Reflections from Abroad: 4,567 Mistakes in Learning a New Language

Date posted: Friday 18 January 2019

Learning another language requires courage, humility, perseverance, and resilience. You have to be willing to make mistakes in order to learn. It also takes resilience. The only way you’re going to improve and be able to progress is if you practice, practice, practice. A lot of the time when you practice, it’s incorrect, but slightly better than the last time you took a whack at it. Learning, practicing, and attempting to communicate in a second language is an incredibly humbling experience. Maybe you never feel like you can “fully express” yourself because some of the nuance of what you are attempting to say is lost in translation.


The learning curve

Amelia with one of her students in Mexico. While she teaches, the students also help her learn.

Being immersed in a context where I am speaking my second language 100% of the time is exhausting, thrilling, and overwhelming. As far as the learning curve is concerned, at first, it was a bit like drinking from a firehouse. I was learning so many new dichos (sayings) and verbs, shaking off my rusty Spanish and also trying to filter the Spanish from the Nahuat. (Nahuat is the indigenous language that is primarily spoken within my host family and community). Some days, my brain would just shut off because it was unable to accommodate any more learning.


As an English teacher working in a Spanish-speaking country, I am in a unique position. I have the incredible opportunity to model language learning for my students. Most of them are very early on in their English learning. Because of that, I teach my classes in 80% Spanish, 20% English. This means that on the daily, I make approximately 4,567 mistakes and am most certainly eagerly corrected by my students.


Four months in

At the beginning of my time here, I told my students that just as I am their teacher, helping them to learn English, they are my teachers, helping me to improve my Spanish and learn Nahuat. Four months into my time here, I feel strongly that my students are teaching me so much more than Spanish and Nahuat. My students are reminding me of a simple and deeply important life lesson — it’s not about accomplishing your agenda. It’s about how you treat people. It’s about our relationships with each other, how we care for one another, and how we treat ourselves. They are teaching me how to laugh at myself — deeply and with complete abandon. They are teaching me that it is always the right time to dance, laugh, and make music together. My students don’t teach me these things with flashcards, Powerpoints, or written exams. They teach me these things by modeling them for me.


I don’t believe that I’ll ever reach a point where I’ll feel deserving of the title of “fluency” in my Spanish language journey. I’ve never really liked that word because I think we toss it around without really thinking about what it truly means. I think there is always room for growth. As my competency continues to develop and progress, I realize more and more how much more there is to learn. I learn the most when I am willing to make mistakes, and am open to asking questions and admitting my uncertainty.


My hope for the rest of my time here is to faithfully embrace the attitude that every person I come into contact with here in my community has something to teach me, even people who annoy me or who I don’t necessarily “click” with. Who are the people in your life that you’ve disregarded because you’ve decided they have nothing to teach you? What can you do to change that mindset? This posture of humility is one that I hope I can continue to embrace and carry with me for the rest of my life!


Amelia Schurke


Amelia Schurke is serving in the Mexico through Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) on behalf of the Saint Paul Area Synod & her home congregation St. Andrew's Lutheran in Mahtomedi. Learn more about Amelia & other missionaries here.