True story: Studying abroad & traveling

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This is a guest post written by Jamie, author of Crashed Culture. Find out more in her BIO at the end of this post.

We all travel for our own individual reasons. When I left my country for the first time and moved to Spain to teach English, one of the biggest reasons was to learn Spanish. I mean, I’d BS’d my way through Spanish in school, and could tell you my name and where I was from, but that was about it. Books and blogs and magazines and movies and teachers all told me that immersion was the best, easiest way to learn a language, and dang nabit I was gonna learn! Being bilingual – and, one day, a polyglot – was (and still is) one of my greatest dreams. But trying to learn Spanish while in the United States? Unless I was reading a horrifically drab textbook from high school, I wasn’t going to be learning much.

Learning spanish

Studying in Spain

My first three weeks in Spain was spent with a Spanish host... And three other American girls. Guess who I spent those 3 weeks talking to? I ventured out every once in a while to explore Madrid, and met some internationals. Guess what language they spoke? Then, when I moved out of my Spanish host’s house and into my own piso with four Spanish roommates, who did I talk to? The one who happened to speak fluent English.

Finally, the school year began, and I went to work every day in a small pueblo just outside of Madrid in a school full of Spaniards. There were only 4 other people who spoke decent English in the school, and I couldn’t necessarily depend on any of them being there when I needed help with something. Guess who I spoke to? Nobody.

Learning Spanish? Hard life!

Before I knew it, half the school year had gone by, and I was still shying away from Spanish conversations. My Spanish had gotten a bit better without any effort, as happens when billboards and signs and conversations that you naturally try to eavesdrop on were all in Spanish, but speaking it? Yeah, no thanks. That was just way too hard. It took much less energy to be jealous of the people I knew who were switching between English and Spanish effortlessly and practicing regularly.

What had happened to my dream? I was going to come home after 9 months in Spain and be completely fluent in Spanish! I was going to be bilingual! I was going to see all my friends and blow them away by this awesome foreign language, and make them all so jealous of my experience abroad! What happened to me?

I had fallen into the trap that many travelers fall into. While much of immersion is being forced to read your foreign language everywhere you go, it does take some gumption to get yourself out there and attempting to communicate. I just... Didn’t have that gumption. Some fears are harder to get over than others, and hoo boy was I afraid to try to speak real Spanish to a real Spaniard!

I’m not going to lie, I was pretty upset with myself. I beat myself up over it, quite frankly. I lived in Spain! What was I doing with my time? Had I really spent all that time after work just aimlessly scrolling through Facebook? Was I really that scared?

Yeah, I was. I was petrified. I was scared that my Spanish wasn’t going to be very good. I was scared that I was going to forget words or misspeak. I was afraid that my Spanish wasn’t going to be perfect.

Overcoming our fears

Jamie at school

And I was absolutely right. My Spanish wasn’t very good, I misspeak quite a bit, and my Spanish isn’t perfect. And you know what? I’m not longer afraid of those things. These things exist and they will always exist, but once I pushed past my fear, I remembered how much I loved being able to speak a foreign language. I remembered how even before I left for Spain I would throw in little phrases in Spanish, because it was the coolest thing in the world to be able to speak in another language, even if I was just greeting somebody over the phone.

Turns out, I had been hiding behind this horribly irrational fear that the moment I tried to speak to a Spaniard, I would be laughed at, made fun of, or maybe even find myself in some crazy cultural miscommunication. I eventually realized just how irrational those fears really were. I realized how much I had already held myself back.

Speaking a new language changes your life

Then, when I threw myself into the void and made myself talk to Spaniards, they loved it! My conversational partner would sit across from me, look me in the eyes, and patiently wait for me to spit out toddler Spanish. And they encouraged me and were so excited for me when I figured things out. I mean, it was easier for them – when I was speaking Spanish, they didn’t have to try to speak English!

Once I began speaking Spanish, my life abroad shifted dramatically. I was all of a sudden so excited to learn all the time! I heard different perspectives regarding life and politics. I saw little nooks and crannies of Spain that only a local would know about, and learned about local traditions that my expat crowd would have never been able to teach me. And, most importantly, I felt so incredibly empowered about staring my fear in the face and conquering it. I was no longer afraid. I was Super Woman!

I know what you’re thinking: I wasn’t fluent when I returned home. You’d be right. But you know what? There are countless travelers out there who miss out on the experiences I get to have because they get stuck behind their fear. I mean hey, I know it would have been easier for me to dive off a cliff than it was to face my fear of language learning.

But, to me, traveling is about facing your fears, having new experiences, and learning new things. While it’s not impossible to do those things with people who can speak your language, you’re missing out on a world of life when you hide behind your fears.

About the Author

Jamie is a 20-something who's fascinated by cultural differences and foreign languages. She loves to see life through another perspective, and uses Crashed Culture to write about the differences between cultures and to inspire others to learn foreign languages.
Check her website at www.CrashedCulture.com!

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