Learning Spanish Without a Textbook in Cuernavaca, Mexico

As a first-year Spanish student on my way to Cuernavaca for a trimester, I remember first stepping foot in the airport of Mexico City. I wanted to ask where the bathroom was and with much insecurity of it being grammatically incorrect, I asked “Donde estas el baño?” (which translates to “Where are you, bathroom?”) I remember how it felt like reading a script out loud from a textbook and how foreign it felt to my tongue.

My trimester abroad trip took me from a Spanish 1 class and immersed me into a new language and life with a host family that spoke no English. I was pushed into the discomfort of not being able to ask what I needed immediately and had to be creative with my words. I once called toothpaste “jabon por dientes” which is “soap for teeth” and it felt like I had to improvise poetry on the spot due to my limited vocabulary. It was a weird feeling to not have any sentiment towards my words because they felt too distant and unattached to the language I was used to. By the end, I was intuitively using expressions and holding up conversations like I wasn’t speaking from a textbook. Throughout my trimester abroad, I learned so much about the importance of words and how integrated they are to our minds and lives and realized how often we are not deliberate with the words we use.

In a sense, I think this is really what Putney means by experiential education. Learning most of my Spanish in Mexico, I never had to use flashcards or memorize grammar rules. Instead, going to the cafe with my friends or buying a meal from a restaurant were ways of doing homework. In doing so, using Spanish phrases and expressions felt a lot more personal and less like it was coming from a textbook.