How did I learn English? Did I?

When someone asks me how I can read articles and listen to seminars in English without a translator’s help, I always tell them this story: my mom worked as an international phone operator at the Peruvian Telephone Company—currently Telefonica.

At that time, operators had to connect callers from one country to another by talking to other operators at the other end, which sometimes would occur in a language different from Spanish.

Sometimes, she talked to my older brother and me in English at home. For example, when she wanted us to stay put, she would say, “be quiet, please.” We used to listen to her carefully, and that is how we started picking up some of the language.

Thanks to that, I was good at English in school when I was a kid. Everyone wanted to do the “foreign language” homework with me because it was a guaranteed A.

But, like anyone in Peru knows, learning another language in school is insanely lame. So, I began learning by myself. I read comics and video games magazines in English and used a bilingual dictionary to translate what I didn’t understand.

As I got older, I went to English classes but never achieved a full command of it. Even so, I thought it was enough to be able to read and listen in that language. This served me through most of my professional life in Peru.

Later, I traveled overseas, and for the first time I had to use English as my only communication tool. I noticed I could easily talk to everyone when I needed to, for example, if I had to call a cab, order food or ask for directions. So again, I told myself, “I got this.”

But then, I was faced with my first job interview in English, and I realized I wasn’t proficient enough to explain more complex ideas. Because one thing is to speak a different language as a tourist and another as a professional.

So, I started to look for a teacher. I found a really good one, Karina Montoya, and after a few sessions, she told me I need to exercise my writing muscle. “Because writing and speaking also go hand in hand. You have to start writing too,” she said.

That’s why I’m writing this post in English: to exercise this long-abandoned muscle.

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