But What If Español Didn't Like Me At First?

01/08/2014 15:23 BST | Updated 12/09/2014 10:59 BST

Gender agreements. Subjunctive tense. Imperatives. Conjugations. Words that look easy but turn out to be weird - Lo. Se. Te. Os...

They are all staring at me. Voiceless, yet resolute.

If that's the attitude Spanish had towards me, then why not respond proactively? With resolution. When first presented the options of continuing to study Chinese at the native speaker's level or starting to speak a completely new language at the start of one of the most rigorous secondary school education curriculums, I adamantly chose the latter option. Admittedly, there have been times when I considered returning to that crossroad, to be able to feel the warmth of a familiar language during the intensive IB Diploma Program, but I wished to challenge myself and build a stronger character.

Right before I made this decision, I consulted upperclassmen friends and teachers, majority of whom agreed that it is a truly risk-taking endeavor considering my comfortable position in obtaining and maintaining charming grades in Chinese, which I would self-study anyway in my spare time. Some of my acquaintances reacted in a more exaggerated fashion than others, stunned by my "boldness/courage". I listened attentively, but decided to do it this way.

Starting to learn Spanish at the start of 11th grade (when IB coursework accumulated, homework assignments piled, and grades were especially significant in terms of college applications) meant waking up grunting at the sound of the icy alarm in the early morning, immediately turning on the audio book stored in my phone, and listening to a stranger's voice speaking an equally unfamiliar language. I repeated this routine despite the winter chilliness, the desire to go back to the sweet realm of sleep, the mild headache that persisted, and firmly resisting the steady transition back to the sleeping mode. That may sound like self-torture to a certain extent, but it is the truth. But frustratingly, even with so intensive a strategy, my Spanish listening and speaking skills were still disappointing. I frequently felt despondent walking out of my Spanish ab initio class, which only has two other students, one of whom is half Spanish and has been speaking the language since her early childhood, and the other being someone who's spent a couple of summers in Spain, attending language programs. I, on the other hand, started absolutely from zero. When would zero rise to hero?


At the start of each reasonably long holiday/vacation, I set the ambitious goal of being able to speak the language more proficiently and to be able to understand native speakers' fast-paced speeches when school recommences. Somehow, I didn't see those goals achieved, and became quite angry at myself for not managing my time wise enough. Time elapsed, and I didn't feel really intrinsically motivated. That's the main issue, I think. Being extrinsically motivated by the grade I wanted to get simply wasn't enough.

Honestly, I don't know how much this has changed, or when the situation has altered to a more favorable one, but recently I've been wildly loving the hours and hours spent at Instituto Cervantes' Spanish library. People I know speak of turning on the "Spanish Mode". I sometimes feel the same, especially during the trip to Greece and during the vacations in general, when I don't have my Spanish teacher or classmates to talk to me in the language, that I cannot transition quickly into this language mode, whether the task is chatting to some hispanohablantes or reading, or writing. Although I haven't found many native speakers to orally converse with, I found reading to be particularly satisfying. I felt truly intrinsically motivated, that I would rather spend more time traveling on the notoriously traffic-jammed Beijing roads than being less productive yet more relaxed at home, back and forth between my home and Instituto Cervantes.

At the warm and cozy library, I got completely absorbed by two books, Homer's Odyssey (in prose) and a book about the economic relationship between China and Africa, with ethical considerations and balanced perspectives from numerous academics. Both are about 200 pages and are written entirely in Spanish. I picked them up from the shelves to see how far I could go, but surprisingly, the experiment has been fascinating. Although the pages were frequented by several words that I do not know, as the words reappeared each time, I start to remember their faces. It's lovely to watch them become my friends from unos desconocidos - strangers that they were just a few hours, or even minutes ago. As I flipped through each page, more confident, I felt much more intrinsically motivated and interested in the language. This time, I'm not chasing after a grade. I'm chasing my dreams, to truly become a polyglot some day.