Reflections on Learning Spanish

Julia Preszler, CAMD'21

Julia Preszler is a fourth-year student majoring in journalism and minoring in environmental studies. She has interned at The Boston Globe, The Chautauquan Daily and two community newspapers in Connecticut. Julia will be studying abroad at Universidad Veritas in San José, Costa Rica. She is looking forward to exploring the country's national parks and learning more about environmental issues, since she hopes to focus her career on environmental journalism.

By Julia Preszler 

My biggest concern about coming to Costa Rica was the language barrier. I had taken two semesters of Spanish during my freshman year at Northeastern, but now as a student entering my fourth year, it had been quite a while since I last touched the language. Before departing, I had planned to spend hours studying vocabulary and grammar, but due to a busy summer and the overwhelming nature of learning a language, my intention to enter Costa Rica with conversational Spanish abilities did not come to fruition.

I came armed with a few key phrases: “mucho gusto” (nice to meet you), “soy vegetariana” (I am a vegetarian), and perhaps most importantly, “lo siento, no hablo mucho español” (I’m sorry, I don’t speak much Spanish). 

When I arrived at the San José airport, I struggled to figure out the locations of my bag, the money exchange counter, and even the airport exit. I asked questions of the airport employees, some of whom knew English, and some of whom knew none at all. When I stood outside the airport, many taxi drivers asked me if I needed a ride. Each time, I responded, “no, gracias,” with a smile. I was proud of this ridiculously simple act of communication because, although it was as basic as it gets, at least I was communicating in a language other than my own in a country that was entirely new to me. 

When the advisor for my program arrived to pick me up, I experienced a moment of relief, since she speaks English and finally, I was able to communicate with someone. But once we got to my host mom’s apartment, I quickly learned that she knows almost no English at all. As we sat down at the dining room table for a late lunch, I was amazed at my ability to understand the gist of what she was saying, through a combination of harkening back to my freshman year Spanish education; my host mom’s use of simple words, a slow speaking pace, and hand gestures; and the sheer luck that a lot of Spanish words sound similar to their English counterparts. 

Though I was astounded at my ability to understand what I was hearing, I got through most of my conversations with my host mom during the first two weeks with a lot of smiling and nodding. Lucily, the study abroad program at Universidad Véritas starts out with a month of an intensive Spanish class. For 20 hours a week, I was exposed to Spanish, and Spanish only. My professor didn’t use any English, which was frustrating at times, but in the end, helpful in forcing me to learn more of the language.

As I listened to my Spanish professor and my host mom, I took note of words and phrases they said frequently that I didn’t understand. I would write the words down and look them up later. In this way, I was able to turn words that frustrated me into building blocks for my understanding of the language, like joining a couple of puzzle pieces together to reveal the whole picture. 

Similarly, if I found myself in a situation where I didn’t know how to say something important, I would look it up later to be prepared for when that situation arose the next day. For example, I often couldn’t finish all of the food on my breakfast plate and I wanted to be able to communicate to my host mom that while it was delicious, I couldn’t possibly eat more. “Estoy lleno,” I learned to say. I am full. 

As my Spanish class progressed, we learned different verb forms, like past tense, future tense, and how to give commands. Learning these concepts was exciting to me, because although people understand me if I say, “Yesterday, I go to the store and buy food,” I feel that much closer to fluency when I can use past tense to say, “Yesterday, I went to the store and bought food.” I still haven’t mastered all of those verb forms, and I especially have trouble remembering the irregular verbs that don’t follow the typical pattern, but it feels good to have another tool in my arsenal. 

In terms of learning how to speak, though, practicing with my host mom and other Costa Ricans in daily life has been the most helpful. In the beginning, I was reluctant to use Google Translate as a crutch, but it has actually turned out to be a great learning tool. As I speak to my host mom, I say what I can off the top of my head, and use Google Translate to search specific verbs or nouns I don’t know in order to fill out my sentences. Then, I “star” the words I have searched so I can save them in the tool’s “phrasebook” for later review. 

Now, a month into my study abroad, I have completed my Spanish class and my ability to both speak and understand the language has improved by leaps and bounds. I don’t have to smile and nod anymore, and I feel comfortable enough to say “no entiendo” (I don’t understand) and pause the conversation so I can look up words I don’t know. 

Before embarking on this trip, I was curious to see what it was like to be in a country where I don’t understand the language, something that so many people who immigrate to the United States experience. As someone who has always felt very comfortable with my ability to talk to the people around me, I wondered what it felt like to have to communicate clumsily and with the help of an online tool. Since I am in a program with lots of other English-speaking Americans, I have had a very watered-down version of this experience. But, when I am out at a store, or in the street and I need to talk to a Spanish speaker, I have at times felt reluctance to communicate, nervousness, and embarrassment. I embrace all of those weird feelings, keep trying to speak, and keep smiling.