Communication Abroad

Kaitlyn Richert is a sophomore double majoring in magazine journalism and informational graphics/publication design, with a minor in Spanish. She is studying abroad in Toledo, Spain for winter quarter 2012.

Let’s face it: learning a foreign language is difficult. It takes time to comprehend the structure of the vocabulary and patience to grasp the rhythm of the words. It can take years, right? That’s what I’ve always believed – I studied Spanish for six years before I left to study abroad. What I’ve realized is that time can be irrelevant. Time becomes less of a factor when you dive head first into the culture and the language. That’s what I really wanted to do here; I felt compelled to strive for a mastery of the language. But I’ve learned quite a bit from my expectations about communication here in Spain so far.

Obtain a minimal understanding.
If I have learned nothing else from my trip yet, I have learned this: communication is not about mastering the language. Communication is about getting a message across, even if you’re barely scraping by. Living with a host family is a quite an experience – there’s no other way to put it – and communication has been difficult. I had a colossal headache for the first two weeks I was here, translating their words and juggling verbs in my head to form a sentence. I felt my years of practicing the language evaporate into a puddle of nothing as I nodded my head during conversations that could have been about anything from skydiving to politics. I wouldn’t know.

Find a balance.
This is key when you’re studying abroad. You need to speak your Spanish for the day, weave in a bit of their culture into your week and later, maybe watch a movie or read a book in English to unwind. You should be speaking Spanish most of time, with the exception of taking a break from it when with your study abroad group. I’ve been realizing that consistency is essential and balance also helps clear your mind. If you’re off this track, things become confusing and stressful. For example, via Skype: “No sé por qúe.” “What?” “Oh, sorry Mom, I was thinking in Spanish.” This happens more than you’d think.

Learn from them.
There are quite a few misconceptions that I had about the language and culture before coming to Spain. There were even certain words I had learned in my classes at home that had been falsely defined. For those of you studying Spanish, take a look at these. I was surprised.

  • In middle school, they taught us that “el almuerzo” was the noun for lunch. They don’t use this word here – instead, lunch is “la comida.”
  • I was taught early on that the verb “chocar” should be used to express hate, or the “clashing” of something. Spainards don’t understand this – instead, they use “ordinar.”
  • “La computadora” was always a great cognate, right? Well, it doesn’t really exist. In Spain, they use “ordenador” for computer.
  • I was always under the notion that “tampoco” was synonymous with “también.” This might have just been me learning it incorrectly, but “tampoco” means “me neither” in English.

How to improve…
You’d be surprised how useful these tools are when studying abroad. Don’t leave without them!
Spanish-English dictionary
You’ll bring it with you wherever you go. A compact size is nice, but the quantity of words should be your first priority. I never leave for school without this.

Notebook for new vocabulary
When I don’t know a word or I learn a new one, I write it down. I’ve filled up five pages since I’ve been here. Start doing this!
Journal
It’s important to write what you’re feeling when you study abroad, because this is a life experience worth remembering. I have a journal in English, but I also keep one in Spanish to keep up with writing. This has definitely helped me.

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