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Lost in Translation: Me vs. A Foreign Language

Sangria, tapas, discotecas, and weekend getaways- that’s what was going through my mind when I signed up to study abroad in Madrid last spring. You know, all the really important stuff? I didn’t think twice about how I would manage to communicate with the locals. With eight years of Spanish classes under my belt, and a minor declared, it couldn’t be that hard, could it?

Oh, but it can be that hard. I was slapped in the face with Spanish the moment I stepped off the plane.  Voices trailed in one ear and out the other, each person speaking one hundred times faster than the last one.  I picked up words here and there but struggled to understand what anyone was saying. Attempting to form a response was even harder since I had spoken a maximum of 3 Spanish words since my final last May (my first mistake). ¿¿What’s the preterite again??

Lucky for me, my host mom doesn’t speak a word of English so I am forced to practice this lovely language.  When it comes to battling the language barrier, here is what I have learned.

Don’t think too much: At first, I didn’t like to speak unless I knew what I was saying was 100% perfect. So you can only imagine how our dinner conversations went with 20 minute pauses that I used to make sure my adjectives matched my nouns, and my verbs were conjugated correctly. The conversations were dull, and not to mention awkward.  That’s when my friend, and fluent Spanish speaker roommate told me to just speak. She reassured me that even if what I was saying wasn’t grammatically correct most people would understand what I was trying to say. Since then, I’ve been doing less thinking, and more speaking, and I’ve found that usually I am able to get my point across, despite my hauntingly American accent.

Learn to laugh: When anyone is attempting to speak Spanish, whether it be a novice or an expert some things are bound to get lost in translation, or in my case just completely lost. While it is easy to get frustrated during these times, I find it best (and hard not to) laugh.  One morning when my host mom asked me what kind of milk she should buy, I tried to tell her that I liked fat-free.  I thought I relayed this message successfully, until the next morning when I found a carton of lactose-free milk sitting on the table. I sighed but smiled, as I poured the lactose-free milk into my cereal.  During another one of our conversations about glasses, I attempted to explain how my dad used to have terrible vision until he got Lasik eye surgery. But I must have chosen my words poorly, because from the look of excitement and joy on her face, I had left her thinking he was blind and then had a miracle surgery. I ran to my roommate to figure out how to explain that my dad was never blind.  “Nunca era ciego” I said to my host mom as she nodded in understanding, and laughed at our confusion, and my poor Spanish skills.

Talk to everyone: The best way to learn any language is to practice. Back in the USA the majority of my opportunities to speak Spanish occurred when I was in Spanish class, but obviously that is not the case here. I’ll talk to my neighbors on the elevator, people on the metro, or the guy making my coffee. Any little conversation is good practice, and even if you don’t understand what they’re saying back to you, the “smile and nod” always works. Hey, at least you tried.

…and incase you ever find yourself in Spain (which I hope you do) here are some good to know Spanish words. More sangria please = más sangria por favor, because a little liquid confidence never hurt while learning a foreign language.

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