Upon arriving in country, we sat down with our host mom to sign a contract stating that we’d be respectful of the house, follow basic rules, etc. All was going smoothly until we reached the last bullet point.
-Student must speak/communicate in Spanish and only Spanish.
My roommate and I gaped at each other. We’d been completely unaware of this program requirement before our arrival. In fact, we knew a few kids on the trip who had never taken a Spanish class in their life. Warily, we signed the contract.
Things went pretty smoothly in the beginning. Our host parents clearly made an effort to fully enunciate and slow their words while using hand gestures. We were able to have casual conversations with them. Of course, there were parts we didn’t quite grasp, but we’d nod along figuring it was only important that we understood the general gist. However, the more we let slip through the cracks, the deeper we dug our own grave. Our parents grew to live under the impression that we understood more than we did; they began to speak to us not only faster, but also more often. My roommate and I panicked, at a loss for words half of the time.
It was incredibly disheartening. We grew to love our host parents; they were so kind and loving. Additionally, our mom was the best cook we’d ever experienced. We raced home to our dinners. Our dad shared his passion of crafting with us by teaching us how to make earrings. We wanted to better communicate with them so we could fully explain how appreciative we were. It was easily the most challenging part of the trip—wanting to talk so badly and being physically unable to do so. If I could edit any part of the trip, it would definitely be my speaking abilities.
Honestly, I should’ve better prepared for the language barrier from the get-go. Even without the Spanish-only requirement, I should’ve brushed up on old notes regardless. It’s an absolutely awful American mindset to rely on others’ abilities to speak English as a backup. It was also my own ignorance to believe I could rely on the few years of Spanish I’d taken preceding 10th grade. If I truly wanted to assimilate into the culture, I would’ve put forth the extra effort to study Spanish pre-departure.
With that being said, the barrier really helped me to appreciate the idea of language and communication in general. My roommate and I found ourselves only speaking to our parents when we had something very specific and direct to communicate. Otherwise, there was a huge absence of small talk—the weather, the local news, our home lives. Oddly enough, we grew used to the silence. That is, until we landed in Miami and found ourselves surrounded with the very loud hum of English conversations. We hadn’t realized how isolated we had become. As we bought lunch on our layover, we chatted with the barista—how her day was going, the possibility of an upcoming thunderstorm—and found ourselves enjoying it so much!
It was this newfound appreciation of something so simple in life, small talk, that really prompted me to think about my long-term goals, and the role of communication in my future professional career. Living in Costa Rica was eye-opening; I experienced fear and discomfort, and learned how to face adversity head-on. I learned how much work actually goes into traveling, and how every single moment can serve as a lesson to learn or educate oneself. Finally, I experienced navigating my everyday life without a means of fluid communication.
However, those feelings of unease and helplessness, especially in regards to being surrounded by a foreign language, really reignited my ambition to become fluent in another language. I believe it’s a very useful skill to possess, and adds depth to one’s person. Additionally, it’s incredibly beneficial in the professional world, opening up avenues for networking and collaboration with a previously unavailable group of people, both at home and internationally.
Overall, my abroad experience was a positive one, and I wouldn’t change a single thing. I believe I gained a plethora of knowledge and understanding regarding culture, relationships, people, and professionalism that will be unique from others, and help contribute to my success in the future not only as a person, but also in my career field.