Moments of confusion, embarrassment, learning and realization are inevitable when you immerse yourself in a second language.
But, not to worry! These are the harmless experiences that make immersion such a powerful and effective method of language learning: words jump out of the vocabulary book and become part of your day-to-day life. Social situations with native speakers (even the awkward, fumbly ones) are the situations where you learn “real Spanish”—slang, irony, humor, local culture.
If you’re signed up to join us on our Spanish immersion programs this summer in Costa Rica, Peru and Spain, we can’t wait to meet you. Read on for some tips to kick-start your language learning while volunteering abroad this summer.
1. Think quality over quantity
You’ll be surprised to know that many expats remain unwilling or unable to hold a conversation in Spanish despite having spent months abroad. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s always inspiring to meet diligent language learners who speak nearly flawless Spanish despite going abroad with little to no knowledge of the language.
It’s not just about how much time you spend in country; it’s also about the quality of interactions in the target language. Language acquisition is two-sided: Quality interactions require engagement and effort both from the international student (you) and the host country language partners (everyone around you in country, including your Home Base staff, program directors and residents you’ll meet). We’ve got the second part covered, so try to intentionally pursue opportunities to converse in Spanish.
2. Make Excuses to Strike Up Conversations
You may feel silly or embarrassed at first talking to strangers in flawed Spanish. But constant practice is the only way to get better, so take a deep breath and ask away! Take up the habit of intentionally looking for ways to start short conversations with people you encounter in your host country. For example:
- Ask your bus driver how long it will take to get to your next destination
- Ask the local staff (not your English-speaking Program Director at your Home Base) to explain an unfamiliar dinner item. Way more fun than opting for PB&J every time you eat!
- Ask a flea market or crafts fair vendor about their product
- Ask somebody on the street to take your picture (more social than a selfie stick)*
These are all simple, quick interactions. But over time, these thirty-second conversations can build confidence and alleviate the discomfort of speaking a foreign language.
*Always stick with a buddy and don’t stray too far from your group—practice adventurous learning but safe, savvy traveling too!
3. Just say NO to English
As a GLA student, you’ll be meeting a lot of English-speaking peers from your home with GLA country, and likely forming lifelong friendships! However, try not to get stay in the English-speaking expat bubble at all times. When you go out into the community in a group, rather than exclusively talking amongst your new best friends, try to ask questions of the local residents as well.
Similarly, at Home Base, don’t just smile politely at the local staff. Make it clear that your interaction with them in Spanish is important to your learning experience. GLA works with local communities and hires residents intentionally, and part of the reason for that is to give students a more immersive experience.
If you follow these three tips, a volunteer abroad experience can be an incredibly powerful tool for both language learning and a rich intercultural experience.
Que te vaya bien!
Contributed by Margaret Chiu