2022 Spring Cassie Lopez Language barrier Temple in Spain

It’s easy to rely on your English while abroad. Here’s how NOT to do it…

Many of my interactions with local residents have been through food. Talking to waiters or walking up to a group of people my age at a bar and starting up a conversation. They hear my struggle to find the correct Spanish conjugation and often switch over to English. I was turned off by this at first until I realized it’s a courtesy. I remember doing the same thing for Spanish-speaking customers when I worked a register at Marshalls.

My host mom told me that learning a second and even third language is not only encouraged but mandatory for the many students here in Spain. English is a means for cultural enrichment and a necessary tool for navigating future career paths. So despite the predominant language being Spanish here in Oviedo, it’s really easy to get away with using your English.

But I’m here for the struggle. I’m here to make the mistakes and gain the confidence to speak despite them. For this, I’ve been very grateful for the academic safe space that has been provided for my classmates and me. We share many of the same classes with other American students studying abroad for the same reasons we are. But that also means we don’t have much interaction with resident students. We can get away with sticking to what’s comfortable and easy with each other. It’s nice knowing that if something is urgent it’s very likely someone nearby speaks English and can help you. But as a growing family for the next five months, we’re making an effort to challenge each other with a couple of proactive strategies.

Support your besties

Join your friends when you hear them speaking Spanish amongst each other. If you feel like you’ve been relying too heavily on English, propose a switch to Spanish for the next 30 minutes just to keep exercising the muscle. Immersion is key to learning any language and that includes the time you spend away from your classes and your host families. (Remember: Breaks are necessary! Take them as needed, but be mindful if you’re using it as a crutch or not)

Taking a small break during our lessons to teach our professor some Philly slang

Just keep swimming

When you come across local residents speaking English to you, just keep speaking Spanish. Most times if they see you trying they’ll oblige. Locals are often happy and proud that you’re trying to learn their language and culture. It may sound super uncomfortable, but that feeling of embarrassment when you stumble and say the wrong thing can be one of the most useful tools in your learning. It attaches an experience to your mistake, and it makes it easier for you to remember how to fix it next time. So just keep swimming and soon you’ll be a pro.

Book Club! 

Gather up a group of fellow book lovers and get a book in Spanish. Read a chapter a week and highlight words and sentence structures that are new to you. You don’t have to just do this with books either. You can do song lyrics, podcasts, movies. Go to a cafe afterwards and nerd out if you liked it or spew out all your complaints if it just wasn’t it.

Yes, you can use Google Translate 

I think of SpanishDict in the same way I do Wikipedia. We are often told to move away from translation tools when we are in our language classes to avoid major grammatical and contextual errors. While this is still a good rule to follow when writing your compositions, you don’t have to be afraid of it. If you’re trying to practice your speaking skills and don’t know the direct translation for a specific word, resist the instinct to switch back to what’s comfy. Look it up, listen to the audio clip of the word, and apply it.

Make a list and check it twice

You learn something new every day. Set aside a notebook or notepad to write down the new vocabulary or phrases you learned in classes, in TV shows, in conversation. Writing it down reinforces what you learned and you’ll be more likely to recall it when you need it. 

I promise it’s such a confidence boost when you push yourself beyond what you thought was possible.

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