When I told people I was going to study abroad, the number one advice I was always given was to, “speak the language, even when it’s awkward. You’ll regret it if you don’t.”
While I fully agreed with this statement for the technical purposes – to become fluent in the native language – I’ve just begun to realize the hidden positive side effects that come about from immersing yourself in a foreign language.
When I arrived in Barcelona, I was so nervous that I was going to be completely lost and overwhelmed after three months of not speaking any Spanish over the summer. I jumped in the cab from the airport and was immediately thrown head first into Spanish once again, talking to the cab driver about his family, places to visit, Barcelona weather, everything. I struggled with my tenses, and frantically realized that when my plane left the ground, so did my last words of English. Was I ready for this? As I pulled up to my “residencia,” I was stressing about my ability to completely flip my brain into another language. But much to my surprise, I found that my program consisted of 90 other American students who were all speaking to each other in –shockingly—English. A wave of relaxation wiped over me as I comfortably began introducing myself as I knew how, with my weird idioms and quirks easily portrayed in my native tongue.
As the weeks went on, I found myself falling in love with Barcelona and with the friends I was making in my program. But I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of something missing. Why was I studying abroad here if I wasn’t going to speak Spanish? When I studied abroad in Ecuador for one month last summer, all eleven kids in my program only spoke Spanish to each other. But I understood that it was infinitely harder to try and get 90 Americans to not speak any English to each other than it was to get eleven. So maybe I needed to look outside of those 90 Americans I was surrounded by to practice. And that’s when I found it: the treasure found beneath the translations.
I began itching to speak Spanish to anyone that would listen. I asked waiters their names, where they were from, how they liked living here. I found out my cab driver on the way home from the clubs had two kids, lived outside of Barcelona, and worked from 2pm to 2am. I found friends in the maintenance workers in my building, the people seated next to me on airplanes and trains, the bartenders in my favorite bars, and the strangers around me. I had countless people’s names to friend on Facebook, numbers in WhatsApp, Spanish phone numbers, which I never would have met if I hadn’t just been wanting to practice my Spanish.
And that’s when I appreciated how much more speaking the language does for you. I’m a very outgoing person in general, but my desire to practice Spanish was turning me into one of those people that I admired so much at home, the people who knew the names of their local baristas, the doorman, the owner of that restaurant around the corner. I had no qualms carrying on full on conversations with strangers because I was dying to speak Spanish. And now, some of my closest friends here I met by complete accident.
The entire lifestyle of studying abroad opened my mind like I never could have thought, but I think a huge part of that was found in speaking the language. Speaking Spanish has opened me up to everyone around me because, even if it just turns out to be his or her language, everyone has something to teach me. Part of my learning involves socializing and going out with my Spanish friends because, by doing so, I’m working on my fluency.
Learning another language breaks a barrier by automatically allowing one to be vulnerable to a complete stranger. You’re saying, “Hey, I may sound like an idiot right now with my messy conjugations and anos instead of años, but I’m willing to look like an idiot cause that’s how badly I want to talk to you.” No other way will you get this instant trust than with a foreign language.
This bond has further permeated my relationship with other English speakers as well. When I hear an English foreigner struggling with directions, I automatically feel this connection towards them. I knew I would feel connected to Spain, but I never thought that being here would connect me even more to my roots. And now that Spanish has unlocked this mindset of meeting strangers around me, I know I’m going to bring this mentality back to the States. Why shouldn’t I ask the person next to me on the bus how their day is? Or the waiter where they’re from? Even if it is in English. No matter what the language, meeting people is the essence of why we communicate. So when you go abroad, make a fool of yourself. Try the Spanish lisp, the rolling r’s. And although at first there will be plenty lost in translation, I promise you that there is far more to be found.