The Importance of Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone

The following post is written by Anna and Angela from Spanish at Home. Spanish at Home is a full-breadth language learning program with easy-to-understand grammar and vocabulary, a one-of-a-kind ‘common mistakes’ feature, and plenty of varied practice problems. With every book purchase, Spanish at Home donates an educational book to an orphanage in rural Peru. You can follow Spanish at Home on Facebook and Twitter.

Dear language learners,

Let me tell you something: almost any person who’s become fluent in a foreign language has at least one story of a time they were immersed in the language and felt completely clueless, lost, and inept to the point of tears.

But they’ll also probably tell you that it was in this moment’s aftermath that they learned the most and made the greatest progress.

The full-on immersion learning method may not be the best strategy for everything—welding, for example, or swimming, or mathematics—but it is unrivaled when it comes to learning a language. In this sense, full immersion can mean traveling to a Spanish-speaking country, going out for a drink with a Latino buddy who doesn’t speak English, or just signing up for (and actively participating in!) a Spanish immersion conversation class.

Immersion isn’t easy. Being stuck with no options except to stumble your way through Spanish sounds scary—and it is! But it is also the single best thing you can do if you really want to learn a language.

Start by getting a great Spanish course book that focuses on practical, conversational Spanish (we particularly recommend the program fromSpanish at Home). But don’t stop there—join a Spanish conversation club, ask your Latino coworker to help you out by joining you for a Spanish-only lunch hour, or—the most fun and effective option—buy a plane ticket to a Hispanic country.

When you step outside of your comfort zone — when you put yourself in a position that forces you to communicate to the best of your ability — a few things happen:

1) You can’t take the easy way out—you can’t just default to English the moment you don’t remember how to say a word. You are forced to actually use your Spanish.

2) Likewise, you are forced to improvise: for example, by explaining your way around a word you don’t know, gesturing, or finding alternative ways to say things. Surprisingly, this works—you realize you can communicate!

3) It’s amazing what the push of necessity can accomplish—remarkably quickly, you start picking up new words.

4) Nobody rolls their eyes while talking to you. You find that people are eager to help, incredibly patient, and thrilled that you’re even trying to learn their language. You stop feeling so self-conscious about your language skills.

There are two things you need to be an effective communicator in another language: confidence and knowledge about vocabulary and grammar. Confidence is first for a reason—humans are very adept communicators, even when we don’t speak the same language. It just takes the confidence to put yourself out there, and your actual knowledge improves as a natural consequence.

Immersing yourself in foreign language environment brings you both these benefits: confidence and the fast track to learning.

Many language students feel embarrassed to speak out of a fear of making mistakes. But, like anything else, mistakes are always part of the learning process. If you wait until you’re a perfect speaker before you ever speak, then you’ll never speak. That’s why just about anybody who’s achieved fluency in a foreign language has experienced a time when they were blundering—those are the times when we really learn. There’s a good chance that, without those, they wouldn’t be fluent.

So, get started or brush up with a good Spanish class taught by a native speaker, and then…the best thing you can do to achieve fluency? Throw yourself in.