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Learning a Language is not like Riding a Bike

June 12, 2018
by Elena Piech
 While in Bariloche, an area of Argentina located in the Northern end of Patagonia, I managed to practice my Spanish and mountain bike skills.

Tightly gripping onto the handlebars, my tiny knuckles transform into a ghostly pale color. Wearing a helmet that's just a little too big with tears stream down my face, I repeatedly remind my mother that, "I can't." She ignores my hysteric whining and places me on top of my former bike, a device that I only knew existed with training wheels. With her hands on my shoulders, my mother reassures me and insists that she'll be holding my back the whole time. I calm down and get ready to ride with her as my guide. After about a minute, I realize her hands are no longer there. I'm supporting myself.

I wrongly assumed that learning a language would be just like riding a bike. It might be challenging for the first two or three weeks, but after that my body's "fight or flight" instincts would kick in. I failed to realize that learning a language is more like gaining muscles. Just like how I can't sign a gym membership and expect to exit with a six-pack, I can't live in a foreign country and expect to have a magical moment where I'm fluent and my mind suddenly memorizes a rolodex and complex vocabulary.

Just like gaining muscle, the challenging part about learning a language would be need to consistently work out. A person wanting a firm stomach might not notice a change if they look at themselves in the mirror every day, but they can see how different their stomach looks if they look at themselves at the start and end of every month. The same can be said for a person practicing a foreign language. The results may not feel measurable on a daily basis, but one can truly notice an improvement when comparing themselves from week one to week ten.

Jet lagged and anxious, I first arrived in Buenos Aires on January 11. I said "hola" to my host mom, put down my bags, and walked with her to the grocery store. She tried to make small talk with me, but I would just nod my head or give a basic yes or no response. I understood everything she said, but I hesitated to give lengthy responses. I feared a mispronunciation or an incorrect subject verb agreement.

Now almost at the beginning of April, I can notice how my skills have improved. For my spring break (technically Argentina's fall), I traveled around Patagonia, Mendoza, and Cordoba. From only nodding my head when I first met my host mom, I had lengthy conversations with hostel hosts and other guests about the best trails, food, and daily excursions. Even if I feel slightly more confident with my speaking ability, I'll also admit that not all of these conversations flow smoothly. Sometimes I want to fall back to my old habit of nonverbal communication; However, I now understand that my Spanish won’t improve unless I’m willing to constantly practice.

I've been in Buenos Aires for almost three months. Although I thought I would be completely comfortable with the language by now, I now realize that languages are a never-ending learning process. Everyday a person can learn new vocabulary words, pronunciations or grammar rules. Learning a language might not be as easy as riding bike, but the challenge makes the end result feel more rewarding.


Elena P. is the Spring 2018 MOJO Photographer in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is currently a Junior studying Media Production at Ithaca College.

Elena Piech is the Spring 2018 CEA MOJO Photographer in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and is currently studying at Ithaca College.
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