Facing Your Fears: Learning a Language

by Amy Azzarito

I remember the exact moment when I realized that I was lying to myself about facing my fears. I was in the car, with my friends Lacey and Gina and was congratulating myself for how brave I had become in my thirties. I had, after all, learned how to long board – even falling face down on Bedford Avenue, I had gone surfing (aka practiced falling off a flotation device) in the Rockaways, and I had just taken up aerial silks. BOOM. I was fearless. At the exact moment that I was congratulating myself most heartily, I realized there was this one nagging thing that I was still afraid of: attempting to speak a foreign language.

In my defense, this was a well-founded fear. I grew up in a small town where there were two language options, Spanish and French, and only two years offered in schooling for either language. (Two years of a foreign language in high school does not a fluent speaker make). I took French,  studied hard and aced the course. I thought about continuing French in college, but then a scholarship opportunity fell through and I ended up at a college with no foreign language classes (welcome to America). I went to France shortly after college and tried to practice my limited high school French but was met with blank withering stares that were enough to convince me not to open my mouth again. When I moved to New York, I decided to hang up the French hat and give Italian a go. In the second meeting of the class, we went around the room reading aloud.  When it was my turn, I read the sentence and the teacher said, “Repeat.” So I read it again, and he said, “Repeat.” And again. I felt like I read the same sentence 100 times. And in my embarrassment at my poor Italian skills, my eyes began to water, and tears began blur the words. I finally just waved for him to go on to the next person. After class the teacher apologized, and I said brightly, “Oh it’s no problem. I’m fine.” But I never went back. And so I decided that the language ship had sailed for me. –Amy

(pssst: Don’t miss Max’s post on getting his learner’s permit! Go Max!)

See more of my language  journey after the jump!

But then life threw me a curve ball. I started dating someone whose first language wasn’t English. And while he spoke English perfectly with me, he spoke Spanish on the phone, with his mom, on Facebook and with his friends. And perhaps my self lesson here is that I’m more nosy than I am afraid. So I made the decision that I was going to give this learning-a-language thing another go. I signed up for a class at Fluent City and committed to working everyday on my own.

What was different? This time, I never promised myself that would speak Spanish. I just promised myself that I would practice every day. It was a similar philosophy that I’ve applied to other things. I wasn’t trying to be a professional surfer when I gave surfing a shot and I certainly wasn’t planning to win any long board competitions. So I just told myself that I would study every day and see what happened.  Six months later, I’ve logged nearly 300 hours of Spanish practice. I get up early and I spent two hours each morning studying. I haven’t skipped a single day since I made that commitment to myself, I studied on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year. I’ve made mistakes every single one of those days. It’s not easy, and I still wouldn’t even say that I speak Spanish. It’s a little corny to say but I feel like the path for my Spanish work had been set in a lot of ways by my yoga practice. For me yoga has never been about how flexible you are, or whether you can stand on your hands. It’s about showing up. In a way, almost anything that’s worth doing is just about showing up. Not worrying about the big goal but taking baby steps, every single day and trusting that you’ll get there. I get frequently discouraged – particularly when I lose focus from the little steps that I need to take and look up at the mountain ahead of me. But then I rally again, and remind myself that I just need to concentrate on my two hours for the day and those two hours will turn into hundreds and soon – who knows?


So what have I been doing? I started off with a course at Fluent City. I’m a school person and I like being in a classroom but for me, the classroom was just where I got to practice with other people who were also learning. The majority of my time was spent in self study. If you’re near a Fluent City, I can highly recommend it for a laid back language attitude.

Audio Courses
Synergy Spanish – This is a great beginning resource taught by an American who married a Mexican woman. It’s great because it gets you speaking in sentences right away rather than worrying about conjugations. It’s one of the best resources out there and was the first thing I started with.

Language Transfer – Another audio language course (For Spanish, there are both a beginning and an advanced). Seriously fantastic. Oh and it’s free!

Listening Practice
Destinos – A telenovela for language learners. There’s 52 episodes in this series that follows LA lawyer Raquel Rodríguez around the Spanish-speaking world as she solves a family mystery. Each episode gets progressively more difficult.

Extr@ en español – another video series for language learners. This one takes its cue from Friends.

Notes in Spanish – a 10-minute podcast with Marina, a Madrileña, and her British husband Ben. The couple live in Madrid and each episode is just a conversation between the two of them. It’s great listening practice.

Speaking Practice
italki – By far, the thing that has helped me the most in my language learning effort. I’m usually the tutor function of italki so I meet with someone a couple times a week and we practice speaking. You can also find a partner for a language exchange or practice writing and get corrections from native speakers. For me, this has forced me to open my mouth, and I’m growing more and more comfortable with speaking. I find it amazing that you can connect with people anywhere in the world and learn a language – any language! My high school self would have loved this!

Anki – a online flashcard system that utlizes spaced time repetition.

How to Learn Any Language – I found a great support team over at this forum. Not only is it filled with tips and tricks for learning a language but I get so much support from the people who’ve already done what I’m trying to do. Having a mentor is always a good thing and I have lots of them here.

Suggested For You


  • How wonderful!!! I have been seriously thinking that I need to start learning Spanish since my husband and I may be moving into an area of Salt Lake City that has heavy Hispanic influences. I would love to be able to talk to my neighbors!

  • ¡Felicidades! Aprender español no es nada fácil, ¡sobretodo para los angloparlantes! Te felicito por tu entusiasmo y perseverancia, yo entiendo de eso, porque puedo hablar inglés súper bien y ahora estoy aprendiendo alemán. ¡La práctica hace al maestro!
    Ojalá entiendas todo lo que dije, muchos besos y saludos
    Sofía de Argentina :)

  • Learning a different language is a great fear I’ve ever faced. Since 2011 I’ve been practising to learn Korean. It’s indeed a tough language to learn and so far I’ve not full command over fluent Korean language speaking. Thanks for the nice words, these are inspiring.

  • As I speak four languages (and I’m trying to learn my fifth one) I totally understand what it means being ‘beginners’ but practice makes you perfect right? ;) So keep going, I’m with you!

  • ¡Excelente!

    Te voy a hablar en español porque espero que hayas aprendido lo suficiente para ponerlo en práctica :)
    Me encanta tu impulso para aprender y determinarte a estudiar dos horas todos los días, es un gran compromiso que no todos tenemos el valor de tomar.
    Sin embargo, tu experiencia me hizo tomar el coraje para decidir de una vez por todas, aprender italiano. Siempre he querido aprender a hablar italiano porque parte de mi familia es italiana, pero nunca he puesto de mi parte para hacerlo.
    Ahora sí lo haré.


Leave a Reply

Design*Sponge reserves the right to restrict comments that do not contribute constructively to the conversation at hand, contain profanity, personal attacks, hate speech or seek to promote a personal or unrelated business. Our goal is to create a safe space where everyone (commenters, subjects of posts and moderators) feels comfortable to speak. Please treat others the way you would like to be treated and be willing to take responsibility for the impact your words may have on others. Disagreement, differences of opinion and heated discussion are welcome, but comments that do not seek to have a mature and constructive dialogue will not be published. We moderate all comments with great care and do not delete any lightly. Please note that our team (writers, moderators and guests) deserve the same right to speak and respond as you do, and your comments may be responded to or disagreed with. These guidelines help us maintain a safe space and work toward our goal of connecting with and learning from each other.