Living the study abroad life with a host family in Spain
Studying abroad anywhere in the world involves a degree of change and adaptation – not limited to language, culture, the metric system, living arrangements and even using public transportation to get to class. I knew what I was getting into when I willingly chose to live my life almost entirely in Spanish. From the beginning, I checked off “Only speaks Spanish” on my housing assignment form. Yup – I would be living with a Spanish-speaking host family for an entire year. Drastic language adaptation was required, for one thing, and I anticipated being a witness to Spanish family culture.
This guest post is by Kerianne Baylor.
I’m glad I checked off that box to place myself in a housing arrangement in which a language other than my native language, English, is spoken 24/7. Is it difficult at times? Yes. Do I play charades a lot? Of course! Language barriers are clearly evident – my host mom only knows a few English words she’s learned along the way hosting American students – but it is all part of the process. I expected to be challenged by communication. Ironically enough, Spain has proven to be the least challenging as far as language barriers because I actually understand and speak Spanish.
I underestimated how difficult it would be to travel to countries where I have never even heard the language spoken before. There I was sitting at the dinner table with a Moroccan host family, exchanging blank stares with the occasional awkward smile, only retaining how to say “thank you” in Arabic. That was when I realized how horrible I actually am at playing charades – when verbal communication was not even possible and I had to rely on facial expressions, thumbs up and hand motions.
Returning to Madrid from spontaneous weekend trips makes me feel at home again. (Just don’t tell my mom I call Madrid my home.) I’ve learned to navigate streets, barrios and the metro. I feel like a part of a family, sitting with my host mom and roommate at dinner while enjoying delicious home-cooked Spanish meals – I swear she makes the best croquetas I’ve tasted!
I am comfortable being abroad, living in Spain. It has become my familiar reality – speaking in another language, learning new colloquial sayings, tasting new foods. I can tell that I am changing as a person – for the better, of course; I am constantly learning and exploring new things. I can offer a few pieces of advice for living la vida española, though some extend beyond Spain to advise those studying abroad in various other countries. So, here we go! Vale, vale , vale.
When I first arrived and lacked extensive food vocabulary, my ordering method at restaurants consisted of finger pointing. I’d try anything and look it up later – worked out just fine! (Side note: Do not do this if you have allergies) Same goes for eating my host mom’s food – eat now, find out what it is later because, hey, it looks good and I’m hungry!
The concept of time in Spain is much, much slower than in America. For me, this was the greatest difference in culture – I’m used to NY & NJ clock-oriented mentality, in which your life is dictated by moments ticking away. Once I adjusted, I realized how relaxing it is to take a deep breath and enjoy the ‘now’.
Follow the crowd
This advice can be adapted to a range of topics: clothes trends, colloquial language, and public transportation. You’ve got to try your best to blend in, so look to Spaniards and follow their lead: overuse “vale” and “venga,” adapt the “th” Spanish accent (Gracias pronounced as grathias), and, yes, buy those trendy, parachute pants that remind you of Aladdin.
Find some Spanish friends
Adding onto the previous advice, befriending Spaniards gives you the change to actually be part of the crowd. Go to intercambios. Talk to other students besides Americans. Hang out at local bars and clubs. You can be with Americans when—if—you return to the states.
Never stop learning
Every situation abroad—and in life, for that matter—provides you with an opportunity to learn and grow as a person; even it is something that seems unimportant, a lesson can be learned. That time you thought you knew your way to school and you ended up on a completely different campus? Now you know that’s the wrong way. That time you decided to drink the night away before a trip and you casually woke up at the time of your bus departure? Now you know sleeping would have been the better option.
Overall, it is best to keep an open mind while studying abroad. As a student with Academic Programs International (API), my acceptance packet included a quote that communicates this perfectly.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain
Kerianne is immersing herself in the Spanish culture and language while studying abroad in Madrid, Spain for an academic year. Check out her experiences abroad on the Academic Programs International (API) blog and on her personal blog.
This guest post is part of a new project on The Study Abroad Blog about the Study Abroad Experience. The goal is simple: collect as many guest posts as possible, with posts written by current and previous study abroad students. While the topic can be just about anything, ideally students will pick a specific aspect of a city/country that they were most interested in or passionate about. If you would like to contribute to the project, head over to the contact page and send me a message!