One thing I love about where I work is that we have a vegetable garden. There are basil plants, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, and a few other things. I think it is a great example of our company’s vibe and part of what makes it a great place to work. It has also given me one of many opportunities to learn Spanish vocabulary words in context, although you might not expect a company garden to be a hotbed of language learning.
I was recently walking by the garden, and a coworker – who is a native Spanish speaker and knows that I speak Spanish – was admiring some of what was growing. He motioned to me as I approached and said something in Spanish that I didn’t understand right away so he repeated himself. I still wasn’t getting it, so he gestured with his hands and (for some reason) I interpreted it as him holding out his hand like he was talking about something he could hold. He was saying “sandía” and hearing that, combined with the hand gesture that I took to mean something small, my mind went to Sandies, the little pecan shortbread cookies that my grandmother used to buy. So, I said, “Cookies?” I knew that didn’t make sense based on our context, but it was all I could think of.
He finally said “watermelon;” he had been trying to show me how big the watermelons in the garden had grown. I’ve definitely learned the word “sandía” before, but hadn’t really acquired it because I don’t often have to talk about watermelons in Spanish. Although I initially misunderstood the word in the recent situation, I will remember it much better now because I had an organic (no pun intended) encounter with it that is connected to a specific person, place, and a random, delicious cookie.
Though the actual meanings are unrelated (small, round, tan, flaky, sweet treat vs large, green and red, moist fruit), you have to admit the words are very similar: sandía, Sandies. Making any association between an unfamiliar word and something familiar will help it grow roots in your brain (pun intended) and really get settled in as knowledge instead of just passing surface information. It also helps that it is a positive association (Sandies are delicious), because any time you connect language with something you enjoy (like a sport or hobby), your mind is more likely to latch onto it.
There are a lot of factors that go into learning a new language – some you can control, some you can’t. You can control when you spend intentional, extended, continuous time immersed in Spanish, how often you practice conjugating verbs, getting yourself into a learning routine, how many vocabulary words you go over, etc. You can’t control when natural language situations – like my coworker inviting me to admire las sandías – occur, but I’m pretty confident that the more you do the things that you can do, the more you’ll find those situations will pop up for you to take advantage of.