The Perpetual Learner: The World is your Classroom

She clasped the outline of her ribs and fell to the ground with such uncontrollable laughter that any passerby would have been forgiven for thinking one of her organs was trying to escape from her body. I was just as confused as to what triggered the outburst.

“What did I say?” I asked as I waited what seemed like an eternity for her to regain her composure enough to not sound like a cold, sputtering engine.

“Estoy caliente,” she started, “doesn’t mean what you think it does!” My face invented new shades of red as I anticipated the rest of the story. “You just told me that you are super horny!”

And with that, the most impactful language lesson I’ve ever had in my life commenced and finished faster than any occurence of actually being horny would have. That evening, on a dark Costa Rican side street in 2010, is a moment I’ll never forget, and one that is important on many levels.

“She” in this story is Pamela, a dear friend for a wide variety of reasons, not the least of which is her being the sole reason I’m a fluent Spanish speaker today. She forced me to push myself.

I have never taken a Spanish class in my lifetime. “How did you learn?” is a question I get a lot. This skirts the obvious: the classroom is not necessary for learning. That is, not the traditional classroom.

What about thirty-year-old wooden desks, four plastered walls, and a whiteboard is intrinsically conducive to learning? The instructor is there, sure, but are there not experts available to you outside the confinements of the classroom?

What if you were your own expert?

The most important step in acquiring something new? One must learn to learn. The world, I propose somewhat sheepishly, is the most robust, interactive classroom that exists. Learning opportunities surround us at every turn.

Are you present enough to absorb them?

Fast forward to 2018, and Pamela is inspiring me once again. This time, though, she doesn’t know it. The first-language interference error I made in 2010 will stay with me for the rest of my life. Not simply because it was funny (and trust me, it was hysterical), but because I learned that our language ability is developed through our mistakes.

I’ve never made that mistake again. Nor have I made the mistake of being afraid of making mistakes.

This year, I find myself in the traditional Spanish language classroom for the first time. Not because I’ve reverted back to unknowingly making perverted remarks – I humbly submit that my Spanish is fairly solid – but because I’m not satisfied with the learning I’ve done lately.

Becoming satisfied with where you are is the kiss of death of any learner.

Life, complacency, and language are fickle beasts; they blend together like neapolitan ice cream: it’s easy to see all three flavours in the bowl, but as you consume them, they’re difficult to separate. Pushing ourselves forward and challenging our egos to constantly take a reflective step back helps to avoid the mundane.

Never stop learning. Take chances. Make mistakes. Learn how you learn. And then do it again. Life is the best classroom out there. All you have to do is realize it.

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6 thoughts on “The Perpetual Learner: The World is your Classroom

  • Pamela

    My dear Woody, thanks for being a such a great inspiration to me as well! thanks for sharing this, it brought me a tons of beautiful memories! Love ya!

    • Andrew

      Thanks to you, Pame! It was beautiful to write and remember all of these – and, of course more. I’ll never forget that story, haha. Merry Christmas y pura vida!

  • Marco

    Hi there!
    Thanks for sharing this story! Brazilian here, Portuguese as mother tongue, English learned from the world – apparently as you did. Allow me to quickly share another one that yours made me think of.

    Christmas time, 2010-ish, I was part of a team from which all but me and a guy from Panama, were from the States. A co-worker and I were chatting about what we’ve done on the weekend before and for me, most of my Sunday was spent on Christmas decorations, particularly putting up the Christmas tree. But in Portuguese, there’s a word for ‘putting up’ something, which is ‘montar’. I don’t recall if I didn’t knew that at the time, or if I knew it and it slipped me, but it seems to be one of the ways our brains work: when in doubt, take the word from Portuguese and add ‘-ing’ or ‘-tion’ to its root, and sometimes you’ll get it right… So I told her that I spent my Sunday ‘mounting’ the Christmas tree 🙂

    After the 2-3 minutes of laughter she explained how to properly put something up and hopefully not having to mount anything to set it up. I carry this story – along with so many others! – dearly, because as you mentioned, you will never make that mistake again. There are so many new mistakes to be made!

    Once again, thanks for the nice story and congrats on the blog.


    • Andrew

      Hey Marco,
      Thanks so much for reading and for sharing that story. It’s a great one! Mistakes are great, aren’t they? The only way to learn. Especially when we have great friends to help us and point us in the right direction. Those of us who learn, like you, have something in common: they take risks. They don’t worry about making mistakes; they know they will, and work to make better mistakes the next time.

      False friends is a big part of learning language: as you show us, sometimes we get it right by accident, and sometimes we make a hilarious slip.

      Here’s hoping you continue to make great mistakes! I sure do.

      We’ve been slacking on the blog, but will be posting much more shortly. We hope you check those out as well.

      Merry Christmas from LYE!

  • Francini Padilla

    I love this post! Not only because it refers to my mother land Costa Rica but also because being in the path of learning a third language, doesn’t make more sense than ‘Never stop learning. Take chances. Make mistakes’. Thank you for reminding us all of these basic but ego-free keys to the incredible.

    • Andrew

      Thanks for reading, Francini! Learning should be an ongoing process – we all should remember that and dedicate more time to improving and exposing ourselves to new things. What third language are you learning? How’s it going?

      Ego-free keys are essential, but difficult. Stay tuned for a post coming along those lines.

      Felices fiestas!