Although I have been learning Spanish since 7th grade, I am still not fluent. This, more than anything, is why I decided to study abroad in Madrid through GW. I have always admired people who are able to speak another language and promised myself that, one day, I would be able to as well.
This is a disclaimer to all prospective students: GW Madrid is not your average study abroad program. Most of my friends are studying abroad in places where English is common, and where they share their own apartment with friends—places where they don’t often experience the culture of their host country. GW Madrid, however, is completely immersive, challenging, scary, and most of all, rewarding.
Although I’ve been having the time of my life, my first 11 days in Madrid have been physically and mentally exhausting. My professors, my host mom, and my advisors all speak to me only in Spanish. Absorbing, translating and communicating two different languages 24/7 is one of the hardest things I have ever had to learn how to do. But, it has also been the most rewarding. Just after a couple of days in this city, I was able to speak to a Madrileño on the street, and perfect my order at a Taperia. It’s pretty hard to describe to someone who has never experienced culture shock the inexplicable joy you get from little moments like these. Thanks to the intensity of the program, I feel more immersed into the culture with each passing day.
Whenever I become frustrated over not being able to communicate properly, I remind myself what I am here for. I am studying abroad to be thrown into uncomfortable situations and come out better because of them. If I have realized anything about my Spanish in this short time, it is that I have learned more in these uncomfortable situations than I was able to my entire high school career. The GW Madrid program is a truly unique experience that I know for a fact most students do not receive. I can’t wait to spend the next 4 months here so that I can continue what I know will be a complete immersion into the Spanish language and culture. For any of you who may shy away from a program with a home-stay, or even a Spanish-speaking program in general—please, please, please don’t.
When I first landed in Buenos Aires, we were asked to meet outside the arrivals gate to meet with program officials and other students. We were then assigned a partner to share a cab with, as we headed to meet our host families. I had two large suitcases and a carry on, and when we walked outside to the cab, the driver became furious at the amount of luggage I had. He started arguing that his car was too small (it was not) and wanted to be paid more, and I stared blankly. I spoke no Spanish, and all I could do was exactly that -- stare blankly ahead. Thankfully, my cab partner communicated for me and settled the issue. It was a small moment, but it was also when it finally hit me that I was in a country where my ability to communicate was nonexistent. I felt so deeply out of place, and for the rest of the cab ride, I remained silent. I entered my home stay to be greeted by my host mom who spoke minimal English. The first three weeks of living in Argentina was characterized by a lot of head nodding to sentences I could not understand and being heavily dependent on others to communicate for me.
After I started to align with the pace of my Spanish classes, I began to pick up on the language tremendously. I now not can speak Spanish well, I can understand it also for the most part. This improvement was one I did not see coming, and one I am all too thankful for. Because when I had my ability to communicate removed, I became highly self reliant to do daily actions and have become very grateful for the newfound independence. My program is set to end next week, so I have been thinking a lot about the areas I have grown in.
But, I also have to come to terms with leaving. I have made Buenos Aires my home, and to return to the United States will be a strange type of readjustment -- adjusting to a place that is already so familiar! Granted I have travels planned out after the program ends, this discussion of coming back is nonetheless a difficult but also a healthy one to have. I am so grateful to have met the people I did and for the experiences I went through to be at the place of comfort and peace I am at now, but I miss so much my family, my friends, and my life at GW. With no doubt, I will be returning to a different environment, one which I left for four months. I will be returning to people who have in these four months have changed like I have. Being here and witnessing change daily has helped in not fearing it and rather to embracing it fully.
All I can say is that I am happy to be here and I am happy to be coming home. Thank you also to Buenos Aires for being so sweet to me this semester.
It feels a little strange to be blogging in English- here at CIEE Dakar Development Studies, we take a challenge to speak French (or Wolof) all the time, unless we absolutely must speak some English. I arrived on the 24th of August, but it already feels like my French has improved from constant use.
This week, we’ve covered all the orientation material you’d expect- like proper hygiene, safety, local transportation, cultural differences – and some you’d probably not expect. Like how to eat ‘around the bowl’, eating the national dish of Senegal, Thiebou jen, with our hands out of a communal bowl. And since I’ve been at my homestay, I have eating every lunch and dinner in this way, though with modifications, like using spoons or pieces of baguette.
But eating here is not the challenge. Living with the Diallo (pronounced like Jell-O) family has redefined the term ‘language barrier’. English is incredibly rare here- my family members have bits and pieces, but nothing substantial. I know only some greetings and polite questions in Wolof, which is their first language. So French is our primary means- and that is by no means smooth. No amount of worksheets at GW could give me the knowledge I need to completely live en français . I suppose I was being a tad overoptimistic when I envisioned communication being less of a worry than cultural adjustment.
Unfortunately, I know that my French can only improve with time, which is frustrating when I was to talk to my host sister and all the words I want to use seem to be fleeing from my mind. But my continuing studies in Wolof delights all of my family, and my brother Papi is especially enthusiastic, volunteering to help me review what I learn at school once I’m home. It is hard, and often frustrating, but staying optimistic on average really isn't difficult- there are new things every day!