España Update 6 ~ The Language

Obviously the Spanish language was another major change for me to adapt to during my six-week trip to Spain.  The one regret I have about my trip is that I didn’t spend more time learning the language.  I think it would’ve made a big difference—especially in group settings.

Preparing for the Language Barrier

Back when I was in high school, most colleges required two years of a foreign language for admittance.  So that was exactly what I took—the 2-year minimum, in Spanish.  Nowadays, most universities are requiring three or four years.  I would’ve hated that at the time, but in hindsight, I can see how two years of a foreign language is not enough to really communicate.  After all, when Pedro first arrived at our home, he already had eight years of English behind him.

ShortcuttoSpanish.com, my favorite online study tool.

ShortcuttoSpanish.com, my favorite online study tool.

Over thirty years after my high school language classes were completed, I came face to face with the reality that I was going to need to speak Spanish for my summer travel to Spain.  I spent three months in advance of my trip listening to Spanish audio CDs and studying the language.  With that, plus a translator app on my mobile phone, I hoped and prayed that would be good enough.

Immersed in the Language

A true exchange student is normally immersed in their new language without much opportunity to speak in their native tongue.  That was not the case for me.  My Spanish family was very accommodating of my language deficiencies as they all spoke English to some degree.

My biggest challenge was communicating with Rosa, Pedro’s mother.  She had an English tutor for the last year to help her prepare for my visit.  Although our initial communications were somewhat clumsy, her English was surprisingly good.  We both relied on electronic translators to help us fill in the gaps.

I would've been lost without my trusty Bing translator on my Windows 8 phone.

I would’ve been lost without my trusty Bing translator on my Windows 8 phone.

Early on in my trip, I embraced the language and tried to communicate with my family in Spanish.  I wanted to learn the language.  I know I butchered it at times, but was rarely corrected.  They knew what I was trying to communicate.  I eventually limited my trying except for some basic phrases that I routinely needed.

The Emotional Side

While everyone spoke English with me, all other conversations were in Spanish.  Prior to my arrival in Spain, I hadn’t given that much thought.  I knew the household would be a mixture of Spanish and English.  It was rather disorienting to live in a home and an environment and not understand what was being spoken around me.  Of course, I asked at times or was filled in occasionally, but over time, I think it started to wear on me and fed into feelings of isolation.

The truth of the matter is that not knowing the language myself limited who I could talk to, when I could talk, and what I could say.  There were times I felt lonely and invisible—even in a room filled with people.  The emotions around this totally caught me off-guard.  Back in America, I would be able to process all of these feelings and cultural adjustments with a trusted friend or in a support group setting.  While in Spain, I mostly turned to my journal and to prayer.

I was very grateful for the occasions when I was able to speak English for an extended period of time—like having Pedro’s uncle serve as my personal tour guide throughout Seville, befriending a young Mexican woman who spoke fluent English, or spending a Sunday afternoon with English speaking Protestants.

My own personal tour guide in Seville, Pedro's Uncle Francisco.

My own personal tour guide in Seville, Pedro’s Uncle Francisco.

The Fun of Learning a Language

On the brighter side, I have some very humorous memories related to the language.  Pedro used my naivety with the language to coach me into saying embarrassing things.  I quickly learned and regularly repeated the phrase “no confío en ti,” which means “I don’t trust you.”

Rosa also mixed up the English words “kitchen” and “chicken” early on.  We never let her forget that mistake and reversed those words in our future conversations.  That led to Pedro and his father trying to confuse me on giving directions—to the left (izquierda) or to the right (derecha).  Our friendly teasing was always good for a laugh.

I loved how learning Spanish stretched my mind in new ways—even at my age.  I loved how at times we all mixed the Spanish and English in our conversations.  I enjoyed and was pleasantly surprised at how quickly my mind started to think in Spanish, and sometimes subconsciously in my dreams.

Pedro and his family commented several times how much my Spanish had improved over the course of my visit.  I was just as surprised, although disappointedly so, that it all disappeared as soon as I was back in America.

Many restaurants had bi-lingual menus, like Casa de Valencia in Madrid.

Many restaurants had bi-lingual menus, like Casa de Valencia in Madrid.

Lessons Learned 

I have logged dozens of hours of Skype calls with Pedro since we met.  Not once did I ever feel like I needed to learn Spanish.  What I learned about the language from all of this isn’t really about the Spanish words or the grammar.  It is that we truly do live a world apart, and the language, no matter how much I learn, will always be a barrier between us to some degree.

I also learned many things about Spain, my Spanish family, and about myself on this trip of a lifetime.  After two weeks back home, I am still processing much of it.  One thing is for sure, I would not take learning the language so lightly for a future trip.

~ If this is your first time visiting my blog, you can start reading about my Spanish travels here.  To read the next update in this series, click here.

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3 Comments

  1. I laughed at needing to learn “I don’t trust you!” for Pedro’s lighthearted teasing. A great response! You write with clarity and depth, sharing very thoughtfully the external and the internal experiences of your journey.

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    Reply
    • Thanks Terry, glad I got you thinking on this at more than a surface level. Regarding Pedro, I think he would make a great poker player, never letting on what he was hiding in his hand. He kept me on my toes round the clock. 😊

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    I'm an author, writer, speaker, mentor & mom. I've struggled to find my voice all my life as I lived in the shadows of a mother with mental illness. Thankfully that was not the legacy that she handed down to me. It took a lot of recovery and deep healing work to rise above it.

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