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Living and Learning Another Language

by Shaeffer Smith

Last Updated on April 16, 2015 by

Hola! Olá! Shalom! Bonjour!

Whatever language you speak, chances are you will be speaking another language when you go abroad. Are you thinking about practicing your Spanish or French? Or are you considering learning a whole new language while abroad?

Go for it!

It sounds scary at first, but you can do it. I promise. Although, it does take some effort!

I’m lucky because I have been learning Spanish for 14 years, but learning how to read and write in Spanish is much easier than speaking it all the time. When I got to Spain, I was extremely nervous to speak in Spanish. I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of my host family or classmates or even in front of locals.

However, one day it hit me that if I don’t start actually working on my Spanish, I would never get any better. It has been a challenging process, but I wouldn’t change a minute of it.

If you’re too nervous to go to a country where you don’t fully speak the language, or any of it at all, that’s exactly where you should go. Going abroad is an enormous learning experience (cliché, I know, but it’s true). Speaking another language has countless benefits, even knowing just a little bit. You will surprise yourself with how much you learn in such a short period of time and the best way to learn is to throw yourself into the language and culture!

My very best friend is also studying abroad with AIFS, but she is in Rome. I remember her telling me and I wondered why since she doesn’t speak a lick of Italian! I will never forget her telling me she wanted to learn it and explore Rome. When I visited her 3 months in, I was extremely impressed at how much she had learned already. Noticing her change, I started to notice the progress I had made by forcing myself to speak Spanish.

When learning a new language, I have found it most helpful to practice by talking to native speakers. I can’t begin to describe what a blessing it is to live with a host family where I have to speak in Spanish at least twice a day. Practice really does make perfect. However, when you get to know someone really well, it becomes easier and easier to understand them, so I still found it difficult to talk to strangers. To overcome this, I have forced myself to speak to these strangers, like the person next to me on the plane or the shop owner or waiter.

On a trip to Portugal, I greeted an older couple at the airport and began talking to them. They ended up invited us to an art show they were putting on in Porto and we began to build a friendship with them. That experience helped build my confidence, which then motivated me to speak it even more!

pedro morillo artist madrid porto

Kim and I with the artist Pedro Morillo

I can’t lie and say that taking classes in another language is easy, because it’s not at first. But with time and effort it can become second nature. What you put in you get back! If you don’t want to learn a new language, you won’t. But if you do, and you challenge yourself and practice and really try, you definitely will. Also, you will naturally pick up staple words and phrases, don’t worry.

I am very lucky because my AIFS group really wants to speak Spanish and improve our skills, so we often speak Spanish to each other. When we go out, we speak Spanish to each other a good amount of the time. When we watch a soccer game or go to an event, we usually say that after a certain time we “turn on Spanish mode” and only speak Spanish to each other. This really helps us practice and become more comfortable using another language in social situations. Again, what you put into it is what you will get out. There is a boy from another school in one of my classes who hardly spoke any Spanish coming to Salamanca. He didn’t even try to improve, he asked the rest of us for answers and when asked to read aloud he would skip over words he didn’t know. I feel like he could have learned so much more if he tried, failed and learned from it instead of being too afraid to even try.

When you go abroad, you are still going to school (despite what you may have heard, yes, we still have classes). School is about learning, so no one will judge you for being incorrect, they will admire you for attempting something new and difficult, and overcoming it. Not to mention that everyone is learning alongside you; you’re not alone! Teachers, classmates, locals, they all understand that you do not speak Spanish or Italian or French as your first language, so if you mess up, they don’t care. They will just be impressed with you putting in effort to learn and improve. Most times they will help you too.

Before you go abroad to a country where you don’t know the language fully, practice, practice, practice! My friends and I are obsessed with Duolingo, an app and website for learning new languages. It helps knowing at least a little bit of the language and using it as a building block for your adventure in a foreign tongue!

Not speaking English sounds scary, I know, but I’m not just surviving, I’m thriving, and so are all of my friends. It is possible to live and learn in another language, so give it a shot! During your time abroad, you will surprise yourself and others with how much you have learned or improved. It will not only help your brain but it will build up your confidence, and not to mention résumé!


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