Paid Scholarship

The Importance of Making Mistakes

Hey everyone! My name is Zhané Bradley, and I am a 2021-2022 Gilman Alumni Ambassador. As a Gilman Scholar, I completed a virtual internship in Buenos Aires, Argentina, during the Spring 2021 semester.

I took my first Spanish language class in high school as it was required for me to graduate. The same reasoning applied to the two semesters of Spanish that I took in college; I enrolled in the entry-level classes because they were required when I switched my major during my junior year. Although I genuinely enjoyed learning the language, I had trouble finding opportunities for me to practice outside of classes that met once or twice a week.

“If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it” is a phrase that’s commonly applied to language learning. Instead of being focused on competence, the curriculum of most beginner-level language classes are focused on exposure. These classes are an excellent place for the journey of learning a second language to start. However, learning another language to the point of fluency is intense and best done through immersion. I didn’t realize this until I started my virtual internship with a nonprofit organization in Buenos Aires.

My on-site supervisor understood English well but would often switch to Spanish mid-conversation. I only knew enough to have elementary conversations then, and I often found myself too nervous about attempting to use what I knew. My supervisor, however, was extremely welcoming and open to helping me practice during our weekly meetings. After that experience, I realized that learning a new language is more than just mentally translating words and phrases from your native language. Instead, I knew that I wanted to continue my journey and focus on the experiences that learning a new language can open up.

After graduating, I decided to sign up for weekly Spanish lessons online with a tutor. I am also currently doing a two-week art residency in Antigua, Guatemala. For the first time in my journey, I’ve found myself in positions where I have to speak the language. In addition to taking daily classes at a local Spanish school in the city, I have had multiple opportunities to practice with taxi drivers, restaurant servers, tour guides, etc. Engaging in conversation and having native speakers compliment my pronunciation have boosted my confidence tremendously (I even find myself thinking in Spanish now). Although I still have a lot to learn, I am proud I’ve achieved a comfortable, conversational level and am excited to continue this journey.

If you’re looking into learning a new language or maintaining your newly acquired skills, here are some ways that you can invite language learning into your life:

  • Enroll in classes with an online tutor. Websites like Italki and Preply make it easy to sign up for classes online with speakers of your target language from all over the world. One-on-one lessons are invaluable; you can even pick tutors based on your budget.
  • Identify your goals. Reasons for learning a new language can range from career and business to travel and hobby. Identifying your motivation will help you set reasonable goals and make the journey more enjoyable.
  • Meet up with other speakers of the language. At my alma mater, I would attend weekly virtual meet-ups with other students who were learning Spanish. The Gilman Alumni network is also a great place to look. There have been several virtual networking hours targeted toward maintaining your language skills. You can also join groups and find other Gilman alumni to practice with.
  • Watch or listen to media in your target language. I love watching shows and listening to music in Spanish (I have several Spanish playlists on Spotify). Try listening to language-based podcasts or local radio/news stations to practice your listening skills.
  • Travel. Immersing myself has undoubtedly improved my Spanish speaking skills.
  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. This is my most important tip. I always make mistakes and am proud of them because I’m learning. If you could speak a new language perfectly from the start, it wouldn’t be a journey! The process can be difficult, so allowing yourself to make mistakes is crucial for growth. I’ve had multiple teachers in the form of friends, tutors, taxi drivers, etc., and they’ve all been incredibly open to providing corrections and helping me improve.

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