The reason I decided to study a foreign language and continue my pursuit for fluency abroad is because I want to join the more globally conscious, multilingual community.
My study abroad experience in Spain is not my first time out of the country, nor my first culture shock, but it is the first time that I realized how ethnocentric English speakers (Americans especially) can come across. I will admit guilt as well, because almost every time I am given the opportunity to break back into my native language, I take it. I’ve found that many times when I go out to eat there is an inevitable awkward moment when my waiter realizes I am an “extranjero” (foreigner), and they immediately transition into using choppy English instead of letting me continue to attempt to order in choppy Spanish. It doesn’t seem right that a Spanish speaker should feel obliged to communicate in my native tongue in their homeland. So why is this custom?
When I traveled to Amsterdam, I learned that the majority of the people in Holland speak three languages: Dutch, French, and English. I was amazed at how easily they could transition from one language to another, and speak with perfect American accents when addressing me. A couple weeks ago I was introduced to the Erasmus community in Sevilla. Erasmus is an organization that provides the opportunity for university students in the European Union to live and study in another EU country for a year. Each student I met knew at least two languages. I still can’t help but be amazed at their talent, yet each speaker shrugs off my praise as if the accomplishment is worthy of a mere participation medal. In Europe, new language acquisition in is commonplace and a necessity. I have finally learned to stop asking “how many languages do you speak?” because the answer always seems to make me feel worse about myself.
I recently started a position as a Conversation Assistant in a Spanish school for 6-year-olds. This means that I work alongside their teacher during “English hour” and advise on proper pronunciation. They start each class with the daily student helper reading the attendance (in English), and updating the calendar and weather chart (in English as well). I was blown away by how advanced the vocabulary was, with words like “rigid” and “flexible” appearing in their book activities.
My Spanish is considered “advanced” by U.S. standards, and I can understand slow speakers and simple writing almost perfectly. However, in the Spanish schooling system I would most likely have to go back to a class similar to that of my 6-year-old students. The United States is a powerhouse in many aspects, but when it comes to language we seem to be stuck in the era of the steam engine. Yes, I was lucky enough to grow up speaking the world’s universal language, and therefore have a reliable luxury of using my first language in many parts of the globe, but personally I believe that this is a disadvantage. It is far too easy to forgo the embarrassment of speaking a new language and switch to my more comfortable ABCs instead.
So, why is learning a new language important? Because language is a huge part of culture. Kisses on the cheek clued me in to the intimate Spanish nature, but the words my host mom addresses me with are an even greater indicator. Instead of using my name, she will call me “corazon” (heart) “guapa” (beautiful), and “cariño” (darling). My Spanish friends do the same. Even though it may be normal in the United States for your mother to call you “sweetie”, it is definitely not something you would say regularly to a friend or coworker, like they do here.
Language is a crucial aspect of understanding culture and I think that understanding is something that we need more of in this world. Even if you don’t want to learn a new language, I implore you make an effort to speak the native language in whatever country you may be in, even if it is only a small “hello” or “thank you”. For now, I will promise to continue to embarrass myself with my “Spanglish” for the time that I have left studying in this amazing country.
Your Discovery. Our People… The World Awaits.