I came to Spain to become fluent in Spanish.
I live with a Spanish host family, I take five Spanish classes at a Spanish university and almost every source of news and entertainment for me (with the exception of Facebook, of course) is in Spanish. It would be amazing if I were not fluent when I came back in four months. Right?
Wrong. Americans who go abroad to non-English-speaking countries somehow find a way to stay in their native-language bubbles – to the point that it’s actually a challenge to successfully learn any other language.
If anyone has seen proof of this, it’s Jaime Durán, the program director for Temple’s partnership with the University of Oviedo in Spain. Durán is a native of Oviedo, but has been teaching in the Philadelphia area since 1995. After finishing his Ph.D. at Temple and becoming a full-time faculty member, he finally managed to get a study-abroad program going in his beloved hometown.
“We started the summer program back in 2003 and the spring program last year,” Durán said, struggling to remember clearly, “so that’s about seven or eight times we’ve done this so far.”
Durán, having been born and raised in Oviedo, may have had some degree of bias when initially choosing the program’s location, but in a short time, Oviedo proved itself effective in improving students’ Spanish abilities. There are certain natural qualities to the city that render it ideal for a study-abroad program.
“I think, first and foremost, that it’s not a big city so you get the chance of seeing things – versus big cities like Salamanca that are highly populated by foreign exchange students,” he said. “I don’t think those cities offer a good environment to learn the culture and the language.”
After being put in the right environment to learn the language, students must try if they want to succeed in becoming fluent. Most who have taken years of one language know it. But even if you’ve spent what feels like a lifetime in class learning grammar, your conversation skills certainly don’t come on their own.
“You have to get on the ‘learning Spanish’ track, right from moment one,” Durán said. “There are a variety of things that you could do: watch TV, write down your five new words every day or get a boyfriend or girlfriend that speaks the language – whatever. The more you take on, the better the results will be.”
Durán also pointed out a common characteristic of students (that I’m also guilty of, but luckily, I’m slowly getting over): the uncomfortable feeling of nervous interaction and discouragement by surroundings.
“Some students just keep themselves in their comfort zone, and that is one in which only English is spoken,” he said. “And they’re going to be leading their daily lives in English, despite living with a family. But if you are abroad, you have managed to overcome most of the immediate obstacles – if you then realize that you don’t feel comfortable speaking, it shouldn’t restrain you from trying new things and going out with the locals.”
One of the first things Durán told our group when we arrived in Spain was, “You’re gonna realize two important things by the time you leave here: how much Spanish someone could learn in five months and how little they could learn in five months.”
And, of course, the students who immerse themselves in the language and culture whenever possible seem to be the ones with the most positive experiences.
“I really try to talk to my host mom and my host sister as much as I can,” said Alysha Musser, a sophomore secondary education major. “I’ll watch TV with my host mom every night, and we’ll sit there and have regular conversations about what’s on TV. Every time I don’t get a word, I write it down and define it.”
Most of us from Temple, including Musser, also participate in a program called Tandem, which allows native Spanish speakers to pair with international students to practice conversation for 30 minutes in Spanish and 30 minutes in the student’s language. Tandem, Musser said, has helped her gain confidence in her Spanish-speaking abilities.
“My partner makes me feel comfortable,” she said. “He’s like, ‘Come on, just try,’ and he’s really encouraging in that way because he wants me to learn his language. He doesn’t just want to use me to learn English.”
What Durán said to me and my group about seeing students progress definitely rings true already, just a month into the experience, based on how much people are exerting themselves and making the effort to become fluent in Spanish.
“The fact that you’re in Spain doesn’t mean that you’re going to be exposed to Spanish unless you do something about it,” Durán said, “and that is the big difference between those that make themselves learn Spanish and those that let themselves go with the flow.”
Carlene Majorino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.