Study Abroad and the Language Barrier

October 13, 2016

I am no stranger to striking up a conversation with a stranger. I have always absolutely loved talking to people, and this is still true about me now. I would love to talk to strangers in Chile, discuss their hobbies and what they think about the global economy and such. The thing of it is that I know exactly what I want to say, I just don’t always have the words to say it. The vocabulary I have in English is immensely larger than the vocabulary that I have in Spanish. And honestly, it really sucks sometimes. It’s as if part of me is hidden - more like stuck - behind my faulty grammar and inadequate amount of adjectives, and I cannot always fully express myself.

This happened to me when I was shopping at the mall with a friend recently. She was in the dressing room, and I was waiting outside on a couch nearby the sales associate. A customer had left the dressing room with less clothing than she had gone in with. Like any sales associate would do, she questioned her, “Where is the other clothing item? You went in with five, and now you only have four.” The customer was being short with her, and the scene got a little tense. Finally, when they had resolved the problem and the customer left, the sales associate gave me a look as if she were saying, “What was that lady’s problem?” Fully comprehending what had just happened, I thought I would try to lighten the mood. I went on to say - or what I thought I went on to say anyways - “Some people just want to make your job a little more difficult.” She then gave me a confused look. I repeated myself, reiterating the words verbatim. Again, I got the same confused look. I said it one last time. She then looked at me and quickly said, “I don’t understand,” and spun around and walked away. I felt helpless. I tried to lighten the mood, and all I did was make it more awkward. I sat in silence, desperately waiting for my friend, so we could get out of there.

Bottom line: if you’re studying abroad in a country where their first language is not your first language, you’re bound to experience something like this. You’re bound to embarrass yourself while trying to talk to someone. My bit of advice to you is not to be so hard on yourself. Speaking another language is not an easy thing. It takes years of practice and a lot of patience. You’re not ‘stupid’ if you say something wrong or have trouble getting your message across. You’ve come a long way, doing something that others wouldn’t even think to do. This isn’t easy, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not able to be done. Take these experiences in stride, and let them serve as an incentive to learn more and study harder so that one day, that language barrier doesn’t seem so tall.

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