Foreign Language Fails

Lessons from learning español

Shop owner: ¡Hola! ¿Como estas?

Me: Bien, gracias, ¿y usted?

Shop owner: Bien, pero … indecipherably fast Spanish…

My confidence level: Plummets quickly to zero.

Miami shop owner and victim of my poor conversational skills. Photo credit: Joshua Harding

Learning a foreign language is never an easy undertaking, and as an adult, it feels especially daunting. To make matters worse, learning in a classroom often gives you great verb conjugation skills but doesn’t prepare you for easy-going, informal conversations — the conversations we actually like to have with one another.

Connecting with potential customers, shop-owners, and neighborhood locals are the lifeblood of our human-centered research at IDEO. These conversations reveal insights, needs, and desires that fuel and shape our designs.

Over the past year, I’ve frequently found myself learning about the lives of people who prefer to talk to me in Spanish. I was delighted — and terrified — to dust off my high school Spanish in an attempt to forge those connections. Very quickly, the experiences highlighted some major gaps in my knowledge: I can talk about food pretty easily thanks to a combination of handy phrases like ¿Que comida te gusta? and a vocabulary borne of a deep love of food. But if you ask me about what I did last week or my feelings on the presidential race? Ay dios mío.


I’ve since decided to work on my Spanish. I hired a tutor to focus on my conversational skills. I filled my Spotify playlist with latin tracks. I added Spanish podcasts to listen to on my work commute. I was feeling good.

Until Clark Scheffy, one of IDEO’s Managing Directors in San Francisco, shared his experience on a Berlin-based project at a studio lunch. He chatted briefly about his decision to take German lessons for fun (the project is conducted in English), and one thing he said stuck out to me:

“It’s not harder to learn a language as an adult. That’s BS. You just have to be willing to make a fool of yourself and be a kid again.”

The implication: It’s not that we lose our ability to learn languages as adults, it’s that we become too embarrassed to do what it takes to do so.

His comment made me realize something: I hadn’t been conversing with friends and colleagues that speak Spanish. I know how crucial practice is for language acquisition. So why wasn’t I practicing?

In short: I was taking the easy way out. Playing it safe. I was happy to stumble through a chat with a stranger, but failing repeatedly in conversations with people I knew was a lot less appealing. What if I accidentally insulted them, said something truly stupid, or worse? All fears that don’t trouble the young, which was exactly Clark’s point.

So my new goal is to fail en español more often and not just with kind strangers, but with people I know. Playing it safe results in reliable, expected outcomes and that’s not what I’m after — not in Spanish, and not in life.

Estoy aprendiendo. Stay tuned.
(Yes, I had to look up the verb for learn, but I did conjugate it myself.)

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