After more than a month in Spain, I have a new level of respect for anyone who decides to move to a country where they will have to speak a different language. Even the simplest sentiments can be difficult to translate. Oftentimes, it takes me about twice as long to say the same sentence in Spanish as it would take to say it in English. Sometimes I hold up my hand, say “espera,” and take a minute to search for the word I need. And every once in a while, after staring into space for far too long, I sigh and say, “no importa.”
Though I try to practice as much as possible, it hasn’t been as easy as I expected. Originally, I imagined myself speaking Spanish all the time once I got off the plane in Madrid but it soon became clear that our program coordinators were going to communicate with us almost exclusively in English. Whenever I was hanging out with other people in my program they spoke English too. After a couple weeks I felt myself comfortably slipping into speaking English whenever I could, which was often, considering all my friends were Americans from our program.
Wait, I would think every so often. This isn’t what I came here to do. It felt wrong to only ever be speaking in Spanish when I was with my host mom or in class. Wasn’t I supposed to be trying to immerse myself in this new language? At the same time, I didn’t want to ask my friends to try to have Spanish-only conversations with me, and I really did not want to attempt to ask a native speaker if they ever wanted to chat. I’ve played out the scenario in my head, and the only way it ever ends is badly. So badly. And awkwardly.
The perfect solution to my problem came a few weeks after we started classes: an intercambio. In Spanish, the word intercambio means “exchange,” and in this instance the exchange is vocal. Our university matches us up with a native Spanish-speaking university student who wants to practice speaking English and, once we’re given their contact information, it’s up to us to set up a meeting and start practicing.
Intercambios are the best thing to happen to my Spanish conversational skills since the Spanishdict app. I’ve met with many of my friends’ intercambios as well as my own, and they are all extremely friendly and speak near-flawless English too boot. They help you with your grammar mistakes and teach you slang that varies from the useful to the, well, less-than-appropriate.
The other night I had my first dinner out where it was just me with my intercambio and her Spanish-speaking friends. To say the least, it was intimidating. Not a word of English was spoken. Many times I ended up grimacing because I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to react with surprise, disgust, or happiness. The pace of conversation was so fast that whole minutes passed with stories flying over my head as constantly nibbled on my food to make it look like I had a reason for my silence. Every once in a while, my intercambio would turn to me and translate a story that had just passed, rapid-fire and full of slang I don’t know, between her two friends.
Though the experience may have been a little bewildering, it was fulfilling in a way that spending a night speaking in English wouldn’t have been. I felt like, though I struggled, I was accomplished in some way.
And the things worth accomplishing, the ones that leave us with a sense of pride after we’ve achieved them, are the ones that present the hardest struggle along the way.
To help with navigating the struggle that is overcoming the language barrier, I’ve compiled some facts/ tips that I’ve picked up in the last month and a half:
- You will be scared. Don’t be. Nervousness may keep you from saying something wrong, but it will never allow you the chance to learn how to say it right.
- (Most) people appreciate your efforts. Speaking in a country’s native language shows an appreciation for the people and their culture, and you are more likely to run into people who will help you through a conversation than people who will judge you for your mistakes.
- Learning a language takes time; progress may seem slow, but as long as you keep practicing it will happen. Everyday phrases will become easier when you actually start using them everyday.
- Sometimes the only reason you understand what people are saying is because of the accompanying hand signals they make.
- Just today I had an entire conversation with my tapas professor using hand motions and sounds to imitate what food would sound like in the pan. Seriously. (And it was probably the most entertaining conversation I had all day). You can get by even when you don’t have the words to, so don’t get flustered when you can’t figure out what you need to say.
Emily Laurinec-Studer, DUSA blogger