The University of Iowa

How a Subway sandwich made me realize my language growth

April 30th, 2018

Coming to Uruguay, the only sort of background I had in Spanish was a few short Duolingo sessions on the plane ride there. I figured it would be a “learn as you go” type of experience. Needless to say, my first day in Uruguay was somewhat of a reality shock for me, when I attempted to greet my non-English speaking host family and could only smile and nod.

I remember thinking to myself, what have I gotten myself into?

After unpacking, I decided it was time to get myself some much-deserved food. Overwhelmed by the options, I opted for the consistent classic: Subway.

In my mind, pointing to the ingredients I wanted was a perfect solution to my language inadequacy problem. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out this way. I ended up with a ham and ketchup sandwich. Yes, just ham and ketchup.

About a month down the road, I was about to leave for a trip to Brazil. At this point, I felt as though I was at a plateau in my language learning. Most other students in my program had a background in the Spanish language and it was difficult for me to not feel discouraged by comparing my one worded answers to their eloquent and elaborate replies.

We had been waiting in a bus station when I spotted a Subway out of the corner of my eye. My stomach rumbling, I decided it was time for a sandwich. I mustered up the courage to get in line and began to write a mental script of what I was going to order.

“Quiero pan italiano por favor.” This was as far as I got in my mental script, and before I knew it, the rest of my order was rolling off my tongue.


“Si, tostada.”

“Quieres queso?”

“Si, queso americana.”


“Todas las vegetales y la salsa de cebolla.”

I received no strange or confused looks from the woman making my sandwich. There was no need to say “no entiendo,” or “que?” She wrapped up my sandwich, I paid, and went to get on my fifteen-hour bus ride.

Throughout this long bus ride, I couldn’t shake the feeling of pride for ordering my sandwich with no problems. It may seem like a small step to others, but to me, this was a milestone. I couldn’t help thinking back to the dreadful ham and ketchup sandwich I had ordered when I first arrived in South America. I took a bite of my ordinary subway sandwich and thought to myself that this may have been the best sandwich I had ever had. I may not be conversational, and I may not be where I had wished I would be, but I’m a long way from where I started. And hey, at least I can order a sandwich.

Lindsey Towle

Lindsey Towle is a journalism and global health major at the University of Iowa, who will be spending her semester in Montevideo, Urugauy, in a program administered by the University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC).

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