Don’t Let Language Barriers Be An Obstacle in your Study Abroad Experience

Going into my semester in Seville, Spain with six years of Spanish language experience under my belt, I felt confident with my mind at ease going into Spain with the knowledge that I would be able to communicate with my host family, professors, and generally people in the city. Though this proved to be mostly true, there were daily language problems that turned into challenges. Whether I couldn’t exactly figure out where my host mom was going on any particular afternoon, didn’t know how to read something on a menu, or didn’t understand what my professors were saying would be on an upcoming exam, there were many times of frustration where I wish I had the fluency level of a native speaker- while also realizing that I wouldn’t be there quite long enough to make that happen.

However, soon I learned to take every awkward language faux pas and turn it into a learning opportunity. My host mom started correcting everything I said- sometimes at my annoyance- but I began to realize that being able to live in an environment where I was constantly being pushed to improve and learn from every conversation around me was greatly beneficial. For words that I hadn’t learned in school and didn’t recognize in context, she would pull out a Spanish-English dictionary on her phone to show me the word, sometimes explaining that the word used in Spain differered from the Latin American dialect that I had grown accustomed to the past several years.

ISA students studying in Seville had a wide variety of Spanish levels represented: everywhere from people who hadn’t taken a Spanish class since early high school to native speakers. I also soon realized that people were thriving in Seville regardless of their Spanish background and that as long as you were trying, you can succeed. Be proud of yourself for pushing yourself out of your comfort zone- relatively few people are able or willing to immerse themselves in a completely new culture and language, and that deserves recognition.

Before going into a study abroad program in a country where the primary language isn’t English, I think it’s important to have realistic expectations for what you want and are reasonably able to accomplish linguistically. You won’t be able to become fluent in a three or four month program, but you can make significant progress towards building conversational fluency. Staying with a host family is likely the #1 thing you can do to practice the target langauge, as ISA host families are super helpful and there to help you learn. Language learning apps such as Duolingo or Babbel are also great supplements to in-person practice and language exposure that only takes a few minutes of your day.

Though stepping off the plane and entering a new country with a different language is certainly daunting- regardless of comfortability level with the language- I learned to grow being comfortable with being uncomfortable and approach each situation with curiosity. Most Sevillians and Spaniards didn’t mind my slow, sometimes clunky Spanish and appreciated that I was trying in the first place. Some servers or store workers may notice you’re a foreigner (or in Spain, a “guiri”) and switch to speaking in English depending on where you are and their comfortability level with English, but remind yourself that they’re just trying to be helpful and you can continue speaking in the target language if you wish.

Though you’re likely to spend the duration of your study abroad experience with other American ISA students just due to the nature of the program, intentionally striking up conversations in the target language with classmates or other people you meet is a great way to continue practicing the language and get to see what the lives of people your age are like in your country. When my 23 year old host brother invited me to hang out with him one night, I jumped at the chance. Though I had some issues understanding the rapid Spanish and they poked fun of me for pretending to understand more than I did, that evening ended up being one of the most culturally enriching experiences of my whole time in Seville. I was doing what I probably would be doing if I were a Spanish college student myself- getting together with friends over food and drink and talking about life, school, and whatever else came up.

Overall, though language barriers are bound to happen when studying abroad, with the right attitude and a willingness to practice and learn, you’ll be surprised at what you’re capable of, and be a more well-rounded, culturally adept person because of it.

Henry Hargrave a college student at the University of Denver. He is an ISA Featured Blogger and is studying abroad with ISA in Seville, Spain.

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