My dear friend and travel guide companion, Chelsea Glass, has lived in Guatemala, off-and-on for the past decade. She arrived there with minimal knowledge of Spanish and now, not only speaks Spanish fluently, but co-founded a thriving travel business, fell in love and started a family in Antigua, Guatemala. Here is her fascinating story!
When, where and how did you learn Spanish?
I was first exposed to Spanish when I was 19 in Antigua, Guatemala, where I took a 2-week course at a language school. After those two weeks I really fell in love with the language and saw the value in learning Spanish.
So, I returned that same summer and did an extended, intensive course over 3 months. That really gave me a big foundation in Spanish that I continued to build on independently for about 2 ½ years while living in Guatemala, working in the tourism industry, bartending and making lots of local friends.
When I got to a more intermediate level, I felt like I really needed to polish and finesse my pronunciation and develop more advanced grammar and vocabulary. So, I decided to start taking classes at a Spanish school in Sacramento when I returned home. I later went on to pursue my master’s degree in Spanish.
What was the hardest part about learning Spanish as an adult?
I would say the hardest part was mastering pronunciation and refining my accent. It was really important to me to improve on these two skills because I didn’t like it when people would make fun of me for my bad accent. But, in the beginning, I was so focused on getting the grammar and vocabulary right that it was hard to focus on the accent at the same time. Reflecting on that a bit, I wish I had let go of my early expectations of speaking “flawless Spanish” from day one and just accepted that my accent will never be 100% perfect.
Do you have a funny or embarrassing story from learning Spanish?
I have too many to count but one really comes to mind. It happened while texting back and forth with a person I was dating at the time. We were actually texting in English, talking about the possibility of getting an apartment together one day. We were discussing our different needs to make that happen and I text something like, “yeah, we’re going to have to compromise.” As you know, in English comprise means to “meet somewhere in the middle.” But in Spanish, the verb comprometer means “ to get engaged.” So, needless to say, there was a long silence on his part afterwards because it was too early in the relationship to discuss that topic. We worked it out afterwards but it was really awkward.
How does Central-American Spanish differ from Mexican Spanish?
That’s an interesting question. Actually, there is no monolith of Central American Spanish. So, for example, from my house, you can get in a car and drive two hours to the border with El Salvador and there is a noticeable difference. I mean, it really comes down to vocabulary, accent and pronunciation. I would say Guatemalan Spanish, at least here in the highlands, has a pretty clear and crisp pronunciation. We don’t do things here that they may do, let’s say, in the Caribbean, such as drop the “S.” A major difference from Guatemalan Spanish and Mexican Spanish is that, in Guatemala and other Central American countries, we use “vos” to speak, very informally, in the second person.
How has learning Spanish changed your life?
Spanish has changed my life in every single way imaginable. I can’t even fathom what my life would be like if I had never learned Spanish because it has intertwined itself so much with my personal, professional and academic life.
My partner is from Cuba and we met when I was working as a tour guide. Most of our relationship, in the early months, took place exclusively in Spanish. Without Spanish, our relationship would have never been what it is today and we would have never had our daughter. My choice to learn Spanish is now being passed on to the next generation because my daughter will now grow up bilingual.
Academically, I’m finishing up my masters in Latin American Studies and am getting ready to pursue a doctorate. None of that would be possible without Spanish. Also, it’s amazing how much my identity and self-expression has become so intertwined with Spanish. I mean, at this point, I probably speak in Spanish for 75% of my daily communication. So socially, academically and professionally my life is happening in a language that is not my first language which is pretty incredible if you think about where I was 12 years ago.
Spanish has changed my life in every single way imaginable. I can’t even fathom what my life would be like if I had never learned Spanish because it has intertwined itself so much with my personal, professional and academic life. ~ Chelsea Glass
How has Spanish and your studies of Latin-American Culture shaped how you run your travel company?
If it weren’t for Spanish I would have never started my company, The Heart of Travel, alongside one of my best friends here in Guatemala. My company not only puts a roof over my family’s head, but it has also allowed me to make a living doing something that I’m passionate about.
Trips with Heart of Travel combine travel with language learning, history, and culture. My ultimate goal is to shift people’s perspective because I see so many inequalities and injustices in our world.
I think so much of this stems from ignorance when we talk about the narrative of Latin America that is sold and spun throughout the United States. That narrative not only impacts our political environment but also interactions between individuals in all parts of the world.
And so, for me, travel is this way of opening our eyes to truth and, from that truth, I think that we have a better shot, as a humankind, of moving towards a more equitable and just world. I know these are lofty ideas and that will take a long time time to come to reality, but this world needs people who believe in the power of positive change.
My ultimate goal is to shift people’s perspective because I see so many inequalities and injustices in our world. I know these are lofty ideas and they will take a long time time to come to reality, but this world needs people who believe in the power of positive change. ~ Chelsea Glass
What is your advice to a student who is really struggling to get past that intermediate level?
I know there is a big push in the language movement to move your focus away from grammar, and concentrate on conversation. And to some extent, I agree that conversation practice and the practical application of your existing knowledge is vital to learning Spanish. And, if you just want to be able to “get around” in a Spanish-speaking country, then that approach can probably be very successful.
However, if you want to have complex, deep and meaningful conversations, or if you are wanting to incorporate Spanish into your career or your studies, or if you’re interested in being in a relationship with someone who is a native Spanish speaker, than you will need to push beyond a more superficial level of communication. That means you’re going to have to really work for it and dedicate yourself to learning the grammar and syntax.
But, if you want to have complex, deep and meaningful conversations than you will need to push beyond a more superficial level of communication. That means you’re going to have to really work for it and dedicate yourself to learning the grammar and syntax. ~ Chelsea Glass
And yes, there are those people who just “pick it up” easier. I believe I picked up a lot in those early years but then went back to the books and grammar to fine tune my Spanish. This was sometimes in a classroom, but most of the time it was through my own independent study.
Basically, if you want to get that high level of fluency, as an adult, you have to be willing to dedicate some time to the nitty-gritty of the language. Ideally, this would also involve spending time living in a Spanish-speaking country where you would be doing the majority of your daily activities in Spanish.