Learn Spanish by Living 2


“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” 
― Benjamin Franklin

“How do we learn better?”  This question keeps going round in my head over and over since I started teaching.

What is the best way to access knowledge? And, the best way to internalise it?

Different people learn differently, that’s a fact. That’s why the mainstream educational system seems a failure to me and utterly obsolete for the current needs. Spending hours sitting, listening to someone telling us what they think we need to know, asking us to ignore our needs to interact with our friends or our need to stretch our legs, go for a walk, laugh… Demanding from us to ignore our emotions, the problems we have at home or with our friends, if we are tired or very energised and just sit on a chair listening instead, and talking only when asked for the entire length of the school day, feels like a heart breaking system. A system that breaks humans.

Definitely not a breeding ground for learning.

Ironic, huh? 

Anxiety, learning nemesis

And because this system teaches us to ignore our bodies and foster a certain amount of fear – fear of the teacher, fear of the exams, fear of failing…–, we end up being anxious when we have certain subjects, when preparing for our exams… Over time, our brains learn that learning is an anxiety inducing activity.

And therefore we fail to learn deeply. Because anxiety is not a state conducive to learning or concentrating.

Old beliefs – I’m a left-brain person

Many of us carry this anxiety whenever we start learning a new skill. Many of us don’t even start learning a new skill because we were told we were bad at it when we were younger.

“I am bad at languages. I am a left brain person” or “I am bad at languages, I am a right brain person”.  


A left brain person might struggle to find peace with the arbitrary parts of Spanish and maybe to internalise the language, whereas a right brain person might struggle more to find the logic in Spanish and internalise the rules.

The anxiety rises when we even think about learning anything we were told we were bad at. And because we tend to be put in the boxes of “good with numbers and logic, bad with creativity”, or “good with creativity and bad with logic”, we also tend to carry those beliefs forever.

Left over Right. Logic over Emotion. Memorising over Play

Because we believe that logic primes over creativity, we tend to learn a language following the logic and neglecting the creative. And, because a language falls equally into logic and chaos and emotion, we are, quite often, bound to fail to internalise Spanish.

In brief, we fail because anxiety is our learning companion, one that hinders learning more than a chatty classmate next to us would do. And because we don’t consider the fact that creativity and play are key components of the learning process regardless of your predominant brain side.

Multitasking – I’m just being productive

Even if we don’t have any trauma associated with school or a block with any particular skill, as adults, very often, we try to learn in between activities.

We are busy. Therefore we try to memorise our flashcards while we are in the bus on the way to work or pick up the kids. We take our 15 minutes coffee break to cram some grammar rules, or read the news while we have our mind in the next task. We open our language app in our phone whenever we have a minute to spare.

We lead fast speed lives without questioning whether or not this way of living is good for us. Oblivious to the fact that this fast lived life lead to a certain amount of constant anxiety.

Again, anxiety is not allowing us to learn and internalise the language in the way we want. It is as if we are cramming all we need to know before the day of the exam. This tactic has never worked, right? The more we study, the worst the results!

We are very productive, but are we present with the language?

We are committed to learning this new language at all costs, so we do what we must. And this commitment is absolutely fantastic. But my question is, are we fully present while we are learning? Are we enjoying doing this activity? And what is more, are we involved in an activity that relaxes us, gives us pleasure, makes the time fly?

If not, we are not achieving our full learning potential.

Movement, the greatest ally

How do you learn better, sitting at a desk looking at the teacher or the computer screen, or moving, going for a walk, roaming around the park?

Add to that ambling in nature and you have a magic combo. Walking in fresh air reduces anxiety, walking in nature reduces anxiety even more. And what is the arch-enemy of learning? Yes, you know it, stress and anxiety.

You might have experienced how when you are stuck and can’t find an answer or inspiration, you go for a walk and ideas start to flow in the moment you start walking. This happens because walking in the fresh air has an impact on the brain which favours learning.

This body is made for walking. 400.00 years of walking support this statement. We are not made to be sitting. In fact, we spend a lot of energy to keep a sitting posture and we experience body fatigue by being sitting. And this fatigue is also bad for learning. How can you concentrate when your body is begging you to move?!

Besides that, movement gives us a new spatial reference of the surroundings. According to Eric Jensen, author or Brain Based Learning: “The brain forms maps, not only on the basis of the scenery, but also from the body’s relationship to the scenery. More locations provide more unique learning addresses.” This means you will remember better what you learn on the move.

No Emotion, No Learning

Neuroscience tells us that the human brain is composed of multiple structures that have grown together throughout evolution. The limbic system is the one in charge of our survival because it controls functions such as breathing, as well as our “flight or fight” response, along with our emotional response to the world. That is irrational and raw emotion. Whereas the cerebral cortex represents the rational thought and logic.

However, despite seeming opposites, these two parts of our brain work together. We all know how emotions can intensify memories and make them easier to access than memories with no emotional link. But this doesn’t stop here, research tells us that an emotional response is actually essential to learning. The reason behind this is because emotions are key to recognise patterns, which is the way our brain learns.

Furthermore, “without emotion, no learning can take place” states Dr. Antonio Damasio. Because the brain connects ideas and concepts based on how we feel about them. So, without the help of an emotion attached to new information, it will be close to impossible to retrieve that information. 

Also, the chemicals released by your body when you have a positive social bonding – dopamine – and when you have a socially risky activity – noradrenaline – increase energy levels and improve information storage and retrieval, besides making you feel good. This chemicals are released then in activities such as gathering with a group of friends or new friends (positive social bonding) and when you have to communicate in Spanish, perform or do public speaking in Spanish (socially risky activity).

How to apply this to learning Spanish? 3 Tips

  1. Take a moment to breathe and relax before starting any learning activity.
  2. Engage in learning activities while walking: maybe a guided meditation in Spanish or a podcast about a topic that you really enjoy in Spanish.
  3. Do activities that generate a pleasurable emotion in Spanish:

>  Introspective activities (journaling…)
> Creative activities (dancing, singing, writing poetry…)
> Debates in Spanish
> Meetings with friends over a meal to talk in Spanish.
> Performances or Public Speaking in Spanish.

Any activity that makes you feel will bring that emotion that will help you to remembering and internalising Spanish.

You Learn by Living

Eleanor Roosevelt in her book “You Learn By Living”  says: “If you can develop this ability to see what you look at, to understand its meaning, to readjust your knowledge to this new information, you can continue to learn and to grow as long as you live and you’ll have a wonderful time doing it.”  

And my take away here is the mention of having a wonderful time and living as an ineluctable way to learn and grow.

This post was prompted after last week Spanish Immersion retreat “Walking and Talking the Camino” where a group of students and two teachers / guides, María Seco and your humble servant, had an amazing experience walking the Camino de Santiago from Ferrol to Santiago de Compostela (Spain).

The students say that they were “more confident in Spanish” after this 6 day experience. However, we never sat and delivered a regular looking lesson. We walked. We talked. We ate and we laughed. We lived and we learned.

You can participate in the next walk and talk immersion activity in Spain. Check out our Immersion Events.

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2 thoughts on “Learn Spanish by Living

  • Jenny PooltonJenny

    I am always inspired and deeply touched by your writings Maria. You speak from the heart, unlike most people on the planet. It is also refreshing to hear you quote from Eleanor Roosavelt. A few years ago I did some research on her life and I was very impressed.

    We will most definitely be joining up for some of your walks in the future. Currently, we are based in China so it is too difficult at the moment. Until then I continue to feel very uplifted by your writings, so thank you.

    • María Post author

      Thanks Jenny for your kind words. I am glad you enjoy your visits to this page and I hope meeting you some day. Have a lovely week!