How diving head-first into a new country, language and culture shook me up, taught me about myself and forced me to struggle--for the better.
By Sara Utsugi
As a Communication major, it seems odd that it took moving to Spain for me to realize the complexity and power of language. I came to Spain this semester not knowing a lick of Spanish...smart right? When my professor at CEA (the study abroad program I’m in) asked our class what level our Spanish was at, I quickly replied, “Low, low beginner.”
“Low beginner?” he said. “I like that.”
“Yup, only one way to go from here, and that’s up.”
From that interaction, one might assume that I was confident when it came to learning Spanish, but it was just about the opposite. I felt embarrassed and silly as I awkwardly tried to pronounce words, longing to be immersed in an English-speaking culture once again. Because I had never taken a Spanish class before, I wasn’t familiar with the sounds of the language, and until I saw a word spelled out and spoken, I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying, even my peers. I’ve now been in Spain for almost exactly two months, so the language isn’t as foreign, however, I remember the first few days feeling trapped in my apartment almost scared to go outside and be surrounded by Spanish. For my peers, they didn’t face the same struggle, being that they could at least say basic sentences to order food, ask for directions or check how much something costed. I envied their ability to express themselves, while I relied on hand gestures and unconfidently mumbled Spanish.
I’ve always been very confident when it comes to talking to strangers, presenting in a class or even being interviewed by a potential boss. Words were never something scarce to me, so for the first time here, I am learning the value of vocabulary. We had a Spanish acting class, and our instructor told us we could only speak in Spanish for the duration of the class. Well...that was a problem for me. At the end of the class, he asked us to describe what we thought of the class, and when my turn came, I mumbled something like, “Me gusta ‘si, no’ exercise...I mean, errrr ummm...como se dice ‘exercise’?” As someone who has never lacked words, I found myself frustrated and annoyed by the fact that I simply didn't have them. I wanted to gush over how much fun the class was, how it allowed me to get comfortable saying Spanish words and how I thought our instructor did an excellent job, but all I could express was, “I like the ‘yes no’ exercise.” Frustrating.
In America, I so took for granted the fact that I was always understood, so much so, I never put any thought into it. Until language was taken away from me, it was hard to understand the true importance of it. Here, in Sevilla, I notice that when I pass a group of people, my ears automatically perk up to listen in on what language they’re speaking, finding myself excited and comforted when it’s English. Thankfully, I’m lucky enough to have a house mom who speaks some English, but when it comes to building a relationship with her, the language barrier prevents us from having many meaningful conversations. I’ve found that when I force myself to clumsily spill out broken Spanish, she is able to relate to me better. And similarly, when she speaks in English, I am better able to relate to her.
To be immersed in a culture so different from my own has been an amazing opportunity to learn about myself and my ability to adapt. I’ve learned that sometimes when I lack words, I tend to sink into myself more, so it’s even more important for me to keep learning, unafraid to ask questions or mess up. I’ve learned that everyone finds comfort in their own language and that we far too often take understanding for granted. I’ve learned that as humans, we need language to connect on a deeper level and that it’s good to learn something new every day.
See, language is our gateway to meeting new people, creating relationships and forming ties to a culture. Never in my life have I ever lacked the words, but when it comes to learning a new language and living in Spain, it has become a daily occurrence. Living in Spain has been such a learning experience for me, and being away from an English-speaking culture has challenged me more than I ever expected. It has forced me to dive headfirst into the discomfort and excitement of living abroad. I came to Sevilla slightly apprehensive, but this culture and language have embraced me just as I have learned and continue to learn to embrace it. Gracias Sevilla. Me gustas mucho.
I want to hear your thoughts! Ever felt similar to me; unable to express yourself and communicate? Maybe you've lived abroad before? Let me know! As always, I'm wishing you the best from behind the screen.