“But everyone is taking Spanish! I just want to learn French,” my fifth-grade self decided obstinately one day. I couldn’t bear to do what everyone else was doing.
So I didn’t.
Looking back on the next four years that followed my decision to decline having Spanish in my life, the little rebel in me grew to regret her choice at times. I chose French in middle school and learned approximately three verbs in four years, all in the present tense. This was followed by a short-lived and painful year of high school Latin, another three years of learning French at university, two years of Italian and seven years of German, mein Gott.
Yet Spanish remained in the back of my mind, an alluring and most practical Romance language. The native tongue of famous revolutionaries and artists, served up in its many flavors, accents, and nuances. It overwhelmed me to think about learning the language where the standard textbook Castilian is only spoken in one country, Spain, yet dozens of varieties of Spanish remain the majority language in 20 additional sovereign states around the world.
And yet, with all my years of language learning, I knew it had to be done. Spanish speakers total well over 400 million people, which qualifies it as second on the lists of languages by number of native speakers.
Finally, when I booked a trip to Spain in 2011, pragmatism won out.
I had been dancing salsa, merengue, and bachata while I was living in Germany for over a year by that point. My past courses meant that I already understood the grammar of Romance languages.
Yet, I wanted to learn Spanish in a distinct way. I wanted a native speaker for a tutor, and I only wanted to learn what was absolutely necessary to communicate clearly and efficiently as a tourist.
I placed an ad for a language tandem partner in the online classifieds, offering English conversation with a native speaker (me) for Spanish conversation with a native speaker.
Hugo, a Mexican man living in Germany, reached out. We met for coffee, spoke for a half hour in English (his was near-perfect already), and then the fun began.
Luckily, he had been trained in teaching Spanish as a second language. He offered simple phrases at first, ones I should know as tourist. Things like, “Could you please help me?”, “How much does this cost?”, and “Where is the bathroom/bus stop/metro stop?”.I fumbled my pronunciation badly, treating the words like Italian as it was the closest thing I knew, but felt confident in my ability to recognize and understand the words themselves.
We continued to meet for two months prior to my first two-week foray into a Spanish-speaking country. Hugo’s lessons focused only on speaking, not on grammar or writing, and prioritized the most useful words and phrases for getting around.
I was traveling with a friend who, despite having majored in Spanish in college, was afraid to make mistakes. He hesitated to speak in most initial conversations. I fumbled grammar, but the words came out of my mouth somehow and in the end, we always got the information or food that we needed.
So in 2015, when it was nearly time for another trip to a Spanish-speaking country, I knew I had to step up my game.
Again, I wanted a private tutor. I also wanted to skip the fluff and useless phrases taught in textbooks, like learning to say “the butterfly lands on the flower” before learning “Please drive as fast as you can, my flight leaves soon” or “I’m allergic to penicillin”.
I had planned a two-week trip to Medellín, Colombia, a city that has written a new, innovative narrative for itself since its violent, drug-ridden past.
By chance, or by Facebook ad smarts, I happened upon the website of BaseLang, a language startup coincidentally based out of Medellin. As I scrolled, I saw that they had only native speakers as tutors, and that I could have unlimited online lessons each month, via Skype.
I was in.
It seemed simple enough. All I had to do was sign up (BaseLang’s service costs $1 for a trial week, and $99 for a month of unlimited lessons), set up my first Skype tutoring session through their simple online calendar, and have one “diagnostics” class, where a teacher determined my level of Spanish.
After that, it was up to me to schedule whatever 30-minute chunks worked for my schedule, and I could schedule multiple sessions in a row. (It’s unlimited, remember?)
From December through February leading up to my trip to Colombia I worked with BaseLang’s teachers several times per week, just enough to familiarize myself with the present tense, the most useful irregular verbs to know, and of course, all the tourist phrases I’d need.
Each teacher had a different style, but of the ten people I worked with, all of them were extremely friendly and warm. I appreciated how they adjusted to my needs as soon as they noticed I wasn’t comprehending something, or if I interrupted them gently to ask them to please only speak Spanish to me.
While I took private lessons with BaseLang’s native teachers, I also used Duolingo and Memrise to keep my brain focused on basic vocabulary when I had downtime, usually right before I went to bed. Since high school, I’d found that way was the best way to let my brain process and memorize the words or conjugation tables while I slept — no extra effort required.
To top it off with some entertainment, I listened to salsa and reggaeton lyrics and watched a couple of films (Y Tu Mamá También and El desconocido) in Spanish with English subtitles, trying not to read them unless I absolutely had to.
When the end of February 2016 rolled around, I felt confident in my Spanish-speaking ability. In fact, I felt much more confident than ever before, excited and a bit nervous to test out my new skills with native speakers in-country rather than just via Skype.
Using my traveler’s mindset I had thought to reach out to BaseLang’s American co-founder, Connor Grooms, and see if I could stop by the startup while I was in town. Connor is the guy who learned Spanish to intermediate level within 1 month (and made a documentary about it) prior to founding BaseLang.
I let him know that I’d be down in Medellín soon and asked if I could meet the team in person, including the startup’s co-founder Adrian Castaneda. The team was all for it.
Fast-forward a few weeks and I was there, with another idea: why not take some time to share my experience with them, and film a video about BaseLang and my experience with it to share with others looking to learn Spanish online, real Spanish.
So, on the 19th floor of a swanky building with a view of Poblado and the mountains beyond the valley below us, we filmed this interview for you.
As you can probably tell, I only take the time to spread the word about ideas, products and services that I actually use and really love. There was just such a difference in how my spoken Spanish improved, even in the short few months I used BaseLang, that I could tell if I wanted to continue and really dig into the language, I’d be at intermediate level in no time!
For the meantime, I’m content to travel around the Spanish-speaking world with a little more ease and peace of mind. I can hail a taxi and explain where I need to go. I can order food, even if I have allergies. I can make small talk with a kind stranger who becomes a friend or change a person’s perception of what people from the U.S. are like.
And the next level, for me? Total immersion. I’d like to move to a Spanish speaking country to enjoy all the experiences that come with learning a new language — the food, the sights, the sounds and the smells of a new culture. And you can be sure there will be plenty more articles on The Traveler’s Mindset when that happens.
Ginger Kern is a transformational coach and the founder of The Traveler’s Mindset. After working in Europe for over three years and traveling to 25 countries around the world by the age of 25, Ginger wanted to bring the ‘traveler’s mindset’ back to the United States. Through coaching, The Traveler’s Mindset, and speaking at universities and organizations across the U.S., Ginger turns people into adventurers who are confident and powerful on the road and in their everyday lives.