I never thought I’d say or think this ever in my life, but talking can be difficult. Communication between two people is the closest thing to a miracle I’ve found, but it’s also the easiest to take for granted.
Two weeks ago, when we were first dropped off in Oviedo, after our respective host families stopped by to pick us up one by one, I experienced the longest afternoon of my life. In Madrid, we had to make at least daily use of our Spanish, but it was tantalizingly easy to fall back on English. Once we were finally cut off from one another in Oviedo, all bets were off.
Remember the first time you went to sleep over at a friend’s house, and you found yourself completely incapable of action because you were being asked to fit into a rhythm with which you were out of sync and the last thing you wanted to do was touch anything? Now try that in a different country, with a language that you thought you had a pretty good grasp on.
My first evening in Oviedo was nothing if not a learning experience. Not only did I learn a thing or two about the town (and ate some candy to boot) through an impromptu tour with my host mom, but I also discovered a new-found value in listening. In the States, I can tune someone out and still get just enough of the gist to come back with a reply that would suggest pretty convincingly that I was actually paying attention. For us Americans here in Oviedo, especially in the first few weeks, listening is survival.
And it’s still the one half of the equation of communication that I most struggle with. Unless the people who have remarked on my facility with the language are polite liars, than I am to believe that I speak Spanish very well. Cheers to that. But confidence in conversation comes from understanding what the other person is saying. Nine times out of ten, any anxiety I have about joining a conversation comes from worrying that I’ll get bowled over by a string of phrases that I either don’t understand or mishear. But anxiety makes for boring conversation, and smiling and nodding can go a long way in a pinch.
Conversations with different groups of people are each very distinct in my mind. With the host family, there’s a bit more pressure, especially during the first few weeks. Others have fairly young hosts, but my host mom is just that: a mom. She cooks dinner, does the laundry, and makes sure I wear a coat and bring an umbrella whenever I leave the house. She’s fantastic, but I was very careful to learn the rules of the house before I got too comfortable. And of course, we aren’t from the same generation, so while I always enjoy conversation with her, we don’t shoot the breeze like I would with my peers.
Then there’s Oscar, my 14-year-old “host brother.”
The first day I met Oscar, his questions for me, among many, included the following: “Are you religious?” and “Are you a communist, or a capitalist?” My host mom was mortified, but I am loving it. I requested a house with children for this very reason. Nothing is off-limits with kids. Oscar could talk all day about nearly anything. He’s a chess wizard, he loves comics, and he thinks he might want to be a theoretical physicist when he grows up. We like all the same things: Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, The Simpsons, Pokemon, and horror movies. There’s something very comforting about sharing this common ground, about having a very easy entry point into a conversation. The language I’m using may be different, but I’m talking about the same things I’ve been talking about for years. Chatting with Oscar is always great practice.
And then, of course, there are people my age. I think I say without hesitation that I learn the most when I’m out with friends. Why? I feel absolutely no pressure. Many of the Ovetenses who I’d consider my peers have seen plenty of foreign students come and go. Getting to know each other is just as exciting for them as it is for us, and you get to ask questions that you would never dream of bringing up at the dinner table. People love it when you get to the weird stuff.
The attitude that I quickly found to be the most helpful is to go into social situations with the understanding that you have nothing to lose. Starting with my first week here, I have been approaching conversation with a totally different tactic. It doesn’t matter what kind of person someone may turn out to be—everyone can be used as a “practice dummy”. I’ve started conversations with people I may never have tried to get to know if we both spoke English. There’s no such thing as fear of judgment when there’s a language barrier; you can always point the finger at mistranslation if an awkward situation were to arise.
The worst thing that can happen is that someone won’t want to talk to you, and then that’s their problem. The best thing that can happen is you can make a new friend.