One compelling reason people do Study Abroad programs is that they do not know a language well enough to live in and contribute to a city without studying its language. I did not think about how compelling this reason was when I signed up to go to Salta, Argentina.
I had only taken Spanish in high school, where our curriculum consisted mainly of reading poorly translated books that were originally written in English and watching Sprint ads that featured salsa dancing. But I was scornful of Study Abroad programs and had the idea that I wanted to be free from the shackles of the classroom. So when I headed off to Salta last fall, I went not to study, but to live.
By my third week there, I realized I did not, perhaps, have the necessary knowledge of Spanish that I needed to be a functional person in a city I did not know. Surrounded by Spanish speakers, I thought in English and translated myself, brokenly, to my host mother and siblings and my supervisor at work. One day I found myself holding a pair of socks and realized I had no words for the object in my hands. Often I would begin sentences but trail off when I reached the central verb or noun, saying things like, “We have to go to the … .”
I found it fascinating to analyze the ways in which I was linguistically incapable. My host mother would ask me if I wanted to go to the school, a question embedded in a paragraph of context, and my brain would sweetly knit together her word “school” with the word “school” from another conversation. In the space between her question and my answer I would craft myself, unknowingly, an illusion of understanding. My sense of what was happening at any moment was not based on the things other people said, but instead on my brain’s desperate need to understand, even if that required filling in the broken spaces in another language. I would often accidentally commit myself to hours of tedious errands or extended family reunions because I simply did not know what I was saying yes to.
Eventually, I learned a lot of Spanish. I learned from talking with my host siblings and reading Spanish newspapers and listening to Spanish radio. Every afternoon, I copied new vocabulary words onto index cards and memorized sets of related nouns. I learned from practicing and watching and writing.
But, ultimately, I learned the most from swallowing my pride and signing up for Spanish language classes twice a week. When I was back in a classroom, I realized it is not always so bad to seek out a good teacher and submit to some shackles. Native speakers, for example, know their language better than you do, and it can be helpful to learn from them. I found that studying, abroad, can actually be quite fun.