Learning Spanish in a Peruvian Gym
Before my first pro fight, they did a pre-fight interview with my opponent. I didn’t watch it because it was in Spanish and I had only been in Peru for two months. My teammate, however, told me that my opponent said something along the lines of, “He is learning Spanish, but he will learn about my fists.” While I never really got that chance, I think he brought up an interesting point. I’ve been learning Spanish and boxing for basically the same amount of time and I have noticed some interesting parallels.
Sparring sucks. It is much more fun hitting pads with a coach. Pads don’t hit you back. Pads don’t move when you punch. Pads don’t look you in the eyes. Pads don’t have egos. Learning in a classroom is the same way. You do drills and practices and can always just ask, “How do you say XYZ in Spanish?” But immersion is the only way to really learn. When you’re negotiating with a taxi driver on the streets, you are playing for keeps. There is no helpline. Sometimes it is frustrating and not at all fun, but it’s the best way to learn.
When I started boxing, I learned to keep my elbows in and fists up. I would cover my face and dance evasively, hoping my opponent couldn’t reach me. When he did, I would seal off even more. The thing is, by closing off, your opponent can take his time and find an opening to pick you apart. Also, if you don’t open up and attack, you will never develop an offense. It can be scary because it can leave you open to being hit, but with practice, you become more comfortable in an offensive posture.
I could probably get by only speaking with people who speak English or using hand gestures to communicate, but I am always trying to speak Spanish as much as possible. I probably sound like a complete idiot, but the more I do it, the more feedback I get. I learn and get comfortable talking through the process of trial and error.
When you first learn Spanish, you learn the basic rules of grammar, conjugation, and vocab. I would have to translate every phrase piecewise. Decir in the past tense third person, is dijo. From there, I would add me dijo to say “he/she told me”. And then I would try to apply it to a larger sentence. But as you learn phrases and common sayings, they no longer take the meaning of their underlying words, but become self-contained units. “Pero él me dijo eso!” takes on its own meaning and becomes a single tool in your arsenal. And you can rattle off longer chains of phrases without thinking about each individual word. You find patterns, remember them, and connect them.
When I first learned boxing, I worked on jabs and straights. Maybe an occasional hook. When the instructor would call out a combo of three or four, I would get flustered and confused. After a while, the combos became a single technique themselves. Eventually, I didn’t even think of the individual moves and the combos started to flow.
The reason children learn languages much easier than adults is because they have less to unlearn. The rules of language are more plastic in their minds. In Spanish, the word order in sentences can be different from English. For example you would say, “To me he threw the ball red.” You have to unlearn the habits of English to learn the new language.
I have tons of bad habits in boxing. Some come from wrestling, but most from ignorance. I shuffle my feet too much, I lower my hands during scrambles, I keep my chin up while punching. Sometimes, when you have to correct a technique, it feels awkward and uncomfortable at first. But if you push through the awkwardness, it will help you immensely. Take one step back, two steps forward.
I have a big ego. I hate when people criticize me. I hate being wrong. But sometimes, you have to override this feeling, and then go even further: seek out criticism. I am blessed to have great sparring partners who know a lot more than I do. I love it when they stop and show me what I am doing wrong. In Spanish, I say dumb stuff all the time. Sometimes I get made fun of or corrected and I don’t like it, but I always make a note of it and try not to make the same mistake again. Most of the time people who are criticizing you are just trying to help, so don’t let your ego interfere with the lesson.
I have a friend who speaks a little bit of English. “But I speak better when I’m drunk,” he says. And it’s true. When you forget about the minutia and don’t fuss over every little word, the phrases tend to flow and a second nature takes over. Your own doubts can be your worst enemy, like second guessing on a multiple choice tests when your initial reaction was right.
In sports, thinking can be your worst enemy. My worst wrestling matches were the ones where I was lost in my thoughts. The thing is, thinking takes time, and time is the enemy of flow. If I think, “I am going to fake jab, come in with a straight then hook,” it may take only a fraction of a second, but in that time a lot of things can change. Maybe my opponent’s angle changed a fraction of a degree. Maybe, while I was thinking, I wasn’t moving my feet and left myself open. With practice, you develop a feel and learn to trust in your intuition to guide you through seamlessly.
I am far from fluent in either one of these and I will never be perfect. There are no shortcuts, sometimes it just takes time. I am still learning things about English every day (“Decimate” literally means to kill every tenth person). Realize that it will take time and it is a constant learning process.