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I was a 16-year-old Spaniard and I really wanted to travel the world and speak, at least, a couple of foreign languages. I honestly had no idea of how I would do it, when or with whom. I had to convince myself that I would find a way. The feeling of getting to know new languages, environments and people was tremendously appealing to me. In short, I just knew the WHAT and nothing else. Later on, I would find out that it was the most important element to have…

For some reason I couldn´t explain, I felt more attracted to intangible things: a good education, knowledge, wisdom, family, friendship, love… I guess that intrinsically or intuitively I already had a sense of what things would be more important (to me). I even tried to understand WHY, but there was no one around me, no one I knew, who had experienced life abroad and who was capable of speaking, at least, a foreign language fluently, besides my language teachers.  And at the time I was very shy and didn’t even dare to ask or enquire more about the topic because then it was just a ´crazy` idea couldn’t afford.

After defining my WHAT, it was time for me to find out HOW I could learn my first foreign language for real. And I mean for real because I didn´t want to learn a foreign language, I really desired to acquire a second language[1].

I didn´t know at the time anyone who had done it. In my mind already going abroad was expensive. Needless to say, that staying abroad was unaffordable. So, I don´t know if it was, God, the Universe, Life or the Law of attraction that made the following happened.

One day I was in my English as a foreign language class at high school and our teacher quickly mentioned that students who met certain requirements (low income among others) could apply for scholarships to go to England, the English-speaking country that is the closest to Spain.

Coincidentally (or not), our French teacher made exactly the same announcement in our French class. So, I took it as a sign and applied for both.

A few months later the responses arrived in the regular mail –Yes, there was no e-mail in the 90s yet ☹– and I excitedly open the letter sent from the Spanish Department of Education. Unfortunately, my application to the UK had been denied so I was very sad and disappointed.

A couple of days later another letter from the Spanish Department of Education came in. Luckily, this time my grant application for France had been accepted.

It´s difficult to express in words how I felt at that moment, but graphically I felt as important and special then as Harry Potter did when he received his first letter from Hogwarts.

In July 1995, I boarded a bus that took thirty something students to France. Many of us had not the means to go on such a trip, as the grant was given based both in academic achievement and economic criteria. Therefore, for many of us, it was the first time we were leaving Spain and we felt very fortunate to be sitting on that bus, wondering what adventures would lie ahead of us.

We got to our destination and were received by a cloudy sky and by our anxious host families on a designated place in a small town South of France called Foix. I had no idea of what my family looked like, but they knew because they had a picture of me.

Already at my new French home and after a 10-hour trip I was hungry and I wanted to have dinner. First French lesson: how could I say <I´m hungry> in French? No problem, I just used gestures, an international language for the most basic needs. I just made sure I looked it up in my brand-new French-Spanish pocket dictionary for the following day.

These immersion language lessons would occur every day in different ways. In the morning we would have literature, grammar, phonetics and reading in French. In the afternoon, we would excursions or activities on site. In the evening and weekends, we would spend most of the time with our great host families.

After a month, it was time to return home. I must admit that, if it had been up to me, I would have stayed longer. I was learning so much everyday about France, the French culture, gastronomy, history, values and so on, that 4 weeks didn´t seem long enough. I had never encountered a situation in which the knowledge I had gained in the classroom had an immediate, effective and real application as soon as the class was over.

I´ll finish this post by making explicit what the reader probably knows by now. That experience changed my life FOREVER. And that of my family for that matter. It was so compelling, so powerful so eye-opening, that more than 20 years later I keep searching for opportunities to go abroad and it has inspired me also to start this blog.

If you have a similar experience, please share it with us so that we can become more aware of how, directly or indirectly, learning a foreign or second language can make us happy fellows. You can write to me here.

Morality of the story: when you have a powerful WHAT the HOW will show up sooner or later.

Miguel Marquez


[1] Note: In the field of second language studies, learning a foreign language takes place in an environment in which the language to learned is not spoken, whereas learning a second language means that the language is spoken both in and out of the classroom setting.

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