Oh, I see! moments
Travel Cultures Language

Heading South to Ecuador And North on Life Goals

by Bruce Goldstone on December 30, 2013

Bilingual sign in Ecuador, part of a language learning experience that caused a shift in life goals. (Image © Bruce Goldstone)

Take note: That’s not Señor Chancho and it’s not Mr. Pig.
© Bruce Goldstone

How I Started in on Language Learning—And Gained a Lot More

Twelve years ago, this Mr. Chancho sign would have meant little to me.

But now, whenever I look at this photo, it reminds me that any journey is full of surprises, if you’re open to them. I started out on a language learning mission, and wound up shifting my life goals along the way.

Goal One: A Healthy Brain

In 2002, I signed up for Spanish lessons at the Cervantes Institute in New York City. My goal was to keep my brain shipshape.

Studies, such as this one by Ellen Bialystok (Cognitive Development Lab, York University), show that learning a second language can help delay or prevent Alzheimer’s. They also suggest that it’s never too late to start building a bilingual brain.

Why did I choose Spanish? It was a mainly arbitrary choice, heavily influenced by two of my good friends, one from Cuba and one from Spain.

Besides, Spanish makes sense in New York City where I live. Here you can find opportunities to practice in the subway, on local TV, or at almost any corner bodega.

Sign in a New York City optician, showing that language learning opportunities and new life goals, are easy to find in the city. (Image © Bruce Goldstone)

Español is never far away in New York City.
© Bruce Goldstone

Goal Two: Be Less Clueless

On the first day of class, Jorge Gallegos, my new professor, started with one of his favorite quizzes—How many Spanish-speaking countries could we name?

We coughed up Mexico, Spain, and a couple of others and then started to run out of steam. I’m sure you can do better than we did, can’t you? (You’ll find the full list at the bottom of this post.)

At last, with a map and Jorge’s gracious cajoling, we finally arrived at a list of the countries where Spanish is the main language. By the end of class, I had already sensed my first goal shift.

Sure, I wanted to exercise my brain. But maybe this class would help me be a bit less clueless about the world, too.

The class was great fun, and I definitely felt it working brain synapses that were either rusty or completely untapped. We followed immersion methodology. That means that from day one, we spoke only Spanish. It sounds impossible, but with a terrific, patient teacher, you’d be surprised. At least I was.

Along the way, Jorge told us a lot about his native country of Ecuador.

Skip ahead two years.

I decided that I’d like to try a full-on immersion in a Spanish-speaking country. Ecuador was a logical choice since I’d heard so many fascinating things about it from Jorge.

So I went to Cuenca for a month. High in the Andes, Cuenca is an utterly charming small town of tile roofs, Colonial architecture, and a church on every corner (or so it seems.)

Cuenca, Ecuador, the site of a language learning experience that caused the author to shift life goals. (Image © Bruce Goldstone)

Clay roofs, the central cathedral, and the Andes in Cuenca, Ecuador
© Bruce Goldstone

While there, I took four hours a day of classes at the Centro de Estudios Interamericanos (CEDEI), lived with a wonderful local family, and pushed my brain to exhaustion and beyond.

Daily classes taught me the importance of speaking up, even when you don’t have a clue what you’re saying and, most importantly, making mistakes.

Goal Three: Explore Culture Through Language

After school one day, I was wandering through the lovely streets of Cuenca and found Mr. Chancho, the smiling bilingual pig. While I was snapping a pic, I heard a drum and followed it through the alleys.

Children's parade in Cuenca, Ecuador, the beauty of which prompted the author to shift life goals for language learning. (Image © Bruce Goldstone)

Small boys, big moustaches
© Bruce Goldstone

I came upon a group of small children wearing Spanish style adult-costumes, complete with moustaches for the boys. They were riding horses decked out in crazy collages of empty liquor bottles and candies.

In my broken Spanish, I asked a bystander what was going on. It was a rehearsal for the Paseo del Niño, an annual parade that takes place each year before Christmas.

Children's parade in Cuenca, Ecuador, the beauty of which prompted the author to shift life goals for language learning. (Image © Bruce Goldstone)

Luckily for the horse, the bottles are empty.
© Bruce Goldstone

My brain was whirring with stimulation. Worries of Alzheimer’s felt years away as I watched the bright and beautiful children, chatted with their relatives, and admired the intricate handiwork of their costumes.

Watching this amazing parade was definitely an “Oh, I see” moment. I realized that my goal for learning Spanish had shifted completely.

What started as exercise for my brain had evolved into something much deeper and more intriguing—a deep craving to know more about Latin cultures.

My ostensible goal—to become fluent in Spanish—remains the same to this day. But the road I started is far from the road I ended up on. The journey has taken me from Ecuador to Spain, Mexico, and eventually Argentina, where I now spend about three months a year.

The more I learn about Latin culture, the happier I am that I started this adventure. Learning a new language is great, but stepping into new cultures is even better.

So now I think of Mr. Chancho (one of my favorite street signs from Cuenca) and his best friend, Mr. Pollo, and remember that being bilingual doesn’t mean just knowing two languages. It means understanding two cultures, and being willing to follow the odd drummer, wherever it leads you.

Bilingual sign in Ecuador, part of a language learning experience that caused a shift in life goals. (Image © Bruce Goldstone)

Mr. Chancho’s best friend
© Bruce Goldstone

I’m sure my brain is the better for my language learning efforts, but the effects have reached far more than my physical brain and its unused synapses. My whole outlook has changed because I took aim at one of my life goals and then landed somewhere else altogether.

Spanish-Speaking Countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Spain, Uruguay, Venezuela. Plus Puerto Rico and, of course, the United States.

Spanish Lessons: My first professor, Jorge Gallegos, now runs Easy Español, a language school where you can take classes in person, on-line, or both. He’s a great guy (and a good friend). Tell him Bruno sent you (that’s what I’m called in Argentina.)

Connect with others interested in learning a second language in the Live Mocha community. 

Comment on this post below, or inspire insight with your own OIC Moment here.


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