I recently wrapped up my 15 day language immersion trip in Ecuador with a graduation ceremony and a trip to some thermal springs before returning to a DC winter. Here I reflect on my last days in Ecuador and the value of a language immersion program.
During the first part of week 15 in Spanish (and the second week of my language immersion in Ecuador), I continued enjoying the great outdoors while generally getting my butt kicked by high altitude, thin air, humidity, inflammation and old injuries, and stairs. I had the last laugh though, because I practiced my Spanish, saw new and cool things, and made it through each challenge without quitting.
During the first week I was in Ecuador, I also had the opportunity to visit one of Quito’s most famous basilicas, explore a variety of local foods and markets, party on a fiesta bus (chiva), and hike a volcano. The latter was one of the most physically grueling activities I’ve ever done, not only because I ascended to an altitude of over 15,500 feet (4,800 meters) without being in great shape, but also because of the thin air.
[This is the second blog post in a series of four on my Spanish immersion experience in Ecuador. If you missed the first post, you can find it here.]
I flew into Ecuador’s capital, Quito, from Panama City the Saturday before last and immediately could feel I’d arrived somewhere new. The misty mountains ringed the airport and the cool, rainy air felt precariously thin. Quito is a city of 1.9 million people, perched in the Andes on the slopes of the Pichincha volcano, at an incredible elevation of 9,350 feet (2,850 meters). It is the second highest capital city in the world, after La Paz, Bolivia. Previously I think the highest elevation I had ever reached outside an airplane was Denver (around 5,500 feet). Just standing at the baggage claim in Quito, my heart rate was over 120 beats per minute!
My prior travels in Latin America have been limited to Panama (in 2013) and Mexico (too many times to count since 1991), so I was really looking forward to this adventure.
[This is the first blog post in a series of four on my Spanish immersion experience in Ecuador. More posts coming soon!]
During week 13, we entered the second half of our 24-week Spanish program. Since we had changed classrooms, instructors, and classmates the week before, we were more or less still adapting to the new ecosystem. Another adaptation was the start of Phase 3; week 13 was the first week we had two topics to discuss (immigration and narcotrafficking) instead of doing the lessons in our online platform. That meant that we spent even more time debating, preparing structured presentations, and learning new ways to express opinions on these and ancillary issues.
Three important things happened during the past two weeks of Spanish. One, I passed my second progress evaluation. Two, we hit the midpoint of our 24-week program. And three, the Spanish Department shuffled students and instructors to create new classes. The latter two things were painless and turned out great. The first, well, that’s a different story. Buckle up, things are going to get uncomfortable.
During the past two weeks as we have worked our way towards the end of phase 2, the course has shifted slightly in content and structure, foreshadowing expectations for phases 3 and 4. Since we are getting closer to the halfway point of the 24-week program, we are supposed to complete our “building the base” activities so we can move into professionalization and consolidation of what we have learned. As my second speaking and reading progress assessment looms first thing on Monday morning, this post is a short update before I buckle down and disappear into my preparation for the next 72 hours.
During the past few weeks, the amount of coursework and difficulty of my Spanish class has started to accelerate. Our tasks have become more complex, at least for me. I have found myself more frustrated that my performance in class activities does not seem commensurate with the amount of effort and study I put in. I also feel mentally tired, experience procrastination and brain freezes, and need more alone time to recover. Of course, I am not bad at everything, and I have good days and bad days. I guess it is typical at this point to think you suck when you’re actually doing OK. The whole two steps forward, one step back thing.
I don’t recall feeling as “on” all the time during my FSI Russian class (2014-2015). It wasn’t easier, but our activities felt less intensive. The expectations were also definitely lower. However, I have also been heartened by a couple of special opportunities to help my learning – an invitation to a side course in consular Spanish, and a possibility to travel to South America on an immersion language trip.
If the theme for the first four weeks of Spanish class was accepting whatever came my way without saying no and letting it all wash over me, the theme for the past week has been playing along. I don’t mean that in the sense of “humoring” the program or instructors in any way. What I mean is that I’m trying to do what they ask me to do, in the way they are asking me to do it, in order to learn quickly and demonstrate that I can build fluency.
I play along – I learn the vocabulary and text building blocks they give us the best I can, and I try to deploy them when I produce speech. When I mispronounce something, I try again. When I don’t understand something, I ask for clarification. In summary, I try to work with I have without trying to be perfect or make the curriculum anything other than what it is. So far, this strategy is working pretty well.
I just finished the fourth week of Spanish language training at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Arlington, where the State Department sends its diplomats and staff for training ahead of overseas assignments, sometimes for months at a time. In my case, late next spring I will become Deputy American Citizen Services (ACS) Chief at our consulate in Cuidad Juárez, México, so I get six months (24 weeks) of Spanish. FSI teaches dozens of languages and tradecraft courses, so you’ll find employees from across the U.S. government studying there, too.
For me, the change of pace from a busy political section at our embassy in Australia – where the bilateral relationship is huge – to sitting in a small classroom for several hours per day has been nice, but challenging in its own way. It’s also crazy to think I am one-sixth done with Spanish already! My first progress evaluation is on Monday, so this is a good place to pause and reflect.
Tomorrow marks three weeks since V and I returned to Virginia and started the several months of training required for my next assignment to Mexico. A few aspects of the transition and settling-in process have been bumpier than I expected. Although moving to the U.S. (“home”) should be easier than an overseas move to a new country, in a lot of ways it isn’t. Without an embassy to help you set up your life (again), there is a lot of surprisingly tedious stuff to deal with on your own, and not much time to manage it.
During this Permanent Change of Station (PCS) from Australia to Virginia, between problems with our new apartment management, problems with timing our unaccompanied air freight (UAB) and storage deliveries, and problems with my car turning up damaged from two years of overseas government storage, the past few weeks have felt like one aggravation after the next. And all of that doesn’t even take into consideration my new full-time job of Spanish learning, and the challenge of going from two incomes back to one. However, on the bright side and after a lot of effort, expense, moral support from friends, and some luck, things are starting to settle bit by bit into place. (Warning: lengthy rant ahead.)
I remember the afternoon in August 2014 that I got my flag for Uzbekistan, surrounded by my cheering A-100 colleagues. And I also remember the hot summer evening in June 2016 when I received my second tour assignment to Australia and stood bolt upright in my Uzbek wallpapered living room.
And very early this morning, I had that moment again. I checked my work BlackBerry and saw an email with the subject line “Handshake.” I actually waited almost 30 seconds to click on it, fumbling for my glasses and barely breathing.