I recently completed an 8-day Spanish immersion, "Pueblo Español" through a company called Diverbo. To summarize... it was amazing. I spent at least 16 hours a day talking with Spaniards and Anglos from all over the world- I barely slept! Prior to attending, I expected to learn (of course) a lot of new Spanish words and phrases, improve my speaking ability, and get some cultural info. You know the drill.
But, like any other amazing experience, I walked away with so much more, with many lessons that can be applied to any new situation. See if you agree with me.
1. The first day is always the scariest, and usually the things you worry about never happen. Prior to my immersion, I had many fears- my Spanish would be horrible. I'd bring all the wrong clothes. I'd show up late to the bus the first day and make a horrible first impression. I'd die of exhaustion, speaking so much Spanish. Well, none of those things happened, and I quickly found there was nothing to be freaked out about in the program.
2. You never know a person's story by looking at them. It's human nature to make assumptions based on first impressions and appearances. We all do it. The beauty of a program like Diverbo is that you are immersed (and I mean like jumping in a pool-immersed) with your people for 8 days. This isn't just a casual immersion either. In my 8 days at Diverbo, we all felt comfortable enough to tell our stories- both through conversation and through our daily actions that became understandable the more we got to know each other. We arrived at Diverbo a bit reserved, but our guards were let down as the week progressed. We left not just as friends, but as family.
3. There are different ways to do everything- none are better than the other, just different. Another interesting thing about meeting new people is finding out how they do things- from everyday routines like work, shopping, and family, to internal beliefs that guide their lives. As I listened to the Spaniards and fellow Anglos share stories of their daily routines, I started to see areas of mine that could be improved by following their leads. Dinner discussions about hard hitting topics that I might not necessarily agree with made me stop and consider if my viewpoints could use a little tweaking. The crazy thing is, all of these revelations happened while I was speaking in a second language. For this reason, the new ideas gave me more pause and consideration as I had to stop and think about them twice- in Spanish, then English.
4. The more difficult something is, the more worthwhile. I wish I could come up with a great analogy of what it feels like to be forbidden to speak your native language and speak another language. Try this. Imagine taping both thumbs to your hand (with really durable tape) so that you can't use them, and forcing yourself to do everything you normally do, sans thumbs. Pretty hard, and just like switching your brain to a different language. But, like anything difficult, speaking Spanish for 8 days was so incredibly worthwhile. At the end of the day, all of the English speakers felt like we truly accomplished something worthwhile, because we fine tuned our Spanish, and made life-long friends. Double bonus.
5. A day that leaves you absolutely exhausted, physically and mentally, is normally a pretty good day. When I think about how tired I was at the end of each day, I want to take a nap. Yet, each day that left me exhausted did so because it was full of moments where I went up and down cobblestone streets of the village speaking Spanish, created group presentations, danced, ate, drank wine, and just generally spent time doing activities that taught me about the Spanish culture. All in Spanish. Did I mention that? My brain was full and my body was tired, but it was truly all good.
6. A positive mental attitude is the key to success in nearly every situation. Now, our days were scheduled for us from 9:00 a.m. until sometimes 11 or 12 at night. The fact that these days went smoothly despite the intense schedule didn't happen by accident - it happened because we were guided by two great leaders who started every activity with the biggest PMA (that's "positive mental attitude" for my Spanish friends reading this)I've every seen. This PMA convinced me, a person who avoids any type of play acting or group theater like the plague, to participate in a skit. This PMA got me motivated when I felt completely "talked out." It also reminded me that a great attitude on my own part can make any difficult situation I might face in the future all that much better.
7. If you are really afraid of something and think you hate it, chances are you need to try it. Did I mention above that I'm not so keen on theater? Now, I'm still not signing up for my community players group, but I will say I'm glad I participated in the theater activity. Even though I dreaded-dreaded-dreaded it, I learned something. Sometimes in life you do indeed just need to say "what the ----" and go for it. Though this theater thing was completely harmless and really not a life-changing event, it made me consider other areas in my life where I might be completely closed off to due to fear. Maybe I need to take a risk in another area as well.
8. If you don't know something, remember to do these two things: ask and smile. Here's a tip about a language immersion - when someone is smiling and nodding their head while you're talking, chances are they have no idea what the hell you're saying. However, if the person you're talking to has also been in an immersion, they'll be onto you and will ask if you understand. At this point, I recommend you just fess up and say "no." Asking questions is the key to breaking barriers. While I don't agree with the saying "there are no stupid questions" (because believe me, I've asked many of them), I do feel that it's better to ask a stupid question than just not know. A smile comes in handy to cover, in case you do indeed ask a really dumb question. This is fine too, because then the whole experience just becomes really funny to all involved.
9. Learning another language is so much more than being able to know how to speak and communicate. Learning another language allows you to get to know the essence of others- you see how they think, feel, and communicate. You witness people having patience with you as you struggle, and in turn consider that you might want to do the same. You see people trying to help, and feel the awesomeness of connection and humanity. Finally, you learn about yourself as you test your limits and see how much you can take on.
10. Regardless of what language we speak, we are all the same. We all have stories to share (and stories we care not to share) about our daily lives. These stories make us who we are. By communicating with each other, we slowly break barriers, and get to the essence of each person. Even when we don't understand every single word the other is saying, universally we all can connect on one common theme - friendship and acceptance. At the heart of it all, whether we're Spanish, English, Slovakian, South African, or from any part in the world, we all just want to be happy, loved, and appreciated. All of these magical things can happen when you step out of the box and really get to know someone, like you do at Pueblo Español.
The bottom line is, life becomes richer when we do new things and take risks. It's how we grow, it's how we learn. The secret is you'll never know how much you can grow and learn until you simply go for it. So, go do that today!