Expat Life

An expat teenager discovers the joy of learning new languages and cultures

By Melina Marks

Sometimes, our greatest interests are not discovered until a life-changing event makes us notice them.

chl melina logoSome people are good at math, others are exceptional at science. Some, like me, who aren’t too fantastic at either of these things, have talents in other fields that aren’t so ‘textbook’ oriented.

Before moving to Cuenca, I had no idea that I had a love for learning different languages and cultures. Many people grow up and have all they can handle learning their native language, in their native country. When I was a regular teen, going to a regular high school in Norfolk, Virginia, not even learning my mother’s second tongue (Spanish) was of great importance to me. Now that I have lived in Ecuador for almost two years, my opinion couldn’t be more different.

chl language1
Learning a new language means you make new friends.

My Spanish, since moving here has gotten much better, but my current endeavor is learning German. I completed German I during my junior year of high school, which I am completing online (for details, click here), and plan to take German II and French I during my senior year.

Before coming to Cuenca, English was all I needed to know, and part of me didn’t care that there was a big world out there that I hadn’t seen. The idea of travelling has always interested me, but I did not have the opportunity. But, with great changes in life (like moving to Ecuador), come great changes in perspective. Suddenly, learning the languages of the world and the cultures behind them, is very important to me, and a gift that I can give myself.

When I first moved to Cuenca, I quickly discovered that the Spanish spoken here is different from the “proper” Spanish from Spain. In the States, “proper,” or Castilian, Spanish is what everyone is taught in the classroom setting, so going out with a group of Ecuadorians my age in Cuenca, for the first time, was terrifying.

Everyone spoke faster than I could follow and the amount of slang thrown into the conversation made my head spin. Most of the group could speak English to me, of course, but when the conversation was a group effort, I was lost. As time went on and I learned more Spanish, I was able to understand more of the rapid-fire speech, and even the slang became easier to understand.

Along with the language, I had to learn new cultural and social graces that I previously had no experience with. Among my old friends back in the States, greetings have always been informal, but here (and among other Latin countries and in Europe), it is considered rude to not kiss the cheek of everyone you meet.

As my appreciation for the Spanish language and culture has grown, my interest for other parts of the world has developed as well. I couldn’t have enjoyed my first year of German language and culture more, and I can’t wait to start my last year of high school with two more foreign language classes.

Had my family and I not made the move to Cuenca, my eyes never would have been opened to my new-found love of language. I want to travel and see as much of the world as I can, and I feel that the more I know about each country, and the more I speak of each language, the better the experiences I will have. I do miss my friends back in Norfolk very much, and plan to see them again later this summer. But even though I miss them, I wouldn’t trade the past two years –or the years to come– for anything in the world.

Sometimes, our greatest interests are not discovered until a life-changing event makes us notice them.


  • Judith

    Very wise words Melina! I am so happy you discovered this love. Not only are you enriching yourself with knowledge of different cultures and their languages, but by doing so you will have a greater understanding of the differences people bring to the table when their worlds bring them together. And our world is becoming smaller every day. You will be able to communicate and understand where they are coming from and adjust your words and actions accordingly, unlike some very influential people we all know.
    PS. If you would like to add Dutch to your wishlist, I will be glad to help out. 🙂

  • I enjoy your writing very much. I think you will find that when you meet your old friends back in the US you have in some ways “out grown” them. Your experiences have been much richer than theirs and experiences produce maturity that is very hard to acquire otherwise. (The possible exception to this observation is, of course, that experience obtained by reading) On graduation from US Marine Corps boot camp our drill instructor warned us that when we went home on leave we would have trouble identifying with our old friends. They were wright. I don’t mean to be negative, I’m just pointing out that we are the result of our experiences and yours have probably been much richer than theirs. It would be good to make an allowance for this in your expectations. Perhaps you already understand this, I wouldn’t be surprised if you did. Again I enjoy reading about your experiences. Thanks.

  • Dean Keyes

    Malena, good words of wisdom, you are wise beyond your years. So glad you are a columnist. Looking forward to hearing more from you.