How to Study in Spain When you Speak Zero Spanish

How to Study in Spain When you Speak Zero Spanish

Deciding to study in Spain was both the easiest and the hardest decision I’ve ever made, easy because of the adventure ahead, and hard because…well, it meant studying and living in a country whose language I could barely speak. But if my dad could do it pre-Google, then I could certainly do it in 2009. And so can anyone else with enough patience and determination. Here are 8 tips for those mad enough to take the plunge into full language immersion:

1. Take Spanish lessons. Once I knew for sure I was going to the University of Navarra, I realized I needed to kick my Spanish studies into overdrive. I had already chosen it as my language elective in high school, but the summer before leaving I also I started private lessons with a family friend who is a native speaker. Although we did intensive two-hour lessons several times a week, there is a lot more I could have done to bridge the massive gap between completing exercises in a workbook and speaking Spanish in the real world. I could have changed the language on my phone and my iPod. I could have listened to music and watched shows in Spanish to improve my listening and learn more vocabulary. I could have insisted that my parents only speak to me in Spanish. But I didn’t, so even if I was acing classroom Spanish, this by no means meant that I could fend for myself en España.

2. Prepare to be frustrated. Fast-forward to July 2009, when I arrived in Spain. From the moment I touched down in Madrid to when my bus pulled up in Pamplona, my brain was working on overdrive to understand the rapid-fire conversations going on around me. Spaniards speak a million miles an hour, start their sentences with verbs and talk over each other. I thought to myself, What have I signed up for? During my stay with my godfather, who didn’t speak English, I struggled with the novelty of being unable to express myself, especially difficult because I normally never shut up. But at some point, when I was on vacation with his family in Santander, I actually began to understand what was going on. I progressed from getting the gist of the conversation to retaining specific words. Although I still couldn’t construct a sentence quickly enough to join in, I was on my way.

How to Study in Spain When you Speak Zero Spanish
University would have been a lot less fun without these humans

3. Embrace immersion. In September, the school year started and I moved into a female dorm with over 100 Spanish girls. During orientation, I found to my amazement that I could answer their questions in full sentences.

“¿De dónde eres?”

“Soy Filipina, pero mi padre es suizo.”

“Hablas castellano?

“Entiendo pero no hablo muy bien.”

I was living the introductory lesson to Spanish conversation, and lucky enough to be in an environment were people were genuinely interested in getting to know me.

4. Let go of your embarrassment. When I finally started speaking Spanish, it was because I had to. I had to get myself set up for the next four years in Spain, which meant getting my high school diploma accredited, opening a bank account, setting up a phone plan, doing groceries, and all the rest of it. On my many misadventures, I constantly confused my masculine and feminine nouns and invented words when trying to conjugate, but I had to live my life and that meant talking to people. The Spanish in Navarra are great about people trying to learn their language. They would often feed me the words I needed to finish my sentences and didn’t seem to care too much that I was butchering their language. They appreciated the effort I was making to learn to speak to them and often corrected me. This might have seemed embarrassing at first, but I had to get over that and accept that they were trying to help and this was good for me.

5. Find some really good friends. It was one thing speaking Spanish to get around in daily life, but quite another to apply it in to academic setting- for a Journalism degree no less. I made some really good friends who let me photocopy their notes and explain things to me when I had completely lost track of what the professor was talking about. Muchísimas gracias amigas, you know who you are. Sin vosotras, no hibuera acabado la carrera. 

How to Study in Spain When you Speak Zero Spanish
One of my best friends and translators, Gabi

6. There’s no such thing as too much Google Translate. After photocopying my friends’ notes, I would take them home, highlight them and run them through Google Translate and WordReference, writing myself subtitles. This turned out to be a great study method as I was looking at everything at least twice, first to understand it and then memorize it.

7. Go for a drink. This helps you let go of your embarrassment and prevents you from overthinking about those verb conjugations. Once you’re a few vinos in and your tongue starts to loosen, the Spanish don’t care if you mess up as long as they understand what you’re saying. The best way to get immersed in a language is to surround yourself with native speakers, and the bars along the cobbled streets of Pamplona’s old town are where its people are most in their element, sharing stories and telling jokes. Besides, two euros for a pintxo and a bebida is a much better deal than a 15-euro private language class, and I guarantee you’ll speak a lot more Spanish.

The best way to learn Spanish is with a drink in your hand

8. Practice makes perfect. Learning a language is never going to happen overnight. But if you’re dead set on doing it and keep practicing, it will happen. After a few months of frustration you’ll then have a skill that lasts a lifetime. Hay que levantar la cabeza y seguir adelante!


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