You’ll go to Spain for a semester, and when you return you’ll consider yourself bilingual, or at the very least, near bilingual. That’s what my mostly monolingual family and friends told me before I started my semester abroad. In fact, as I packed my bags for Granada, Spain, I believed this affirmation. I knew I would struggle with Spanish in the beginning, and I welcomed the discomfort and confusion that would arrive once I reached Spain. However, I comforted this harsh truth with the optimistic belief that by my sheer existence in Spain, I would somehow master the Spanish language. After spending over four months in Granada, I now realize that it takes longer than a semester to learn a new language.
I remember the first time I had to put my Spanish skills to the test. I sat down at the dinner table with my Spanish host mom and sister, and I understood maybe three words out of their hour-long conversation. I thought my 14-year old host sister spoke Mandarin Chinese with how quickly she spoke. I recognized not a single word she said, and that initial experience humbled me from the start. I went to bed that night panicking, wondering how I would survive in Spain for five months if I sincerely thought my Spanish host sister spoke Mandarin Chinese. My goal then swiftly changed from achieving bilingualism in one semester to understanding my Spanish host sister.
My first month in Spain, I mostly spent taking an intensive pre-session course. Although my Spanish listening and speaking skills improved greatly, I saw how easily I could slip into speaking English since most of the students at the Centro de Lenguas Modernas (CLM) where I study Spanish came from the United States. I saw this as a barrier to learning Spanish, but I didn’t let it deter me. Once again, I had to shift my expectations about learning Spanish. Before coming to Spain, I imagined myself in classes with local Spaniards learning Spanish. However, after taking my language test, I realized that native Spanish speakers likely would not fill my intermediate Spanish classes at the CLM. It only makes sense that non-local students would participate in a language learning program. Even for native speakers of Spanish, they still had something to learn from the particular European Spanish of southern Spain. I also recognized that I had a lot to learn about the Spanish language, but I had to find another way to do it.
During February, my second month in Spain, I started a new set of courses. I began my intermediate classes, and again, I found myself surrounded by American students. However, this time I recognized that my teachers were the native Spaniards I imagined in my classes, and I took full advantage of their Spanish knowledge to ask questions and correct my mistakes. I also met the professor that would supervise my internship course. During the first few weeks in my internship course, I learned how the Spanish education system functioned and helpful vocabulary for teaching English in schools. Not only did learning about the Spanish education system motivate me to start my internship, but it also motivated me to find other ways to practice my Spanish in different social contexts. This month I decided to throw myself into the Spanish language via Spanish culture.
First, I went to my first spin class at the gym. I like taking spin class at my university in the United States, so I figured my background knowledge would transfer easily. Unsurprisingly, I found it easy to follow the gym instructor giving instructions like “Arriba” and “Abajo” translated to “up” and “down” when it came time to switch positions on the bike at the gym. Then, I began to explore another one of my interests– reading and opened a library account at my local biblioteca. I decided to try reading my favorite American novels, but in Spanish, to help learn new Spanish words. That same month, I finished reading Los Juegos del Hambre (The Hunger Games), and I learned a lot of Spanish vocabulary about hunting, running away, fighting, and battling. At the time, I found the information useless, but reading the book in Spanish made it more interesting than my first few reads in English. As for my last cultural challenge this month, I started watching Netflix series in Spanish. Surprisingly, I could follow the storylines once I added Spanish subtitles. I finished an entire season of the Spanish series, Elite, and started another Spanish series, Merli. My Netflix adventures also helped start dinner conversation after I found out that my host sister watched Elite and Merli. Although she spoiled the ending of Merli for me, I remained happy with the fact that I could understand enough of what she said to know that one of my favorite characters dies at the end of the series.
My third month in Spain started with me interning as an English assistant in a local Spanish school. This opportunity acted as another dive into Spanish culture, and I learned so many words like ahorcado (hangman) that I doubt I would learn outside of the context of school. I also continued my previous Spanish adventures and visited the gym daily. Although I didn’t go to spin class every day, I learned common words by exercising daily. For example, I learned that banco not only means a bank but also bench when someone asked me “¿Estas usando el banco?” Also, I learned that “¿Cuanto queda?” is the Spanish version of, “How much time do you have left [on the exercise machine]?”, and it equally annoys me in both languages. As for my soiree into literature, I finished reading Divergente, another American novel that I previously read, which furthered my knowledge about words common to the dystopian genre after completing it in Spanish. My Spanish reading proved helpful during my Spanish speaking and writing class when my professor used to the word “cazar”, and I knew that meant “to hunt” thanks to Los Juegos del Hambre. My Spanish host sister and I also shared more in-depth conversations about Elite and Merli and her Spanish finally began to sound less like Mandarin Chinese and more like a variation of the Spanish I heard on the streets of Granada. While I started putting myself into different situations to learn Spanish in February, the month of March is when I saw the connections between the activities I did for fun like working out, reading, and watching Netflix series, to the activities I did for academic and professional interest like attending class and interning at a Spanish school.
Although I spent half of April traveling outside of Spain, I picked up the most Spanish this month. In the beginning of the month, people started recognizing me as a local at the gym. While exercising a woman asked me, “¿Que sirve estos?” as I used my resistance bands, and we started a brief conversation about how resistance bands make workouts harder and helps quema grasa (two words I learned from the elliptical machine) mas rapido. Outside of the gym, I stepped out of the dystopian genre and entered the world of John Green as I read Buscando a Alaska. This book followed me through the month of April as I traveled through Morocco with my study abroad program and later to France when I visited my friend. Due to my traveling, I didn’t have time (or sometimes availability to the internet) to watch Netflix. However, I found an even better alternative to practicing my Spanish. During my trip to Morocco, I learned that many Northern Moroccans speak Spanish due to their proximity to Spain, so I spent a portion of my trip practicing my Spanish. My luck continued in France because my friend who studies in France speaks Spanish fluently and so did her two Colombian friends who were in town at the time. Ironically, I spent most of my time in France speaking Spanish with them and shaking my head no when people assumed I spoke French in the streets. After my two weeks of traveling, I came back to Spain rejuvenated and ready to speak to Spanish todo el dia.
People who study, intern, or live abroad often talk about that moment when they realize that they understand their non-native language. For a long time, I wondered when that lightbulb moment would occur for me. Well, it happened during my final month here in Spain. Similarly, to the way I had a moment of panic after my first dinner with my host family, I had a moment of enlightenment at a recent dinner with my host sister. That night, my host mom and my two roommates went out for dinner, so my host sister and I sat over a meal of veggie burgers (the best meal my host mom makes for me) and potato chips. Initially, I felt nervous to start conversation, but now I’m so glad I did. We spent over an hour, speaking in Spanish, the same Spanish I swore was Mandarin Chinese a few months ago, and I understood 90% of what she said, and I responded to 100% of the conversation. The lightbulb moment of “Wow, I understand Spanish,” clicked after I went to my room and thought about what just happened. I met my goal. I can understand my host sister.
So maybe I’m not bilingual. I still make mistakes when I’m speaking Spanish. Sometimes my conjugations don’t make sense, and I mentally kick myself once I realize that I meant to use the past tense, but instead I used the present tense form of the verb. I still don’t understand everything that people say when they speak Spanish. Sometimes, I need to ask “¿Que significa?” or “¿Que has dicho?” However, my Spanish has improved so much since arriving in Spain. I didn’t get to this level of Spanish simply by living in Spain. I went to the gym classes taught in Spanish. I read books translated into Spanish. I watched Netflix series in Spanish. I talked and listened to my host mom, host sister, and roommates speak in Spanish nearly every day over lunch and dinner. I interned at a Spanish school, sure I taught English, but the students equally taught me Spanish. I studied Spanish grammar. I typed essays in Spanish. I sought opportunities to speak Spanish and get corrected inside and outside of the classroom. I found every opportunity that I could to practice my Spanish in ways that I genuinely enjoyed and that just made it so much easier to learn. I did all the things I loved to do in the United States, but I did it in a Spanish context.
So, my harsh truth to future study abroad students: it takes longer than a semester abroad to learn a new language. Yet, my optimistic belief is that you can certainly learn a lot by exercising your language skills, whether that means literally exercising at the gym or by figuratively exercising your mind over a dinner conversation.