Updated: Jun 16, 2021
Fun fact about me: I spent seven months living in Madrid as an English language assistant at a primary school. I gained so much life experience and learned so much about the world and myself during this move. It was an invaluable time in my life, and I’m itching to move back abroad again to experience and learn more!
Here’s another interesting fact though: I didn’t know Spanish. Some may say moving to Spain without knowledge of Spanish is brave, while others may have a few choice words, but I’ll just say I was optimistic. I’ve heard so much about how “easy” it is to pick up a language when you’re immersed in it, and I had a background in Italian (they’re both derived from Latin and so have many similar words and grammar rules). So with high expectations I downloaded Duolingo and boarded the plane.
I’ll write more about my challenges in learning Spanish another time, but let’s just say the seven months were filled with miscommunications, hand gestures, and ashamedly asking, “Hablas inglés?” Coincidently though, I experienced the other side at work, interacting with the students who were learning English. I got to be both the student and the teacher, which was humbling and eye-opening.
Here are some lessons I learned during this time:
1. Hand gestures, tone, and context convey so much meaning beyond words.
There is so much more to communication than the words strung together. Hand gestures, tone, and context are so important because they add meaning to the words, and it’s possible to understand the gist of something without understanding the exact wording. For example, if the cashier at the grocery store gestures to the shopping bags after ringing your items and says something that sounds like a question (their tone gets high at the end of the sentence), you can assume that they’re asking if you need a shopping bag for your groceries.
2. Learning a few phrases and commonly used words is the key to unlocking comprehension.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, start by learning basic phrases and commonly used words. In all languages there are words and phrases that are most used in common conversations and signage. Once you start picking these up, you’ll find yourself understanding so much more of what is going on around you, and it will feel like a breath of relief.
3. Saying something perfectly is not necessary to be understood.
As a recovering perfectionist, I used to think if I couldn’t say something perfectly, with the correct pronunciation, tone, and cadence, it was better to not say anything at all. I found myself not improving because I wasn’t practicing! I learned it’s better to try imperfectly than not try at all, and most times you will be able to get your meaning across. If you’re scared of what people might think of you, the reality is most people will respect you for trying and giving it your effort. Most people will be kind and understanding. Sure, you might get a snide comment or a laugh here and there from someone not as kind, but laugh with them! It’s okay to look like a fool sometimes–that’s the only way you will progress on the road to mastery. So put your ego aside and give it a try!
4. There are so many rules and exceptions to languages, especially English, which can make it difficult to learn–be kind to those who don’t speak perfectly!
Everyone has different strengths, and some people might find it more difficult than others to learn languages. Regardless of whether or not you’re good at it, learning a language is work! It requires studying, practicing, and, like I mentioned before, it requires you to step outside your comfort zone. You may sometimes sound like a fool when you’re trying out the new words and phrases you learn. Because of this, I respect and admire the bravery of anyone learning a new language and trying their best to communicate with it.
5. Smiles and laughter are universal.
This may sound corny, but it’s true. The most beautiful thing about humans is our ability to connect, transcending language barriers and miscommunications. Our emotions and expressions have the ability to shine through and speak to each other. At the end of the day, don’t stress too much because if you learn, try your best, and let your intentions show through with your emotions, you’ll be okay. I was always okay.
What do you think? Had any similar experiences? Any specific aspects of living in Spain you’d like to see me write about on the blog? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Instagram at @nicolemarronediting.
Talk to you soon!