process required much more immersion time than Miro’s. That makes me uniquely me. But effort, immersion, creativity and patience is required when learning a new language as well as honoring everyone’s own unique learning style.

Travel was the opportunity Miro and I needed to step out of our linguistic comfort zones. Learning happens and most of all, learning is an individual process that happens naturally. This is our worldschooling education.


  1. Elizabeth JC 9 years ago

    Thanks for this, Lainie. It’s like you wrote it for us. 🙂 My son Cade and I (10 & 42 like you two were in this story) will be in Ecuador tomorrow (Wed). We are starting in Quito and ….. taking (you guessed it) Spanish lessons! 🙂

    I’ve taken Spanish in high school & college but it never ‘stuck’ like I wanted. I recognize that immersion is what I most likely need. The school we signed up for will separate us (probably for the same reasons you stated: kids learn differently than adults).

    I think my initial obstacle will be getting Cade to agree to us being in separate classes. He is like my shadow so he likes to go where I go so I think he may protest at first. I tried to get him excited to learn a new language — he even picked a Spanish name, Hector. I love the idea of playing games. I’ll suggest it to his teacher if he is intimidated in class. It may make a huge difference. I’ll keep you posted on our progress. 😉

    Thanks again! ~Elizabeth & Cade

  2. Spontaneous Jane 9 years ago

    Hola! I’ve been in Guatemala for two months with my 5 children. My 15 year old is picking up Spanish lightening fast and the rest of us are very slow but we are getting there. I put some of the children in a little Spanish school thinking it might help them get there faster but they just make friends with the English speakers so that wasn’t such a great idea! LOL!

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