Blog Erin Knotek Language barrier Temple in Spain

Adjusting to a language barrier: lean into discomfort

What qualities and experiences define my first week in Oviedo? It’s not the few anxious moments or periods of uncertainty, but rather the process of handling those situations with grace (or humor, in many cases) and the resilience my peers and I have shown when adjusting to a new culture, and prioritizing our wellness during a packed first week.

Murals in Oviedo, taken during our first week while touring the city
Mural in Oviedo; taken during our first week while touring the city

As someone who is anxiety prone, I definitely had my moments where I was struggling to feel the sentiment I described above about my first week. These feelings of uncertainty are common and totally manageable, and it’s important that I share with anyone reading my blogs and thinking of studying abroad that if you experience these things too, it’s normal!

When reflecting back on my first week in Oviedo, I see how far I’ve come in my adjustment to the culture and lifestyle here and the obstacles my peers and I have overcome. A perfect example of this is my first day in Oviedo. Our plane landed in Oviedo around 1pm, and our beautiful, scenic bus ride got us to El Colegio Mayor América dorms around 3pm. To avoid sleeping, a few others from the group and I decided to explore the city and sit down at some restaurants to practice our Spanish and get some food. As we walked, we chatted about the trip there, our excitement to be in Spain as well as our anticipation surrounding the upcoming activities that our program director, Jaime Durán, planned for the group.

The Cathedral of San Salvador in Oviedo
The Cathedral of San Salvador in Oviedo

We eventually settled at a small restaurant in front of the Cathedral of San Salvador to order tapas and drinks. This is where the anxiety about communicating in Spanish began. The four of us were in a new place, with unknown customs and the exhaustion from the two flights and bus ride began to hit us as soon as we tried ordering. We were completely stumped! No one brought us a menu, the waitress did not understand much of what we tried to ask her, and we realized pretty quickly that the Spanish we learned in school was very academic and gave us little to work with when it came to colloquial expressions and everyday conversation.

Instead of giving up, we did our best to order and took the awkwardness in stride. Although my face turned bright red after incorrectly ordering my drink, the laughter my now three friends and I shared afterwards was worth it. We were so determined to do better that we found ourselves at a second establishment. Again, we struggled with communicating but laughed it off and enjoyed the fact that we were together in this anxiety and struggle to adjust to the pace and customs of Oviedo. I think that’s one of my most valuable takeaways from this week– going abroad can be extremely isolating, but if you go out of your way to spend these moments with other students in similar situations, it can be fun and much easier to handle.

Nils, Anya and Jules (left to right) at our second restaurant staying positive despite the language barrier
Nils, Anya and Jules (left to right) at our second restaurant trying to stay positive despite the language barrier

Now I look back on that day and can’t believe how far we’ve come. I can now sit down in a restaurant with these three and order a coffee the way I like, or an entire meal without hesitating. We’ve had full conversations with Ovitenses (people of Oviedo) on the streets, in bars and cafes, and all because we’ve put ourselves out there, supported each other when we make mistakes, and laughed (a lot) at the miscommunications and struggles.

When describing my first week in Oviedo to friends and family, instead of saying: “We got separated at the airport, two of us temporarily lost our luggage, our group arrived late to some events, I got lost wandering through Oviedo (multiple times), and I struggled to communicate in restaurants and cafes,” I’ll say: “I met my amazing program director, Jaime, toured Oviedo, went to museums, learned how chorizo, cheese and cider are made in Asturias, ate delicious food, hiked to the top of mount Naranco, bonded with an incredible group of students and stood in the clouds at Picos de Europa”! If I had to guess, many others studying abroad will also be able to laugh at the awkward exchanges, get comfortable with the unknown and focus on the positive. I’m excited to continue sharing with everyone reading how I navigate my inevitable anxiety here in Oviedo and focus on my wellness and the amazing experiences I have while here!

Our group with Jaime in front of the Museum of Cider
Our group with Jaime during our orientation in Oviedo in front of the Museum of Cider

Thanks for following my journey thus far; I’m excited to keep sharing my experiences with you all. Stay tuned for my next post– nos vemos muy pronto!

Learn more about our program director, Jaime Durán, here!

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