Learning a language abroad: the harsh reality

Louise Lacourarie

Learning a language in its native country is an incredible opportunity for language students. However, it cannot be denied that it isn’t always an easy experience and, in fact, it can often be very challenging. Missing the bus because you didn’t understand the loudspeaker announcement, ordering strange food because you couldn’t understand the menu or simply feeling lost in a Spanish-speaking world are all daily occurrences in the lives of students abroad.

Even though I had studied the Spanish language for six years, including at an advanced university level, the shock when I arrived in Argentina in July was intense. With so much exclusively Argentine slang and idiom replacing common words I had learned in class, it was incredibly hard to understand even the most basic sentences. What surprised me the most was my inability to speak in an informal or “normal” way, an aspect of a language that is rarely addressed in class. Discussing the political consequences of the Falklands War or the legalisation of marijuana in Uruguay didn’t seem to present a problem, but spontaneously asking how much a kilo of strawberries (a completely different word in Argentine Spanish) cost was an almost insurmountable obstacle. On top of that, add conjugation, pronunciation and range of vocabulary that is unique to Argentina and you have a series of linguistic barriers that are overwhelming for any student of Spanish.

Therefore, it is no surprise that I spent my first few weeks in Argentina frustrated, confused and with tears in my eyes due to my linguistic difficulties. I was very lucky to attend private classes in the provinces of Santa Fe and then in Buenos Aires, my patient teachers helping me to gain confidence in my abilities and bit by bit I began to improve. Outside of the classroom I started to put my new knowledge into practice and slowly felt more and more comfortable. That isn’t to say that everything changed overnight; when I tried to reserve a seat on a bus in Buenos Aires after three months living in the country, the operator hung up on me mid-sentence because he didn’t understand me (or perhaps didn’t want to understand me). But despite these hindrances, I was finally able to take part in group conversations, understand jokes and make calls without fear!

Now I am in Bolivia, working for Bolivian Express, a magazine that deals with current cultural issues in the country. Of course, I have to get used to another style of Spanish, with new vocabulary, intonation and gestures in everyday speech. But this time I am facing the challenge with much more confidence and linguistic tools, especially thanks to my classes with Roxana at Instituto Exclusivo. I hope to continue improving my Spanish and discover authentic aspects of Bolivian society.

What these months in South America have taught me the most is that learning a language, even in an immersive context, is a slow process, and that there is no rush to speak perfectly from the day you arrive. This is true for any language, whether it be Spanish, Aymara or English. For me, being in contact with native speakers and exposing oneself to authentic situations is the best way to push yourself to learn a language and make long term improvements, even if it is a daunting prospect at first. It's a difficult process that is often frustrating, but with a bit of hard work, determination and enjoyment, it can be a hugely rewarding experience.

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Learning a language in its native country / language students / Spanish-speaking / Spanish language / linguistic difficultiesSpanish / Aymara or English