SUSAN NEULIST WARREN HARDY SPANISH STUDENT OF THE YEAR – 2012
“Most people dream of being able to speak Spanish but never get beyond the dream. There are a few who do the work and learn to get by pretty well, and then there is Susan Neulist. When I sat down to interview her for Student of the Year, we were spontaneously joined at our table by a woman from Mexico. For a few minutes we enjoyed cordial conversation. I didn’t realize that Susan was even speaking Spanish until several minutes into our conversation. She was very engaged with our Mexican friend and for a few minutes I got to watch one of my level 1 students speak Spanish comfortably and almost flawlessly. My thought was, “Yes, this woman definitely deserves to be “The Warren Hardy Student of the Year.” So here she is, friends. Susan Neulist has walked the walk and accomplished the dream. Please, be inspired by the story of how a 65 year young woman went from no Spanish to very fluid Spanish in just two years.” Warren Hardy
1.Tell me a little about your personal history.
I am an artist and office administrator who with my husband fell in love with San Miguel in 2000. We returned many times, first two weeks, then three, then a few one and two month visits until our retirement. I didn’t speak a word of Spanish until I was 63 years of age. Two years ago I decided to dedicate myself to Spanish.
2. Tell me about your language journey.
I started at Warren Hardy (www.warrenhardy.com) because I felt that his program would give me a good start. I stayed because I was empowered with the small successes at each Level. I will admit that there were times when I was very frustrated and thought that I would never be able to remember irregular verbs or even use them. The teachers are awesome and always patient and I enjoyed the partner concept as it worked well for me. Having assigned homework helped me and taking the necessary time between classes to do my homework helped to reinforce the classes.
I did repeat one or two of the classes when I felt it necessary. I was motivated because I wanted to devote 2 years of time to the process and see if I could do the four Levels as well as an immersion during this time. I took Levels 1-4 as well as The Soap Opera of Carolina, Storytelling and Intermediate Conversation.
3. Where else did you study?
After I finished the 4 levels at WHS we began our immersion programs. Our first visit was to Cuenca, Ecuador in early 2011 and then followed that with 4 months in South America at the end of 2011 (2 months back in Ecuador and then 2 months in Peru).
We chose these countries because we wanted to visit them, heard about Spanish schools there and also heard that the Spanish was similar in sound to that in Mexico. We had heard about Cuenca from several friends in SMA who had been there so that was our first stop. We went to a Spanish school 4 hours/day (www.amauta.edu.ec) and lived with two separate families so that I would have to use my Spanish to communicate. It worked out well (though a bit odd for us). We were able to meet every morning as our houses were near to each other and we walked to and from school together. We even had a few “sleep over weekends” at my house! It was a fantastic experience and we recommend this beautiful colonial city to all.
In Sept. 2011 we returned to Cuenca, again to Amauta and both lived with my original host family. While in Ecuador we were able to travel around and learn so much of the history and the people, and of course, continue our Spanish communications.
We were really happy with our choice of Ecuador as the first stop, and of Cuenca as a great place to settle into. The people are very friendly and the food is great (and extremely reasonable at $2.50 for an almuerzo - complete midday meal). As vegetarians we found loads of delicious meals with many that we had not tried before. The city is so green with one main and 3 other rivers running through town. The fact that we were so close to a big national park (Parque National Cajas) was great for weekend outings and hiking. We were pleased with the choice of a school as the one-on-one teaching was excellent for our level as well as other levels and their weekly activities were also good. There are many museums and cultural activities in Cuenca as well. We also visited Vilcambamba, Alausi, Banos, Quito, Mindo and Otavalo. Each part of Ecuador offers different visual and cultural experiences. We plan to return to Ecuador as we miss our friends and the culture. We felt very safe there.
In November 2011 we headed (via several places along the way) to Cusco, Peru and once again attended language school (http://www.centrotinku.com/). Though we were only going to spend one month, we ended up spending two months in a small apartment and meeting many wonderful people – both travelers from other countries as well as local Peruvians. We loved the Sacred Valley and the history and of course, the people of Peru.
4. Why was total immersion important?
I love San Miguel but it is very hard to stay in Spanish all the time. We have so many great expat friends and we always revert to English. I think that it is really important to be with people who don’t speak English and be forced to speak Spanish.
5 .What suggestions would you give to someone learning Spanish?
First of all I would say to “jump in” and try! That will build the confidence to go on. Secondly I would say to “talk” once you have enough grammar to begin talking. I think that we all try too hard to be perfect in our speech and waiting until our Spanish is perfect could be a long wait. The best advice I can give is just to speak and not worry all the time about mistakes.
6. What are the rewards?
The big reward for me is the ability to really feel a part of a Latin American experience by making friends in Mexico, Ecuador and Peru. One of the highlights of traveling in Spanish speaking countries is being able to share the culture with the people. The fact that I can communicate with people wherever I go makes the travel even better. It is a real sense of freedom.
Another reward is the confidence and empowerment of getting older and knowing that I can challenge myself and accomplish new things. Right now we have a new challenge! We are going to walk the Camino de Santiago (500 miles) in Northern Spain in May and June of this year (2012). This is both a physical and mental challenge. Being in Spain will give us more chances to continue our path of improving our Spanish.
7. Describe your journey.
The journey was a challenge. I am a focused person and once I decided to dedicate some time to the process, then things began to come together for me. I won’t say it was easy, and I still feel that I am on the road to improving my Spanish, but I would like to tell everyone that it IS possible and that if I can learn a language in my mid 60’s then anyone else can do it as well. Just put one foot in front of the other, or maybe one word behind the next and it will happen. Don’t give up, especially if you have already begun. If you have not begun your study of language….there is no time like the present!
I would be happy to talk with anyone who wants to travel to any of these wonderful countries as well as to enthusiastically support anyone who is traveling the language path.