Intercambio: A language exchange between two people. Each a native speaker of a different language.
This definition of an intercambio to me is correct, but it does not cover all the aspects of what it entails. Not only is it an exchange of words between two people, it is an exchange of culture. Conversations abroad are impactful, and I believe that partaking in intercambio opportunities has been the most important part of my study abroad experience by far.
The way in which we think constantly evolves depending on where we are in our lives, how we were raised, and where we were raised. Living in the United States, a country of immigrants, many of us are constantly exposed to people that differ from us. We can become desensitized to the gift that is to us. More often than not, we know what to say and when to say it when talking to those who differ from us. We often know of or experience a wide range of cultures, and how they differ from our own. Most importantly, we have access to other people, almost always, to whom we can respectfully ask our ignorant questions when Google just doesn’t suffice.
My experience studying abroad in Granada, Spain, a region with an almost homogenous population, has been different. There is internationalism here, but not at a rate as great as the United States. I believe that this makes their curiosity 10 times stronger and much more apparent as compared to that of those of us who are from the United States.
Now, I am not saying that culture shock will not happen to you abroad because of your desensitization to diversity or multicultural environments. It likely will. Culture shock in Spain for Americans is real. There is new food, new holidays and parades that I am constantly learning about from the people that live here, but they also learn much from me. In our intercambio conversations, we exchange ideas — political or religious — discuss fashion trends (especially amongst the ladies), and of course talk about the regions in which we grew up and how that affects the way we think and how we act today.
Intercambios are powerful tools that I would encourage any student studying abroad to use. They give you direct access to “locals” in the region in a low-stress setting where you can ask each other the burning questions that have been on your mind in a direct, yet respectful, way.
As a black woman in Granada, I attract attention. I get many questions here in Spain. I am different from many people in the city am but interesting to many more, and I use this as a way to teach people. Speaking is powerful but having the ability to conversate is even more impactful. When someone is willing to listen and not interject, progress is made; when a person is attentive, yet respectful, barriers can be crossed.
As Spain becomes more international and the United States continues its history of internationalism, these intercambio conversations will become more and more important. One should not fear what they do not understand, because there will always be something one doesn’t understand. Learning how to deal with it is important.
I have been 100% impressed with the intercambio opportunities I have had with people from Spain. Whether it be a young person on the street, or a discussion with a professor during or after class, I have walked away feeling full. Full of knowledge. Full of life. And full of hope that we young people are creating the future that we want to see, today.