Learning languages

Language learning can be a long process where constant exposure is crucial. 

When the pandemic swept through the United States in March, Leonardo Quevedo found himself with extra time on his hands. Wanting to make the most of his self-quarantine, he started practicing Spanish as a daily routine.

“Spanish was part of that renewed effort by me to take control over my day instead of letting it pass by me,” says Quevedo, a current MU freshman studying journalism.

Quevedo is one of the many people who saw the pandemic as time to learn another language. Duolingo, a popular language learning app, saw the number of new users double in March. Many view multilingualism as a desired life skill tied to improved job prospects and cultural awareness. But you can’t expect to be fluent in just a few months.

Language learning can be a long process where constant exposure is crucial. Rosa Morales, an MU Spanish instructor and coordinator, says taking a break can lead to learning gaps. “If it’s only one week of break, and (the students) come back, it’s like they forgot everything,” Morales says.

Dawn Heston, the director of language education at the MU School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, encourages students to figure out why they want to learn a particular language. “I really try to personalize it and tailor it to the student’s interest, either professionally or personally,” Heston says. “It really opens the door to helping them learn a language.”

She believes communicating with others is what motivates people to continue practicing. “The ultimate goal is to be able to build bridges with people to have that cultural understanding,” Heston says.

Family connection

MU journalism senior Isabella Paxton was planning to visit family in Spain during the summer before the pandemic derailed her plans. But the canceled trip allowed her to undertake her overdue goal of speaking Spanish.

“I’ve always wanted to be bilingual ever since I was a child,” Paxton says. “So now, I’m really putting forth the effort to do that.”

Paxton believes immersing herself in the language is the best way to become fluent. This means reading books, watching TV and talking with family in Spanish. She also takes daily Spanish lessons on Duolingo.

Engaging with her family’s Spanish heritage fuels Paxton’s practicing habits. “I would love to go back to Spain and reconnect with that culture and make it a little more of my own on a personal level,” she says.

Both of Quevedo’s parents are Cuban immigrants, so he’s been familiar with Cuban culture since he was born. His main motivation is expanding his professional opportunities. “It would be a really cool thing to be able to see myself working not just for an American news channel, but potentially a Spanish local news channel like Univision or Telemundo,” Quevedo says.

All talk

Being fluent in another language means being able to hold a conversation. “There’s no substitute for actually getting out there and speaking with native speakers,” Heston says.

Speaking is the highest priority for Paxton. She practices by talking with Spanish-speaking family members in their language, and she’s seen small improvements. “I’ve always been able to understand Spanish because I was surrounded by it my entirety of growing up,” Paxton says. “But now I can talk back to people.”

Quevedo calls his aunt and grandmother every week to keep up with them and refine his Spanish-speaking skills. “A lot of the people in my family don’t speak English as their first language or even speak English at all,” he says.

These conversations supplement Quevedo's other learning methods, such as streaming TV shows in Spanish and practicing on Duolingo. He’s motivated to continue when noticing his progress on the app. “It’s definitely a nice feeling to go back to some of the earlier skills and be able to translate something into Spanish that I once had a hard time doing,” Quevedo says.

Pushing through the plateau

Learning a language takes consistent time and effort, which discourages some from achieving fluency.

Heston says many students hit a plateau in their learning process. “You’ve gotten to a certain point where you’re actually able to say something,” she says. “But, then all of a sudden, you feel like you’re stagnating, and that you’re not making progress anymore.” Heston says this is natural, and that immersion in the language helps students conquer the plateau.

Paxton is encouraged by the little victories in her learning. “You’re exhausted, you’ve gotten the last five questions wrong ... and then you’re not even thinking and get this really hard question right!” she says. “It’s that moment that’s totally, absolutely worth it. Because in those tiny moments, you can see it all paying off.”

Quevedo enrolled in a Spanish class at MU next semester to further his learning. In the meantime he’s focused on speaking basic sentences fluently.

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