Learning how to learn

I moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina almost two months ago.

I don’t know Spanish, so learning it has been a goal of mine, despite being able to get along here with a remarkably small amount of it at your disposal. I’m passionate about the written and spoken word, so it’s been a fascinating and gratifying adventure.

The adventure hasn’t unfolded in the way that I expected, though. Instead of just learning Spanish, I’ve been learning about accents, dialects, the peculiarities of the language, and the language (vocabulary, for example) itself.

It’s natural to want to learn how you say certain phrases in Spanish and think that you can call it a day, but I’m seeing that this will lead to a very poor mastery of the language.

Put another way, I’m not able to “trade” my English words and phrases for Spanish ones.

After so many of my questions were met with, “it doesn’t work like that in Spanish” (paraphrased), I started thinking more deeply about what I was missing. I also started to “relax” and get a feel for the texture and idiosyncrasies.

With enough of the right practice and simply noticing things, I’m able to teach myself a bit of Spanish along the way because of the mental framework that I’m developing. I’m now able to — very quickly — determine that someone didn’t learn Spanish in Argentina by how they say certain words.

It’s similar to how you’d pick up on a midwest accent or if someone is a non-native English speaker.

The whole experience is pushing me to reconsider how I approach the unknown, and how my existing mental models can both help and hinder the gaining of new knowledge.

As with many things of this sort, there’s no cute bullet list (despite my love for them) that I can pass along to help, you just have to [::motions with hands::] feel your way through it and learn from your mistakes.

That’s my approach, anyway.


Willie Jackson is a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Consultant & Facilitator with ReadySet, a boutique consulting firm based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a frequent writer and speaker on the topics of workplace equity, global diversity, and inclusive leadership. Connect on LinkedIn or get in touch.