Getting the right kind of guidance in learning a language can be surprisingly difficult when you don't know the right person to ask for help.
The absolute worst advice I've ever been given is:
You don't need a teacher.
It came from my former boss in Peru. I worked at her English school as a coordinator and teacher. I thought maybe we could barter services. She wanted me to teach her daughter English, so I asked if, instead of paying me, she could teach me Spanish.
She flat out said no. And then she said, "You don't need a teacher. You need to just start speaking."
I thought that was odd coming from the owner of a language school, one teacher telling another she didn't need any help from anyone.
I had lived in Peru for a few months by that time, but I had no confidence. I was too anxious to speak to anyone, besides ordering food at a restaurant. If anyone asked me a question, my mind would go blank.
I had no idea where to start. I only hung around other English speakers. Friends and strangers would ask me all the time, "How's your Spanish?"
And what could I say? Admit the truth that it sucked?
That would've been obvious to anyone if they heard me speak. But I wouldn't let them hear me. Instead, I'd just let them do all the translating for me.
At the time, I was dating a guy who only wanted to practice English with me. But then one day he said, "You have to be able to speak Spanish. You've lived in Peru now for almost a year, but you don't even try."
So when I returned to San Diego, I signed up for classes. Somehow it was easier for me there than in Peru. I felt less pressure. No one was asking me how my Spanish was.
And it was a boost to my ego because in class I realized I actually had a good base of vocabulary.
But since I was taking an intermediate-level class, as soon as the teacher started talking about the two past tenses, pretérito and imperfecto, I was lost.
I didn't understand anything. I knew the vocabulary but I didn't know the grammar.
I had to give up the class because I was struggling too much. But at least I had tried.
What I realized then is what I had thought originally. I needed someone to guide me.
That's what I was asking my boss to do, but she wasn't the right person to ask.
Instead, I needed someone who wanted to help me. Someone who I felt comfortable with. Someone who I could ask questions to but wouldn't poke fun at me or make me feel silly.
So I started asking the right people the right questions. When I went back to Peru, I started speaking almost non-stop Spanish and when I didn't understand something, I'd ask.
But not everyone could answer my questions, especially if they had to do with grammar. So then I found a teacher who I felt comfortable enough with to ask more questions and take lessons. These lessons were personalized just for me and my needs.
With her, I gained even more confidence because I knew what I was saying was actually correct.
I was able to improve my pronunciation so hombre sounded less like ahm-BRAY and more like ohm-BRAY and idea sounded less like me stumbling over the vowels and more like a simple ee-DAY-ah.
And I was finally able to get past my confusion about all the past tenses (there are so many to learn with all those darn conjugations!) and subjuntivo (why does that mood even exist?!)
And then I felt confident enough to start teaching Spanish on my own. And then I moved on to running a business in Spanish with Spanish-speaking employees and clients.
Now I get my car fixed by a Spanish-speaking mechanic. When my mom was selling her house, I could speak with the Spanish-speaker buyer. I had more possibilities for finding my own new home because I could speak with the Spanish-speaking sellers.
I had a long-term partner who only spoke Spanish. My niece and her mom's family only speak Spanish so I have to translate for my own family all the time. I have friends here in the US and all over Latin America who are exclusively Spanish speakers.
Spanish is a big part of my world. I wouldn't be able to do half the things I do without Spanish.
And I could never have done that by following my former boss's advice to just start speaking without any guidance at all.
I needed to gain confidence first. And then I needed to start asking the right questions to the right people, including my teacher.
Without these ingredients, I wouldn't be here now sharing with you.
If you need a guiding hand, message me. I have just the thing to help you.
Jackie Donaldson is the owner and director of Amidon Studios Language Studies. She started Amidon Studios in 2017 after managing a language institute in Lima, Peru. She's taught students from all over the world while living in Peru, Mexico, and the U.S. When she's not working or studying, you'll find her gardening, playing with her cat Frankie, swimming, baking, and exploring the globe.