The University of Iowa

Climbing the Language Barrier

November 13th, 2014

By Emily Archer

I'm going to start off by telling everyone it's 60 degrees outside, and I am FREEZING. This cold is giving me flashbacks to the polar vortex and -25 degree wind chill. Except it's 60 degrees. I am an Iowan in and out, 20 years of living with Iowa winters, and I have become soft. This place has changed me into the person that says, "Que calor!" At 80 degrees and "Que frio!" At 60 degrees.

I can't wait to come back in the middle of Iowa winter. I am not even close to prepared.

Not only has my personal climate preference changed, but my language skills and communication has changed as well. Improved, I think, but it's really hard to keep track of your own language skills when you're using it every day and improving over a long amount of time. I came into this country overwhelmed, unsure of what to do or say, and getting constant headaches from trying to actively listen to Spanish 24/7. Now I'm at the point where I can listen to my professors and my host mom easily (although my host mother speaks with a heavy Sevillano accent, so sometimes it's just impossible.)

Photo credit to Anna Spack. I don't speak swordfish but I'm sure he had a lot to say!

I can't say when it all happened, but I started understanding more with less effort, I started thinking more in Spanish than English, and slowly but surely I gained the confidence to speak Spanish, regardless of how good I was. I think if there was any kind of barrier for me, it was more my own lack of confidence in myself than anything else.

I have received nothing but encouragement here, and while sometimes I do feel like an idiot, and some people give me that, "Oh, jeeze, this slow-poke-speaking American" look, but because I'm stubborn as heck, that look just encourages me to speak even more. A lot of encouragement has actually come from some of the storekeepers I start a conversation with.

There was one in particular, an owner of this quirky gift shop that has a lot of artisan and vintage stuff inside. I stepped in one night after staring into the window for the past month and a half, and started a conversation with the man running the shop after asking how much a fan cost. He told me about the story of the store itself, how it was connected to the opera Carmen (a super famous opera that I'm sure everyone knows about but doesn't actually know about), and I nodded and listened intently, asking a couple questions and answering his. I told him I was a study abroad student from the U.S., and he replies, "Really? Your Spanish is really good!" (In Spanish, of course).

I think the most sincere and appreciated (for me, at least) are the ones that not only come from Spaniards here, but the strangers that don't really think about how saying those five words can affect someone who's learning the language. Spaniards are also insanely honest; sometimes it can be a little off-putting, but you know that their words, good or not so good, come from the heart. That's the kind of comment that every person needs to hear. I still get all warm and happy when I think about it (even in this 60 degree weather.)

Living in Spain is the main push towards speaking and learning Spanish, but I think to actually get up to a level of comprehension (on both sides), you have to be active with your Spanish. I am not extremely outgoing when it comes to walking up to strangers and talking to them, or even meeting people for the first time. So I sometimes have to push myself to talk.

While my Spanish isn't at the point I wanted to be (i.e. completely fluent), I'm still proud of where I'm at. I think the biggest thing I have gained here is the confidence to speak Spanish. I think that's the biggest barrier for everyone learning a language.

It's daunting and embarrassing to speak in a language that isn't your own. You feel dumb, you feel like others think you're dumb, and why use Spanish when you can use English? No. Learning a second language is a feat in and of itself. If you know five words and can count to ten, that's better than millions of other people in this world.

But if you truly want to excel at a language, you can't just do it all in your head (like I would). You have to talk. Or write, or read, or even listening to the language will help. Get out there and use the language! I still make mistakes, some pretty laughable ones, but now that I've hit the ground running, I'm not going to come back to Iowa and just stop there.

Studying abroad here in Sevilla has given me even more motivation to be truly bilingual (trilingual, French is next), and now I have the huevos to do it. I survived two months abroad speaking Spanish, and I'll survive a month and a half more, improving my Spanish bit by bit.

Climbing that language barrier until I can overcome it.



Emily Archer is a junior majoring in Journalism with a minor in Spanish at the University of Iowa. She is currently studying abroad on the CIEE Seville Communications, New Media and Journalism Program in Seville, Spain.

Take a look at Emily's personal travel blog here(link is external).