I arrived in Granada, Spain with a basic level of Spanish – nothing impressive by any means. My ability to communicate was limited, especially with that crazy Andalusian accent of theirs (more to come on this). The first month was hard. Yes. Hard. But hard in a good way. I was completely immersed in a language other than my own, forced to communicate in that language (Granadinos are not just going to start speaking English to you), learning new things about this language every day.
The learning of the Spanish language completely defined my time in Granada.
Though I cannot say that 3 months in a country will make you fluent, I can say that you will surprise yourself with how much you improve. Sometimes it takes others to point out that improvement for you to realize it, but it is there.
When you get to a point where you can communicate with another person, have real conversations with them, feel as if you are really getting to know them through a language other than your own, that is the cool stuff. Getting told you remind a man of his daughter, when many times you questioned if he even understood what you were trying to tell him, that is the cool stuff. These are the little things that you will experience in a country with a native language other than English, the feelings you won’t experience in a place where English surrounds you. Whether it be Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, German, Mandarin, Swahili, or another language of your choice, I encourage you to think about studying in a place where you will be challenged by the language. I promise 99% of those you encounter will be understanding, will want to help you develop your skills in their native language, will be open to talking slower and pronouncing what they are saying. And as time goes by you will find that they may not need to slow down as much, that they have returned to their normal fast-paced, non use of the letter “s” (courtesy of Andalucia, Spain).
The first month is hard, and the second month may be too, and even in that third month you may think, “Damn, how is this still hard?” but that is what stepping out of your comfort zone looks like. To study abroad and not have an experience in which you are forced to step out of that safety bubble of yours, would be unfortunate. Learning a language while abroad is the perfect way to exit that safety bubble.
Before leaving for Granada I was terrified to speak Spanish in public, not wanting to make mistakes in front of native speakers or those who had a better grasp of the language than me. Granada took that fear away. While abroad I joined a triathlon team in hopes of returning to my team here at Cal having avoided a 20lb weight gain. This isn’t something I would normally do, joining a team where everyone is fluent in a language I was just learning. My perspective changed in those first weeks in Granada. I realized that this was the only way to learn. You have to throw yourself into situations that may not be comfortable in the beginning, but that in time will get easier.
I made Spanish friends that I will communicate with for the rest of my life, in Spanish, because I CAN. I can catch up with these friends because I learned their language while abroad. They taught me more about the Spanish language than any class ever has, and I will continue to learn from them, continue to make mistakes, but know that they will always be there to correct my incorrect grammar, awkward and far too proper phrasing, and terrible pronunciation. Learning to embrace spoken Spanish, to know that inevitably I would make mistakes, but that these mistakes would just serve as opportunities to learn more – that was the biggest and coolest success of my time abroad. And so I encourage you to truly think about what you want out of your experience abroad. If it includes expanding your knowledge of a new culture, taking a step outside of your comfort zone, being able to say that you are bilingual or even proficient in a second language, then please explore the many options you have to study in a place where the language spoken is not your own.