Walk Like a Spaniard, But Talk Like One, Too?

Emily Bowman  is a student at University of Denver and is an ISA Classmates Connecting Cultures  blogger corresponding with the World Affairs Council of Houston. Emily is currently studying in Bilbao, Spain on a Fall 2 Program.

I love being an expat. I think it suits me. Not to say that the territory doesn’t include some bumpy terrain. There’s always something, no matter how long it’s been since you unpacked your suitcase, that reminds you that you are a piece from a different puzzle – you just don’t quite fit.

Sometimes, however, you can catch a break.

As it turns out, I apparently look like a Spaniard. People walk up to me in the street asking for directions all the time. I’m not local, but they don’t know that. Earlier this month, on a trip to Pamplona, I stumbled upon a station where pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago stop to get their “passports” stamped. Before I knew it, a dozen Dutch tourists had formed a lined, imploring me to stamp their passports. They were confused.  I had to explain that no, I am not an official for the Camino; I’m not even from here! Eventually I just had to move, because the message wasn’t getting through.

Looking back, I think I should have rolled with it. I could have been Spanish for five minutes, and added yet another stamp of accomplishment to those pilgrims’ credentials. I could have smiled and let them think that I was some charming Spanish girl who added to the ambiance of their experience in Northern Spain.

I could pass for a Spaniard if I tried. That is, until I open my mouth to speak.

My Spanish, I have learned, is not adequate yet. I think I throw people off – “Why does this Española speak like a fool?” they wonder.

You see, at first I’m a bit chuffed that Spaniards don’t speak to me in English straight off the cuff, because they think I’m one of them. But then, when they switch to English after I’ve tried to respond I’m pretty certain it’s because my Spanish must be so poor that they feel the need to communicate in what they assume is my native language. They would be correct, but that is beside the point.

The point is this: Learning a foreign language is difficult. English speakers are shocked about the difficulties of learning foreign languages. These are two simple and well-established truths. But has anyone ever considered that it is particularly difficult for English speakers to learn a foreign language?

Before you get up in arms, saying that I have no point of reference for trying to learn Swahili as a native speaker of Mandarin or whatnot, let me just validate your rash response and say that you are absolutely right. I don’t know what it is like for the non-English speakers of the world to learn to speak a second, third, or fourth language. There is no way I could know, and I never will.

I would like to share are a few things I’ve observed during my short stint attempting to learn Spanish while studying abroad in Spain.

First, it almost goes without saying that one goes abroad to study a language in order to have a “completely immersive experience.” Living, eating, and breathing the language day-in, day-out will leave us practically fluent by the end of our trip, right?  In truth, this is difficult for a native English speaker. No matter where you are on the planet, you cannot escape the English language.

If someone from Finland wants to learn Spanish, he could travel to Bolivia and never encounter a shred of his native tongue anywhere. Complete immersion is not an option, but an unavoidable reality. I, on the other hand, found a plethora of English competence amongst the locals on a boat trip into the Bolivian Amazon.

English is everywhere, even when it doesn’t make sense. It’s in advertisements, on t-shirts, translations of official documents, safety instructions, and spoken by tour guides and store attendants the world over. No matter how hard you may try to avoid it, English will find you when you are abroad. You will be going along, happily conjugating verbs in your head, when something seems a little funny. Wait – What is this sudden clarity? Why am I not receiving this information through a mental fog? How am I processing the meaning of these words so, so instantaneously?! There is a brief moment of elation when you think [insert language here] has finally clicked, but then you realize. Dang… It’s in English.

Several weeks ago, I went hiking and met a guy from Siberia. That’s right, Siberia. Who knew that people actually lived there? His hometown is very small and very cold with very many cows. How do I know this? He told me, of course. In English.

Which brings me to my second point: My Russian friend and I probably could have held our conversation in Spanish and gotten by just fine. We both are, after all, in Spain to learn Spanish. However, like many Europeans that I meet, he opted to speak in English.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind speaking English with those who want to practice and learn. Far from it. I think it’s great, and fun, and quite enjoyable. I am more than happy to share whatever useful knowledge I may have accumulated in my years with the world.

So, to all those in the world who speak English as a second (or third or fourth) language, if you bump into a native English speaker in your hometown, and they are making a solid effort to speak your language, do them a favor and let them speak. Please, be patient. Let them suck spectacularly at pronunciation and syntax, because that’s the only way they’re going to learn.

The last and final point is that I want to learn Spanish. I like it here. I love the fact that I look like a local. I’d be over the moon if I could some day sound like one, too. I will never truly pass as a Spaniard, but it’s always fun to try.

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