And so my first week of classes at University of Belgrano comes to a close. I’m pretty broken up about the fact that we only have school 4 days a week…but I think I’ll survive. Besides, I have certainly packed plenty into my already-overfull brain in these last four days. Taking classes fully in Spanish is an amazing experience, but also gives me an entirely new appreciation for being able to fully understand what the teacher is saying. To imagine some of the challenges of hearing your non-native language, I’ll ask you to think back to your own college days. You’re sitting in the 3rd row of a pleasantly warm classroom, doing your best to wrap your head around the lecture for the day (ie. the reason for the Argentine Crisis of 2001). Like any student that has every sat behind a desk, at some point you find your mind drifting: “what am I doing tonight?… I wonder what the weather is tomorrow…I’m hungry….wow I’d really like an alfajor right now…” All of a sudden you realize that while your mind was contemplating what it would be like to fly, you’ve missed the last 3 minutes of the lecture. But, you grab on to the end of the teacher’s last sentence, rewind a little bit, and piece together what you missed.
Now imagine for that entire 3 minutes, there was Spanish coming out of the teacher’s mouth, instead of the English you are accustomed to. You might be able to rewind and understand, but I don’t stand a chance. To avoid this problem, I try my best to keep focused for the entire 1.5 hour class, grasping at a rough translation as each Spanish sentence is laid out before me. It is, to say the least, a mental workout. Luckily, my professors seem to be aware of this danger, and thus far they have done a pretty good job of moving slowly and putting notes on the chalkboard as a lifeline for students gone astray.
Learning Spanish may cause my internal wheels to spin a little faster, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Since taking classes with international students, I have only begun to realize the doors that knowing a second language can open. Every day I share a classroom with young men and women from places such as France, Germany, Norway, Italy, and Japan. The majority of the students speak English, but for some, the only language we have in common is Español. That means the only method I have for getting to know some of my peers is for us to stumble through a second language together. There is, for example, a girl named Alicia in 2 of my classes. She is studying linguistics at a university in Japan, and doesn’t speak any English. But! Because both Alicia and I have….adequate Spanish skills, I have been able to get to know her and learn about where she lives. It is an absolutely amazing feeling.
Even for those students, both international and American, who speak do speak English, a shared second language gives a special kind of connection. There is a certain comradery that forms when you both are using a language that is foreign to you. You can empathize with the other person, and the conversation becomes not just a formality, but a joint exercise. In the last week, I have been able to speak Spanish with people from Washington, California, Puerto Rico, Texas, Argentina, Bolivia, and Italy, to name a few. These conversations haven’t just taken place at school, but at cafés, shops, and bars as well. They are slow, difficult, and different, but always fun.
Of course, I can’t pretend that I have spend all my time here chatting up everybody I meet in Spanish. All too often I switch to English due to fatigue, miscommunication, or pure laziness. But I am working at it. Every day brings a little more comfort and a few very small steps forward. And no matter what, it’s more Spanish than I would be speaking in the States.