In sixth grade I was introduced to the Spanish language in school and continued in high school and later into college. After roughly ten year of Spanish classes, I thought to myself, what more could I possibly learn? I felt like my Spanish skill level was as high as it possibly could be… and then I arrived in Sevilla.
Let me just preface by saying even though English is said to be the “international language,” not everyone speaks English wherever you go. If you were traveling to Spain and knew little or no Spanish, you could get by, but if you are like me, studying abroad in a Spanish-speaking country with a program that is entirely in Spanish, you need to know the language.
During my time in Sevilla, I have encountered a few times where speaking Spanish was helpful. It was not complex conversations I had or anything like that, so it was easy.
The first time I realized my Spanish was not as polished as I had presumed it would be was when I first met my host mom. Our program took us from the airport in a bus to meeting areas near our home stays. When I first met my host mom, we greeted each other like normal and then started the short trip to her home. While it was only a few minutes, it was the most awkward few minutes I have had since being here.
I am usually a person to initiate a conversation. I hate sitting in silence, especially when you are one-on-one with someone. But I was next to my host mom in this new city where Spanish was the language I had to speak, and my mind was completely blank. I could not think of anything to say. I would have a thought, but then not know how to express it in Spanish. I was too scared I would say something wrong.
I was silent, but inside I was screaming. The awkwardness was eating at me but I could not figure out how to overcome it, simply because I did not know what to say – and I am never the person who is at a loss of words.
Fast forward a week to the start of classes, classes that are all taught in Spanish. Listening in class was fairly easy, as my professors talk a little slower for us because they know we are not native speakers. Although your brain has to do extra work and move fast, it was manageable. Even during those first few classes, however, I was still not comfortable speaking out loud.
As classes continued and I was interacting with more Spanish-speaking people, my confidence was building up and things began to change. Talking with my host family and engaging in my classes in Spanish obviously boosted my language ability and confidence. But the real jump in my capabilities and confidence came from interactions outside of school and home. Whether I am buying clothes at a store or ordering tapas at a restaurant, the people helping me do not necessarily know what my native language is. While I am out and about, I can put my real Spanish knowledge to the test.
Four or five times a week I go to a café in the afternoons for a café con leche (coffee with milk: a Spanish classic) and a pastry. This small interaction of ordering my café con leche and whatever snack I desire is pretty simple, but it is real world use of my Spanish. Ordering, paying in Euros, and using common greetings and sayings like please, thank you, etc. in a public place really helped increase my capabilities, but most importantly boosted my confidence. When you can successfully communicate with a stranger at a store or restaurant in Spanish, you feel pretty good about yourself.
Now that I have been here for a month, I would say my listening and speaking levels have both improved. While I still talk slow in Spanish because my brain has to figure out what I am actually trying to say, I understand pretty much all conversations that happen in Spanish around me. I would not call myself fluent quite yet, but a big improvement has definitely occurred.
Practice really does make perfect, or in my case, almost perfect. By practicing, listening, and most importantly, having confidence and being comfortable, I was able to improve my Spanish already in just a month. Although before coming here I thought my Spanish was already pretty good, I realized what I was lacking was experience. I may know the language in my head but what good it that if you cannot actually use it in real world situations?
Studying abroad in Sevilla is about as “real world situation” as it gets. Everyday I use what I already know to practice speaking and listening, while still learning new things. As I still have about three more months here to practice and build my confidence and become even more comfortable, I hope this upward trend continues as time goes on.