Why I Decided to Study a Foreign Language While Abroad

Karly Walker is a student at the University of Kentucky and a former ISA Featured Blogger. She studied abroad with ISA in Granada, Spain.

Ironically, it took traveling 4,326 miles away from my home in the United States to realize how comfortable my life actually was. I’ve had the same group of friends since high school, some even middle school, and have never lived more than an hour away from my parents and brother. I have never faced adversity due to my skin color, my sexuality, or my financial status. When I stepped off the plane in to the Madrid Barajas International Airport, my first task after customs was to find baggage claim: a task that seemed simple and easy to me. Upon realizing I didn’t have any idea where I was going, I approached a security guard and, assuming he spoke English, asked him where I could find my luggage. I was met with crinkled eyebrows and a “Que?” This was the first time I experienced being a minority. I was an English speaker in a Spanish speaking country.

Leading up to my semester in Spain, people would ask me why I was going to study Spanish. The answer seemed obvious to me at the time: “It looks good on resumes. It will provide more job opportunities. The culture and language are beautiful.” And all of that is still true, but for the first time I am forced to take in to account the people in America who depend on Spanish speakers. I feel like I am living a reversed role in a way. Instead of being a Spanish speaking immigrant in an English speaking country, I am an English speaking student in a Spanish speaking country. Language barriers, cultural upsets, and feeling out of place have become normal parts of my day to day life.

Last week, I came down with a chest cold and found myself in the clinic of a Spanish hospital accompanied by a translator. I felt very scared and alone as tests were performed using breathing machines, IVs, and x-rays. I didn’t understand what my doctors were saying, the names of the medicines were unfamiliar, and what test would be performed next was a guessing game. I found myself becoming emotional as I imagined what it must be like for a single immigrant mother to take her children to a hospital in the United States and experience the same language barriers and cultural differences I was facing now. Most of those immigrants didn’t have the luxury of a translator, like I did.

I have learned so many new words and phrases through my host family and the incredible professors and classes offered by the Centro de Lenguas Modernas (CLM) in Granada, but Spain has given me an even deeper education on top of that. It has taught me what it feels like to live a foreign country where the majority of people don’t speak your language. I think moving somewhere to learn a new language is an experience every student should have. It has taught me that the world does not revolve around me, it does not revolve around English speakers, and to assume anybody should speak my language just because it is English is unrealistic and impractical. Now, I approach every language barrier as an opportunity to learn something new, and I am confident that I will take this new education and this new understanding back to the United States with me.

The world awaits…discover it.

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