Learn the language

As the fire crackles and the classical waves of Wolfgang float past us, we both, as if on cue, take another sip of the steaming drinks we hold in our hands. Our drink of choice is zucumbe—a local brew composed of hot milk mixed with cinnamon, frothed egg white, and Brandy. This moment is perfect for the kind of honest conversation we humans so strive for.

And so we talk.

But no words emerge—only silence. Awkward, eerie silence. The kind of silence that makes you squirm in your chair, wishing so badly that you could say the right thing.

This man, this doctor, appears to be a superbly interesting person. He’s dressed casually, yet smart, and wears those half-rimmed glasses that inspire feelings of trust and good humor.

There’s a problem, though, and it’s simple: He doesn’t speak English, and I don’t speak Spanish. And as such, we will not be learning about each other. At least not today. We must resort to enjoying the moments of silence that will follow.

The man’s daughter finally walks into the glowing family room and begins translating for us. I learn that he is interested in my studies, my work, and my travel plans. He discovers I’m eager to hear about how he achieved his dream of becoming a doctor. Conversation like that requires a deep understanding of a shared language. And that’s something we, unfortunately, do not have.

So we make a pact, her father and me. When I return to La Paz, we will mix another batch of zucumbe, build a roaring fire, and ignite the stereo with classical music once again. This man will learn English and I will learn Spanish. And we will sit, talk, learn, and enjoy life.

People will tell you that the best way to learn a language is to move to a place where they speak said language, but those people would be wrong. Living amongst a language’s native speakers is a great way to perfect a language—not to learn it. What will happen is you’ll learn the language by the day you leave because you’ll be too busy exploring and meeting new people to study for several hours each day.

My single regret during these adventures is that I never learned Spanish before diving into a culture defined by it.

Learn the language. Before you travel.