I chose to study abroad in Mexico because I wanted to improve my Spanish. So far, I’m not seeing as much progress as I would like. The 11 students from OU spend a lot of time together, which is nice, but I find myself speaking in English much more than Spanish. Two of my classes are OU courses in English, and although they’re definitely fascinating, I wish I could take more courses at our host university. The two classes I do have at UPAEP are great practice in Spanish, especially because both are participation-based. However, I’ve taken plenty of classes in Spanish, and at this point I don’t think “classroom Spanish” is going to really help me improve. I need to immerse myself more in colloquial Spanish, which I think is much more challenging than formal Spanish.
One of my biggest challenges is building up the courage to talk to native speakers. I knew I struggled with this before I came to Puebla, and overcoming my fear is probably one of my biggest goals. If I’m practicing with another English-speaking student, I’m much more confident, and find that the words flow easily. But when faced with someone who actually speaks Spanish, I get so nervous! I’m afraid of them thinking poorly of me for messing up or not having the words I need. Unfortunately, making mistakes is an essential part of learning anything, especially a language. I know that I need to put myself out there and embrace that I’m not going to sound perfect all the time, but this is much easier said than done. When I’m nervous I constantly second guess even the most basic things, and end up not saying anything at all instead of taking risks like I should.
I think that this fear comes from my relationship with my grandparents. My father and his family are from Colombia, and my grandparents live in a neighborhood in New York City called “Little Colombia.” Here, they’re surrounded by other Colombian immigrants and businesses, and have never needed to learn English. My father never spoke to me in Spanish while I was growing up (even though it’s his first language), so communicating with my extended family is difficult to say the least. My grandparents have always been very invested in me learning Spanish, which is both a blessing and a curse. When I say something correctly, they practically glow with pride. But when I make mistakes or admit that I don’t know how to say something, they become visibly disappointed. I think that growing up with this dynamic has made me especially self-conscious when it comes to my Spanish skills. I have trouble keeping in mind that no one here will be disappointed when I mess up.
Another challenge is finding the stamina to speak in a nonnative language. Being surrounded by words I don’t know is pretty isolating, and I often feel drained by the end of the day. I tell myself that I’m too tired to try to make conversation with anyone, and that I’ll try again tomorrow. But time flies by—I can’t believe I’m already three weeks into the program! It’ll be over before I know it, so I really need to make myself get much-needed practice in now. After all, I don’t have these kinds of opportunities when I’m in the US.
Going forward, I think that I need to focus on finding the energy and motivation to seek out more Spanish-speaking opportunities. I know that if I force myself to practice regularly, I’ll eventually become more comfortable with imperfection. To prevent myself from feeling drained so often, I plan on taking time to recharge. I’ll put aside at least an hour of alone time every night, so that I might feel refreshed and ready to face Mexico again in the morning. I also want to become comfortable with admitting to people that I don’t understand. This will hopefully take some pressure off during conversations. I think that most people will be more than willing to help me out, as soon as I work up the courage to ask! With these changes I’m sure I’ll be able to make the most out of this amazing opportunity.