Thursday, May 2, 2019

A Bout of B - O - R - E - D - O - M

Many have asked: So, how was your Spanish study in Guatemala?

Here is the short answer: While I bettered my Spanish a bit, I bettered my understanding of myself a whole bunch of bits.

Before providing the long answer, I would first like for you to envision a spectrum. At one of end of the spectrum is flow. Flow exists when one is completely absorbed in what they are doing. Indications of flow include a deep sense of concentration, total immersion in an experience, and loss of the sense of time.

What it Feels Like to Be in Flow.
Adaptation from the "Flow" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 
Pinterest Pin by Alexius Chua 

Flow is where people are the happiest. Popularized by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow exists when the level of skill matches the level of challenge in which that skill is utilized. As the time in flow lengthens, skill typically increases and challenge typically decreases. When this happens, we either push ourselves to stretch our skills or develop new challenges for using these skills. Being in the state of flow thus often leads to growth and discovery -- both cyclically fulfilling developments.

At the other end of the spectrum is boredom. Boredom exists when one lacks interest in what they are doing. Symptoms of boredom include feelings of emptiness, frustration, and a constantly wandering mind. Boredom exists when the level of skill exceeds the level of challenge. Boredom also exists when subjected to unenjoyable activities.

I experienced boredom quite a bit in my previous life. I was bored at school. I was bored at work. I was even bored in relationships. I developed coping skills that numbed me to my boredom. But that all changed six years ago when I quit my job and entered my early retirement life. Free of the restrictions of have-to-dos and full of agency over how I spent my days, I no longer found myself bored. In my new life, I self-regulated how I spent my time. I explored my curiosities and engaged in a variety of activities that keep things spicy. I was in a constant state of flow; I had virtually eliminated boredom from my vocabulary.

Now that you understand the Flow --> Boredom spectrum and appreciate my recent long-term-ish presence in flow, you're ready for the long answer about my Spanish studies in Guatemala. Here we go:

I was flat-out bored with my Spanish studies in Guatemala. Oy vey, the boredom nearly knocked me off my feet! (Please understand that my boredom was by no means a dis to the language school or to my teachers. Rather, it was due to my own individual peculiarities.)

It's no secret I'm an introvert; I've mentioned it many times before. In contemplating my boredom with my language studies, I've come to realize that much of my boredom was intricately related to my introversion.

Our skills tend to be the strongest when we either have a natural inclination towards them or have plenty of opportunity (and desire) to master them through practice. Introverts often like to engage in solo activities, such as reading and writing. They typically aren't as fond of engaging in conversations. If they do, they typically listen; rarely do they talk up a storm. It should thus come as no surprise that my strongest language skills are reading, writing, and listening. In Spanish, my skills in these areas exist at an upper-intermediate to lower-advanced level. My Spanish speaking skills are the weakest, at a mere intermediate level.

If one were to compare my reading and speaking skills in Spanish, one likely wouldn't even think I'm the same person. (How do you say "bumbling idiot" in Spanish?) Suffice it to say that I typically don't enjoy speaking -- Spanish or English. If one doesn't enjoy something, one likely isn't going to experience a state of flow.

Introverts also tend to want to process every bit of data. For me, I don't just hear what is being said at the surface level; I'm also listening to what I hear. I'm analyzing what I hear inside'n'out and comparing it to things I've heard and experiences I've had in the past. As I'm relying on my long-term memory, retrieving info takes a bit longer for me. With reading and writing, I can afford the extra moments to access my long-term memory. But with listening and speaking, the lag in accessing long-term memory is particularly noticeable. This makes speaking, in particular, frustrating for me -- in both Spanish and English. Again, if one doesn't enjoy something, one likely isn't going to experience a state of flow.

Another characteristic of introverts is that we don't enjoy small talk -- it certainly is the bane of my existence. When learning a language, vocabulary is limited. This limited vocabulary tends to lend itself to small talk; it's difficult to engage in deep, meaningful conversation with a dull palette of vocabulary. To be truly engaged in conversation, I need depth over breadth. I need a full, colorful palette of vocabulary in order to enjoy conversation. If one doesn't enjoy something, one likely isn't going to experience a state of flow.

Finally, along the lines of small talk, introverts typically need to talk about things that interest them. Filling time with conversation solely for the sake of filling time -- or even worse, filling silence -- is dreadfully painful. That's a surefire way to drain an introvert's batteries. While in Guatemala, I was taking twenty-five hours of one-on-one Spanish classes a week. That's five hours of Spanish a day. Talking with anyone for five hours a day, day-after-day, is laborious -- even in my own language. And with a relatively dismal palette of vocabulary and covering numerous topics that were of little interest -- food, dance, and the like -- my me-batteries were quickly depleted. If one doesn't enjoy something... well, you know how it goes.

Upon realizing I was frustrated by boredom rather than simply the challenge of learning a new language, I decided I needed to wrangle this language learning experience by the horns before I got entirely turned off by Spanish.

I knew the following did not work for me:
  • learning via rote
  • practicing language skills with topics that don't interest me
  • taking five hours of one-on-one classes each day

On the other hand, I knew the following did work for me:
  • engaging in creative ways to learn (for example, the El Calcetín Rojo assignment) 
  • learning Spanish in the context of topics that interest me
  • limiting my one-on-one conversations to smaller, non-battery-expiring timeframes

In total, I took six weeks of one-on-one Spanish classes (150 hours). But, I also took three weeks off. During the time off from classes, I practiced grammar in small bites, watched movies and read books that interested me, and attended lectures in the community that were conducted entirely in Spanish. While the one-on-one classes were helpful, I felt as though I benefited the most -- both language-wise and flow-wise -- from my self-learning.

I've certainly grown in my Spanish language abilities. This was quite evident in the first few weeks when I, ironically, struggled with the English language. Apparently it's a good sign when you struggle with your native language -- it's a common phenomenon in which the brain tries to avoid the activation of the native equivalent and in doing so, the brain avoids the word entirely. For this reason, I know that my one-on-one Spanish classes were valuable, despite the boredom.

Though I arrived in Guatemala with an (unrealistic) expectation of becoming entirely fluent during my three-month stay, I'm satisfied with what I've learned. I know enough to get by...and more. At this point in time, I have no interest in making a further investment to improve my fluency. I'm grateful I entertained my curiosity to travel to Guatemala to better my Spanish; had I not, I would have always wondered.

Though I've improved my Spanish a bit, I've improved my self-knowledge a whole bunch. From my experience, I've learned that language acquisition doesn't put me in flow the way other activities do. I've discovered ways to adjust my learning style to better accommodate my introverted nature. Most importantly, I've been reminded that I appreciate being in the state of flow as much as possible. Flow makes me happy; boredom does not.


  1. You are my sister from another mister! Nothing is worse than small talk... Nowadays I talk ALL day long in the new job, afterwards I need bike or beach and no one around! You couldn’t even go to the countryside to decompress.

    By the way, I almost failed Spanish in college. Only reason I passed was that I never missed a class, and Kiko my prof understood it was not my forte. That, and the fact he was failing French and felt my struggles

    1. Ha, you're a hoot! Sounds as though we are definitely brotha'n'sista -- language ain't our forte, nor is small talk.


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