Language Immersion in Spain
I always knew I wanted to study abroad in a Spanish speaking country to immerse myself in the culture and language. I study sociology and Spanish at school, and while I declared both later into college, I have always been fascinated by Spanish. I am Cuban and Puerto Rican and never learned the language from my parents who both speak fluently; once I learned English I loved talking so much I never stopped to learn anything else. As I became older, I realized that I really wanted to connect with my culture and build Spanish reading, writing, and speaking fluency through classes both inside and outside of school. I excelled to “biliteracy” by my senior year of high school and proceeded with my Spanish major in college.
Despite knowing that I could communicate decently in Spanish before going abroad, I was scared to speak with the locals: I spoke best in “Spanglish,” filling in the gaps in my Spanish sentences with English when stumped. I intentionally chose a small town in Spain with a lot of history, applying to the CIEE summer sessions in Alcalá de Henares, just outside of Madrid but with few habitants that knew much English. I wanted classes taught entirely in Spanish, and I absolutely loved the courses I selected.
I decided that it would be best to just rip off the bandaid, and when landing in Spain I held my first conversation in Spanish with a local. I asked security guards for directions, and while they did not understand exactly what I was trying to say, they were able to provide help. They were patient and kind, and I did not feel judged for being confused. I then interacted with a woman in a convenience store to buy my new sim card, and spoke with a kind CIEE staff member about curly hair products; again, all in Spanish and before even leaving the airport. I felt supported immediately.
I was honest with others in my program and informed them that I needed much practice with the language, and everybody was encouraging of each other. Our group had a wide variety of language proficiencies and I am proud to say I left the program feeling confident in my Spanish speaking ability. One of my favorite activities with friends was watching movies in the theaters: we watched the newest Minions movie as well as a horror film and surprisingly I felt I understood a majority of both plots, plus it was fun adventuring out of our town. Since returning home, I make every effort to use Spanish when I can to maintain my speaking skills. I am also grateful for the expansive new vocabulary that being abroad caused me to adopt.
My biggest recommendation is remembering that nobody will judge you: know that you likely will never see the same local again, such as waiters and store clerks. They will be respectful that you are making an effort to interact with them and so many were helpful along the way. I got to know many personally over time. Before going abroad, watch television shows in the language of your destination and practice turning on and off captions, or listen to popular songs and try to learn the lyrics.
While abroad, host families and CIEE staff members were great ways to practice with a trusted adult that could provide corrections. I held many conversations with CIEE staff members about random topics that increased my comfort level. Unfortunately, I did not get the homestay experience, although that is incredibly beneficial and the host family can provide advice and teach new vocabulary, but I still got a great amount of exposure with the people that worked in my building and developed close friendships.