Thursday, September 26, 2013

Growing Pains

"I think it's happening again. I'm having another Spanish overload...."

These words rolled off my tongue to many a friend over five years ago when I was taking two upper level Spanish classes at the same time. What exactly was this "Spanish overload," you ask? Well, I will elaborate on that in just a few sentences. I was pretty ambitious back when I was starting out in college (okay, I still am...). In fact, my first and last semesters of college were the only times I took just one class taught in Spanish. The rest of the semesters I took an average of five to six classes per semester and two of those classes were always Spanish classes. By the end of my first year I had my minor in Spanish completed. But oh, I wasn't done there. I had many more classes and an eventual major change ahead of me. And not to mention cultural and self-immersion too. :)

Having an overload in Spanish for me would consist of a two things. Both of these things were not emotional or mental side effects. These things had a huge affect on me physically. The first thing that would happen, after I had been reading or listening to too much Spanish, was that I would get a headache. The closest thing that I relate it to is a tension headache. Except that the ache would primarily be in my temples and they usually throbbed. The second thing was this: I would feel like I was drowning. Or as if I hadn't gone outside or spoken to anyone all day. Another way I could describe it would be a mix of hitting a brick wall, getting into a slump (think middle of the day 2pm. slump) and a brain freeze. When I reached this point, the best thing for me to do was take a step back, breathe and...take a break. I knew that feeling overwhelmed with the language was a sign that I was moving in the right direction. Or at least it felt like I was even though I had no idea what I was doing half the time. (Especially when it came to interpreting Spanish literature, madre mía...)

I shared online one day a few weeks ago that I thought I was experiencing another one of my infamous overload headaches. To be honest, I hadn't experienced one of those since 2010. My brother commented saying that he could relate. He also had some insight on what might be the underlying reason for 'language induced headaches.' You see, the two of us are exploring two new languages this fall. He is taking a Beginning Arabic class as well as two required classes for his Spanish major. I'm delving into the wonderful and often times confusing world of...Portuguese. Nathan has the benefit of having a structured class and a professor. I'm on my own, minus the lessons and activities I've been doing through Duolingo (an interactive language learning app) on my iPhone. I've yet to conjugate verbs or make verb sheets in Portuguese (like I did in good old HS Spanish classes), but I am trying to read a little bit of it everyday, make a list of vocab words and practice saying what I've learned.

So, what causes the headaches? Well, Nathan's theory went something along the lines of this: "You get overloaded and you get headaches from learning a new language because you are forming new connections in your brain." It makes perfect sense to me. The headaches aren't always from an "overload." They could primarily be from your brain forming connections to this new language you're learning. Connections to words and phrases that weren't there before. Connections that will only be solidified through hours and hours of practice. Practice that is three-fold: hearing the language, speaking the language and seeing the language on a daily basis.

I will elaborate a little bit more below on the "overload" and tips to get through it (if you're currently experiencing one or had one recently). I'm sort of having one of those headaches myself right now. Listening to a couple of hours of music in Portuguese, talking to myself in Spanish....and oh yeah, writing this post in English will do that to ya! haha


Now I will share a few tricks that have helped me get through many an overload headache. They may not all work for you but I hope you will at least give one of them a try.


Maybe you've been working on homework or writing pages upon pages in another language for a few hours. You might be proud of yourself for staying focused for so long but believe me your neurons will be screaming at you to STOP! For as many hours as you spend working on an activity in your foreign language, aim to spend half of that time doing something else. Years ago, one of my professors suggested to me that, when working on the rough draft of a large paper, I put it away and not look at it for at least 12 hours. He claimed that it was critical to have a fresh pair of eyes examine your paper, whether they were your own or someone else's. Why? Well, when you take a step back and aren't so focused on every little detail, you will spot errors more quickly than you would if you kept your nose to the grind and pounded out that paper in a matter of hours. That tactic was literally a lifesaver for me. So, when your head starts throbbing and you don't think you can't decipher another line of Cervantes, close the book! Put the pen down. Step away from that table. You will thank yourself later for doing that. :)

~Speak or listen to your native tongue

Think of it this way, for every hour you spend speaking or listening to another language, spend the same amount of time being immersed in your native tongue. If you want to become fluent in another language, it is good to be around it as much as you possibly can. I wholeheartedly agree with that. However, sometimes your brain has had enough and you need to let it rest. So when you feel a headache coming on, take that as a sign to take a break and listen to a song in your native tongue. Or just go sit outside and breathe. Relish in the silence (or sounds) around you.

~Sleep on it!

Yes, when both of the above tricks didn't work, I would throw my language woes out the window and take a nap. (Or go to bed early). While sleep can help clear and relax your mind, it won't erase the difficulties you're having with your homework or write your paper for you. But it will hopefully refresh you and give you some much needed energy to keep chugging along in your linguistic pursuits.

One of my goals to reach by the time I turn 30: be able to speak three languages fluently. Challenge Accepted! :)

It's strange that we can still experience 'growing pains' as adults. You would think our years of growth and development would stop in our early twenties but that's not the case. Everyday you are either growing or shrinking. There is no in-between when it comes to this topic. I'm embracing the growing pains I'm currently experiencing as I challenge myself with this new language. If you've made it to the end of this post, I have a feeling that you are are doing the very same thing. Hang in there. I promise it gets better!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Unexpected Lessons

As I look at today's date on the calendar, I'm having a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that it is the end of September! In just a little over a week I will be heading home and then making my way out to Iowa to attend my younger cousin's wedding. I truly feel that she just got engaged last week, but almost a whole year has passed since that time. Now, we're all preparing for the joyous occasion that will be her wedding - the first wedding among my cousins on my dad's side. I guess you could say it's official...we're all growing up!

No one has come to this realization more clearly than my brother has, in my opinion. He is the oldest of seven grandchildren on that side and has seen a lot of changes over the last 20 odd years, including someone raining on his parade: me, his little sister. All of my life, my brother has been one step ahead, always outdoing me in every fashion. Until...I left home for college and took my education into my own hands. For the first time in my life, I was on my own  hundreds of miles away from the only place I ever knew and my family. I was responsible for every choice and action I made, and at first, that seemed frightening to me. However, I also came to this realization: I was in a brand new city and able to redefine myself. Six years ago, no one knew me here. No one knew what I was capable of, especially not me. Well, fast forward to today and I'm a college graduate, embarking on my career path and trying to create a life for myself. You could say that, I've "been there, done that and bought the diploma." (Okay, those were actually "free," haha). My brother, however, is still muddling through the college trenches and will soon be done next year. It's been a long road for him but the past two years especially have been challenging for both of us. In these last two years he has shifted from the community college mindset to the university way of doing things. What's more is, he's now taking and finishing up upper level Spanish classes that I took...well, quite awhile ago.

From 2007 until now, I have seen dozens of textbooks, listened to thousands of hours of music, movies, lectures and written pages and pages of papers all in Spanish. I will admit that I haven't always been modest and humble about my language skills; I have had my moments where I have bragged and blabbed about my skills. As talented as I have become at the language, though, I have had my moments of insecurity. Where someone might happen to ask me this question, "How many langaugeS do you speak?" When you hear a question phrased like that, it implies that surely the person thinks you know a lot of languages. However, I have always had to answer, rather reluctantly, "Just two," as if it's something I should be ashamed of! It's not! In fact, it's quite impressive to be an American to know more than one language fluently...and be from smack dab in the middle of the Midwest. Mexico is hundreds of miles away and Canada isn't exactly close either to that part of the country. brother and I managed to learn and love the Spanish language. Of the two of us, I am fluent in the language (in writing, speaking and listening) while my brother has a little ways to go to reach fluency. I officially became fluent in Spanish when I lived and studied in Spain for a semester...and I have just gotten better and better ever since that time in my life. I hope to be bilingual in the language by age 27 -my brother's age now. And if you're wondering, yes, there's a HUGE difference from being fluent and being bilingual. I'll get there one day soon and I hope the same for my brother.

Now that you know a little bit more of my background with Spanish, let me explain the challenges I have faced with the language and my brother's experiences. The hardest thing for both of us to get used to is...that I am more knowledgeable and experienced in the language than my brother is. He got a three year head start in learning the language but had a couple years off when he didn't go right into studying it post-high-school. I, for whatever reason, have been able to live in and travel to Spanish speaking countries and areas and be immersed in the language and he has just gotten the chance to travel this past year. I've also been studying and speaking it for the last 10 years. (10 YEARS - WOW, that's so crazy to write it out!) I've almost spent half my life being involved with that wonderful language. I've also almost had a Spanish class every semester of college, sometimes two. I realize that we're two different types of students: I am the more book-loving, studious type and my brother is more hands-on, learn-through-experience type. Our educational journeys have taken various twists and turns...and have led us to where we are today: I'm graduated and he's still in school. It wasn't what either of us had planned while we were still in high school but it's okay. We're both navigating the sometimes rough waters of 'the younger sister teaching the older brother new tricks.' The most important thing we've learned is that you should never underestimate what someone, regardless of their age, gender, race, religion, etc, can teach you. You will benefit greatly from keeping both your mind and ears open. I'm sure he hasn't always wanted to listen to what I have say but he listens anyway. I never thought I would be the one with more experience in this important area of his life (his major and future career) but I believe I have a role to play.

For some brother and sister relationships, the younger sister showing up the older brother would greatly annoy the older brother and cause him to plug his ears and go, "Laaa laaa laaa," and drown out his sister's voice, haha. Luckily for me, Nathan and I have always had open lines of communication between each other and can literally tell each other anything. I know not every sibling relationship is like this but I'm grateful we have a relationship like this. This experience of 'teaching the older brother new tricks' has brought us closer together I believe. We now have even more things to talk about, teach each other and more places on our joint travel bucket list to visit. What's more is that, I'm so glad that we had the chance to be in Spain together at the same time. That he got to teach me new things about a country I'm super obsessed with. How we got to swap travel stories as we traveled around different Spanish country sides at the same time. How we got to take a walk down memory lane with me in Sevilla and how he helped me leave a new mark on that marvelous city. A mark that said we both were there...and how we naturally have to go back!

I suppose the moral of this post is: don't put your education in a box or on a timeline and don't reject learning lessons the non-traditional way. Old or young, you have the power to impact someone's life and learning even if you don't feel qualified or called to do it. So..just do it. Open your mouth, share your story and learn from the experience. Chances are you won't regret it!