Saturday, May 30, 2015

6 Ways to Improve Your Spanish Language Skills

I've been a student of the Spanish language for almost 12 years now. I've only been fluent in all four major areas (reading, writing, speaking and listening) for the past 5 years but I still have room for improvement. I don't know every word and I still make small sometimes unnoticeable mistakes (or giant ones if I'm way too tired). Well, with all these years of studying, speaking and embarrassing myself along the way, I have made a running list of ways to help improve my own skills and the skills of others but I'm finally putting all down on, rather on digital paper.

Whether you are just beginning to study the Spanish language or just had another language-induced headache last night, I hope that these personal tips of mine will both encourage and challenge you to continue learning the language.

I've been there, done that, couldn't say that (haha) and bought the T-shirt so follow me as I explain these steps and show you some unconventional ways to learn Spanish.

Listos? (Ready?) Let's go! (Vamos!)

Ready? Set? Go! (Photo taken in Orzan (A Coruña) 

1. Think in Spanish

You're probably scratching your head and staring at your computer screen and exclaiming, "You want me to what?!"

Hold on, let me explain....

Don't worry, I too asked this question a long time ago and felt the same exact way that you do. In fact, the whole concept of thinking in a foreign language was introduced to me by my father -who has not studied Spanish in decades- one day as he drove me home in our car after school during my junior year of high school. I don't remember exactly what prompted this question but nevertheless he asked me it and I had no idea how to respond. I think I came up with something that went something like this: "Well, I think when I'm really advanced in the language, then I would be able to think in it."

What he didn't  know was just how mind-blown I was sitting in the passenger seat at that moment in time. In my head I was thinking, "Thinking in another language is way too advanced. I'll never get to that point no matter how good I am. It seems impossible to me." I was also seventeen years old at the time of that conversation and didn't know just how many things I was really capable of. I would soon learn in the next couple years when I went away to college.

I eventually did learn that thinking in another language was normal and gradually the next step in the foreign language learning process. It was still scary and daunting to me but I was slowly warming up to the idea. Except the moment that I first tried it was unexpected and scary.

I first started thinking in Spanish during my freshman conversation class out of necessity. I had to lead a 15 minute discussion with a group one class and everything from the movie we watched to the discussion questions we created (and not to mention the conversation itself) was in Spanish. English was kept to a small corner of our brains as we navigated the class in our foreign language. Up until our discussion, I was translating everything in my head: the professor's lecture, the movies we watched -with English subtitles-, the conversations with my friends and classmates inside and outside of class. I was also translating what I wanted to say to any person who spoke Spanish from English. I was just plain exhausted and had had enough. I was tired of being a human translation machine!

So, when my group's turn for the discussion arrived, I did the unthinkable. I did what 17 year-old me thought was impossible: I thought in Spanish!

I felt like I had surrendered complete control over my mind to someone and that I was losing a part of myself along the way. I can't quite explain it fully. I do know that, bit by bit, as I challenged myself to spend more and more time thinking in Spanish, that my language skills improved, especially when I was speaking it. I made fewer mistakes, I expressed myself a little better and I made stronger connections to the words I had acquired in my vocabulary. I still became tired when I spent a little *too* much time immersing myself in the language but those periods of exhaustion started to become few and far between.

Make sure they're happy thoughts, though! (As seen in front of the 2nd grade classroom)

 Now, about 8 years have passed since the time I took a huge leap out of my comfort zone and think in Spanish daily. It's become more natural to me and it's a daily habit wherever I am in the world. And according to the driver of a BlaBla Car ride I went on back in April, thinking in a language is "lo basico."

So, there you have it: based on my experience and a local long-time speaker of Spanish, thinking in a language is the foundation. It's the first thing you should implement into your life if you desire to become fluent in Spanish or any other language you're studying or want to study.

Keep it simple and think in another language! You don't have to spend more than 1 or 2 minutes a day doing it if you don't want to. The goal is to train yourself to think in the language every time you're speaking it so that the words flow and become more and more a part of your life.

You'll make fewer mistakes and feel less exhausted! Take it from me, a seasoned veteran when it comes to language headaches. :P

2. Talk to yourself or out loud in Spanish

I don't know about you but I like to talk to myself. English, Spanish, Portuguese, Galego - it doesn't make much difference to me. If you've ever lived with me or gone on vacation (or a trip) with me, you'll find that I make comments and think out loud about everything. I sometimes don't realize I'm doing it it's such a habit for me. I also love it when I'm home alone and can read, watch TV or a movie or listen to music and say whatever I'm thinking right in the moment. Sometimes I just want to hear what I'm thinking sounds like but other times - and most of the time- I want to voice my opinion to the writer, TV host or actor that I don't agree with in some way.

Or to encourage my favorite Spanish tennis player, Rafa Nadal, during the French Open. He can't hear me, of course, but that's beside the point, haha.

Anyway, let's get back on topic. The reason why I added this one to the list is that muttering or saying something out loud in another language - in my experience - makes a person blend in a little more and makes them appear to be less of a tourist and more of a local. Or at least someone who plans to stay in the area for more than a week or two.

I don't know how many times I've started up random short conversations with people outside of stores (looking at the window displays), in the supermarkets, on the street, in parks, in front of a major historical site or or on a plane, train or metro all because I made a comment in the local language and not my native language. Not that speaking your native language on the street in any given city is a bad thing as languages as a whole liven up the street life with their unique sounds and rhythms. It's just that when you're living or visiting abroad, it's highly likely that you're trying to learn the local language and trying to immerse yourself in it as much as possible. Half the time, the native speakers aren't going to come to you so you will have to go out of your way to meet them and beg them to speak their language to you even in the smallest of doses. Each exposure, whether it's 5 minutes or 1 hour, will help you immensely in your language journey.

Pretty soon you'll be leaning a whole bunch of new words! (Maybe some Galego too.)
So, even if you're shy or reluctant to speak the language right now, get to talkin'! I was incredibly shy when I first started learning Spanish but it was only through putting myself in uncomfortable social situations, forcing myself to speak instead of stay quiet and embarrassing myself by making tons of mistakes that I became the fluent and confident speaker that I am today.

3. Join a local organization, conversation club or church

I could write a whole separate post on how much I've benefited from joining local organizations and joining a local church in the cities I've lived in here in Spain. You may not be religious and may not be looking for a church and that's fine. But let me tell you, you meet some of the nicest and kindest people at churches in Spain. It's been the same type of experience for me in both the North and South of Spain but that's not to say that church congregations don't have any problems with one another, they sure do. Some of the most welcoming and kind people that you can meet can be found in the small Evangelical churches that are scattered around all parts of Spain.

Some of my best and oldest friends here in Spain. They are quite an encouragement to me!
Conversation clubs and sports clubs are a fantastic way to not only improve your language skills but they can also be an easy way to meet local people your age! Whether you join both types or just one, you will find that you can meet people who have similar interests and can meet outside of the club meetings to hang out, go for tapas, try new things together, travel or let them take you on a walking tour of the city and see it through their eyes.

In my experience - and from observing others' experiences- the more time it takes you to integrate into a new culture, the less you will feel settled and comfortable in your new surroundings. It's good to meet other expats living abroad just like you (and you need them for support when things just don't make sense) but make every effort to meet local people and get to know the culture. Getting to know someone who has lived where you're living all their lives will enrich your experience and teach you so many things about the culture and language. (And think of all the slang and *cough* swear words *cough* you'll learn!)

And besides, the information and stories a local person can tell you won't be found in your average travel guide book. Go out there and meet some locals! Even if you only have a week or two left in your city. You won't regret it.

4. Listen to music and/or sermons, speeches, audiobooks, podcasts, TED Talks in Spanish or watch TV and movies

Perhaps this recommendation on the list is self-explanatory so I'll just elaborate on some of my favorite audio materials in Spanish. It's important to surround yourself with as much of the language as possible. If you're not in a Spanish speaking country, you can do this through a number of different medias. If you are in Spain or another Spanish speaking country, keep the foreign language learning going by immersing yourself in the language and culture through music, films, podcasts and TV shows to name a few. Create a little Spanish bubble for yourself and take it with you wherever you go!

Let's start with music. My sophomore year of college (2008) was I really fell head-over-heels in love with Latino music. Salsa, bachata, Latin pop and ballads, meringue, name it, I was probably listening to it. And on Pandora to boot, haha. (Long before the days of Spotify.) I also love worship music in Spanish by artists such as Hillsong, Kesia, Evan Craft and a whole host of others, especially mainstream artists that have translated their songs into Spanish. Ever since I started listening to more and more music in Spanish, it became easier for me to think in the language. You might want to do those two suggestions at the same time (like I did) to increase and accelerate your learning.

I've also found that listening to radio stations in Spanish that broadcast news talk hours, sermons and special programs has been extremely helpful to me. Not everyone featured on these broadcasts has the same accent in Spanish and the radio is a fairly easy way to exposure yourself to different accents even if you're living in an entirely different region. An app I found to be very easy to use and helpful is called Spain TV, it can be found in the App or Google Play stores. They also have popular videos and TV channels (hence the name) and that's the only way I was able to watch Masterchef last summer back when I was really into the show.

As far as podcasts and audiobooks go, I've yet to try these out as I don't have an Audible account anymore and I'm not learning a language from the very beginning. I have heard from friends that both of these mediums are good tools to use to improve your language skills so I would recommend them! TED Talks are another way to engage your mind in a topic and still have the aid of subtitles available to you. One talk that I recently listened to and liked was this one: Pierda el Miedo - Tim Ferriss (excuse some of the language towards the end. :-/)

Now that I'm more translation minded, I like to listen to a mix of English talks with Spanish subtitles and Spanish talks with English subtitles. I learn many new words and phrases in either language combination!

Movies and TV shows are also a great way to learn about a number of different Spanish speaking cultures right from your living room or bedroom. It's also fun to go see one in the theater compared to watching it at home if you have the chance. And you can have subtitles or go crazy and forget the subtitles! (This is my preferred method now. :P) Some of my favorite films in the Spanish language are: Diarios de Motocicleta, Hable con Ella, Tres Metros Sobre el Cielo, El Hijo de la Novia and more!

5. Read books, magazines or newspapers in Spanish, especially in public places

Or go browse a bookstore's language section and take pictures of yourself with random books. People WILL talk to you! (Or laugh at you, or both.)
This also may be self-explanatory but the "in public" part may not, let me explain.

In the past few years that I've been traveling Europe and parts of the US, I've noticed that an easy way to start a conversation with a stranger is to ask them a question based on what they're reading, watching (if you're on a long flight but use caution as they'll probably not want to be bothered) or what music they're listening to. If you want to at first hide the fact that you're a foreigner, I would recommend reading and taking a book or magazine in another language with you on your next long train ride or flight.


Well, it's highly likely that -especially on a train or bus- that the person next to you, might ask you about your book or magazine will be a native speaker of the language you're trying to learn. And if it's a popular book or a hot topic is on the front cover of the magazine, chances are they'll have an opinion about something and you can start a conversation. It's perfectly fine to bring reading materials in English but reading openly in another language will not only help you expand your vocabulary but physically show passersby that you're really trying to learn that language. A native speaker will also probably be able to gauge just how well you can speak the language simply by having a short conversation with you. However, if they see you struggle through a book or magazine -the larger the better!-, you will impress them and they will compliment you on your efforts. You may also help change their opinion of people from your country too which is always a wonderful thing.

I've had a couple experiences where I was reading a book in English on a train and due to the sole fact that I was reading in English (and by my appearance alone I look like I come from England or the USA), the person who started talking to me only spoke or tried to speak to me in English. Those haven't always been the best experiences and I'm often times left wondering how I could have handled those situations better and been more expressive to the other person. I can't always say exactly I feel in Spanish but it's a lot easier for me to communicate in a foreign language with a native speaker rather than struggle through English with them. I also feel like once we start speaking in one language it's hard to switch languages (or rather convince them) and speak in theirs.

Reading in the language you're learning helps to reinforce the spelling, pronunciation and vocabulary of the language. And if you're a visual learner like me, seeing the word written out and along with hearing it spoken, helps to solidify the word in my mind and it's highly unlikely that I'll forget it.

My favorite magazine and newspaper publications are: El Pais, La Voz de Galicia and El Diario de Sevilla. Some of my favorite books in Spanish are: (I'll have to get back to you on these...)

6. Put yourself in situations where English isn't always spoken or available
Make sure you get your daily dose of motivation too! (Win the day)
I told you in a previous paragraph about how I was shy, right? Well, I was very, very shy and insecure in high school and my first couple semesters in college. (Weren't we all awkward back then?! haha) So shy that I would do my best not to get called on or even speak at all during a class or small group discussion that I went to. I even acted this way in Spanish classes though I longed to speak and beat out a native speaker when answering one of the professor's questions.

It also didn't matter the fact that for college I had moved 900 miles away from home to attend a university I had never visited before but had heard only good things about. I was just shy and couldn't find a way to break out of my bubble and get out of my head. (Have I also mentioned that I'm introverted?)

Well, my childhood friend from Ohio gave me some advice that I have never forgotten and have taken to heart wherever I have lived. Her college campus was very small so it was easy for her to see the same people over and over again and start up conversations with them. My campus was a little bit bigger and it had the same feel as hers did. However, her advice was this: Just be around. Even if you're the only one sitting outside eating lunch, you'll get noticed. People will come to you because they'll see that you're around or you always go here or there on this day or so. And her overall point was this: you never know who you'll meet!

She gave me this advice over 7 years ago now but I have more than taken it to heart. It's helped me in so many different ways, though. I didn't like going to places or events alone in the beginning but slowly I adjusted. I also didn't always go to events alone but when I did -and when I didn't want to miss out on an experience- I felt more comfortable doing it the more I went alone.

How does this relate to language?

When I studied abroad in Sevilla, I knew no one in the very beginning. In fact, I was the only one from my university studying there that semester. Was I crazy for doing this? Yes, but I was better off for having done it. And I would do that experience over again in the same exact way.

I did so many things that freshman Sarah would never have thought she could have done. I went to intercambio (language exchange) nights and tables at my university alone, I showed up alone to a club to participate in free salsa lessons (but ended up seeing classmates of mine), I traveled alone in Spain a few times and did so many more things of that nature.

Learning how to make pinchos saludables (healthy snacks) one Friday night!

Most of the time when I went to these exchanges or traveled on my own, the people I encountered didn't know English or at least didn't know it well. I really had to overcome my nervousness and shyness to speak Spanish (for fear of messing up or making a mistake) and just speak it. I wanted to make friends, meet people and have a good time so I just pushed down the butterflies fluttering up in my stomach and opened my mouth and began to speak. I didn't always say the smartest or most hilarious things but I was speaking and if I made a mistake, oh, well. Just laugh it off!

Since that semester abroad, I've taken Bla Bla car rides with drivers who hardly knew English -sometimes I did this voluntarily-, took a one night cooking class where all the recipes were in Spanish and I didn't have access to a dictionary, took a traditional Galician dance lesson where all the instructions were in Spanish and all I could do was move and follow the instructor and opted for the Spanish language audios and tour guides to popular sights around Spain.

My point in sharing all these stories and experiences with you is this: Being put in a situation where you can't rely on your native language really stretches you. And you want to be stretched and be pushed to your limits. You may not realize it right now and that's okay.

It also causes you to use all the skills and words that you've built up in your vocabulary so far and see how well you can communicate and express yourself. Suddenly not knowing a word doesn't involve going straight to your dictionary for help but instead to your mental word bank and how well you can describe what you mean without using the missing word.

You may not be as brave as me to do a ride share where the driver doesn't speak more than a couple words of your native language and that's okay. Do even the smallest thing in all Spanish and see how much you learn! I can almost guarantee you that you'll not only learn a lot about the language but also just how much you're really capable of in the first place.

And those are all the tips I've got for now! Happy language learning! :-)

Have you tried one of more of the tips that I've listed in this post? What would you add to my list, if anything? What is the most daring thing you've done to get immersed in a language or meet local people? Tell me your stories in the comments below!

Monday, May 18, 2015

3 Things I've Had to Learn on My Own Since Moving Abroad

1. How to NOT give myself food poisoning

The last time I lived in Spain for a long period of time, I stayed with a sevillano couple in the heart of the working class neighborhood of Triana. And work hard they did! My host mother Manoli made the other American girls and me two delicious homemade meals per day but reluctantly -in my opinion- left breakfast out for us to make our own food (toast with jelly, marmalade or Mister Choc chocolate spread) and hot drinks of choice (coffee, tea or Cola Cao). The portion sizes in Manoli's house were more than big enough for one or maybe two people even, haha!

The decadent fruit salad Manoli carefully made and served us every Sunday night

My favorite meal in Manoli's house: tortellini pasta with queso AND mantequilla too!

Long story short, I was VERY well-taken care of by Manoli and Antonio that I had no need to cook for myself. (If the pictures above don't convince you, I don't know what will.) Side note, I wasn't even allowed to set foot in her kitchen so I couldn't even cook if I had wanted to (and I did to be honest) but that's another story. Fast forward to a little over 4 years later and I've come back to Spain again and now have the option to cook. I mean, I am obligated to feed and take care of myself during the 9 months while I'm here. I've been able to keep myself fairly healthy and trying out new recipes and foods when the mood strikes me (which is almost everyday). However, this experience of cooking for myself in Spain is not exempt from a few self-inflicted illnesses along the way. Let me explain (and not get too graphic, I hope).

Of all the people who live in my flat, I buy the most food, dry goods and produce combined. I am trying very hard at the end of the year now to eat through my supply of some foods (ie: dry beans, rice, oils and some pasta-sparingly-) as I can't take any of it with me. I've now overtaken half of an extra shelf in our refrigerator because I've started to buy watermelon and it's too big to store it on my tiny shelf. Can you blame a girl for trying to make it work, though?

Anyway, I have sometimes bought too much food and not eaten through it as fast as I would've liked. I've also learned the hard way that some foods expire a lot sooner than you think. The two foods that I've gotten food poisoning from this year (2015) alone have been eggs and chocolate.

I can make a pretty bomb paella on the first try but I can still give myself food poisoning, sigh... 
Eggs in Spain are not refrigerated and they can be found stacked in cardboard cartons on the shelves next to the oils or boxes and bags of pasta. The reason why they do not have to be refrigerated here is because the eggs have a protective coating inside and can stay fresher longer than eggs in the US can. The rule of thumb, however, is that once you buy a carton of eggs and start using them, you put them in the refrigerator. I did see the roommate of some friends of mine leave one of her cartons out on the counter in their kitchen so -instead of asking her- I assumed that it was okay to do this. Cut to me buying almost 3 dozen eggs to last practically the whole month and I left them out on my shelf to...well, continue to stay fresh you know. :P

Needless to say, the eggs went bad sooner than I realized as I no longer had the card with the expiration date on it to check the suggested shelf life. I threw that away when I took all of the eggs out of the flat carton they came in and stored and stacked them inside a shoe box, making the I-love-to-be-organized part of my personality very happy. Well, one week the eggs had reached their expiration -but didn't smell surprisingly- and a few hours after I ate my three egg omelette one morning for brunch, things did not end well. It was arguably the worst food poisoning of my life and since then, I have stuck my eggs in the refrigerator as soon as I buy them, regardless if I had enough comfortable space for them or not.

Now, the chocolate is a strange story but it's another experience that I brought upon myself. It also happened recently (last month) and so I'm really not proud of it. You would think that I would've learned from the other violent experience but no. Well, this was a completely different experience but the issue had to due with an expiration date as well, or rather shelf life. I had bought baker's chocolate (cacao) for when I made cookies and then later Buckeyes earlier in the year. I didn't use all of the chocolate and put the bar away on my shelf. It got buried under a couple of things on it but I managed to find it again when I was making dinner the night before I left for my vacation during Semana Santa. One of my flatmates was getting kicked out that day (and she deserved it) so when I found the last bit of that cacao bar, I ate it happily sort of as a reward for surviving living with that girl and then finally regaining some peace and quiet for myself inside the flat.

I also made a pretty nice dinner and ate it after I had the two small chocolate pieces. Dinner digested just fine overnight but for some strange reason the chocolate did not. I ignored the stomach pains I was feeling soon after I woke up the next morning and ate some eggs (gah, again with the eggs!) hoping that I was just hungry and needed sustenance.

Boy, was I wrong.

I had barely eaten the eggs when I needed to visit the bathroom and I knew for what reason the minute I ran down the hall in my empty apartment (thank goodness for that). That was not a fun experience but thankfully it was short lived and my homemade Alka Seltzer remedy calmed my stomach down. I finished packing in record time and forced myself to continue with my got sick, packed my bag and caught a Bla Bla Car ride share 5 hours one way to Madrid and talked with the driver almost the whole way down! It almost put me over the edge to have felt so crummy and to have spoken so much Spanish that day but continue reading and learn the reason why from item number two on this list to learn more! ;)

How I've coped: Reading and paying closer attention to expiration dates. I've also made sure to cook all of my meat well-done or better so that they get cooked all the way through. When it comes to food and cooking for yourself in another country, you cannot take any chances! Be cautious and make sure you put your health first. Don't learn the hard way like I have a couple times!

2. How to continue speaking and listening to Spanish even when I'm sick

When I started to study Spanish intensely in college, I would experience these painful headaches and they would always come on after I had been reading a novel (for a class), listening to music or writing a paper or essay in Spanish for a long period of time. Some weekends -especially those around finals week- I locked myself in my room or holed up in the library to read or write papers for my upper level Spanish classes and the longer I spent immersed in the language (and in my own little world) the harder it would be at first to resume normal life speaking and interacting with people in my native tongue. I would walk back out "into the real world" after a long study or paper writing session and upon hearing English, my brain would become a bit befuddled.

I didn't have a very intense reaction like I had had in the past like when I returned home after visiting a Spanish speaking country. My reaction was not similar to when I returned to the States after a 2 week mission trip in Mexico as a teen and did a double take upon hearing someone casually speaking on their cell phone in English in the San Diego International Airport. Nevertheless, the reaction that I would have was this: my brain would get used to hearing the language and then it would experience a little shock once I re-immersed myself with my native tongue again.

I'll have to overcome this hang up if I want to become trilingual one day...
Maybe you can relate to either one of these types of reactions?

Something that has remained consistent over nearly the past 12 years of studying the Spanish language is this simple fact: I can't handle it when I'm sick. I just can't.

Hearing Spanish when I'm sick physically makes me more ill. The only way I can explain the reason behind why it makes me sick is that it's not my native language. It's not the language my mother speaks to me when I'm feeling under the weather or when I'm on the verge of catching a cold or the flu. Spanish, as beautiful as it sounds and as much as I love it, does not ooze comfort and mom's home cooking. It just doesn't do this naturally for me. Therefore, I don't (and my mind doesn't) find the language to be as comforting as my native tongue, at least not yet.

How I've coped: I speak and listen to the language it anyway. I've gone to school anyway even when I haven't felt the greatest or when PMS has been at its worst for me. I've listened with the same attentiveness to the teachers and students who chatter away in the native tongue during class. And you know what? I'm still alive and not worse off for having done so. Or at least not too much. While it takes twice as much strength and concentration to listen to someone speak Spanish when I would much rather be alone and curl up in my bed with a movie or book and banish the sickness at my doorstep, I let them speak and I listen. It's still not my favorite time to hear the language but I am learning to work through this dislike and hopefully one day find some comfort in it when I'm feeling crummy. Maybe I just need an older Spanish abuela or abuelo to speak words of comfort to me the next time I'm sick and my perspective of the language will go from annoying to soothing?

I'll report back with my answer as soon as I experience this or if my feelings change....

(For now, I'll stick to tea! :P)

3. How to ask for help in countries where I don't speak the local language

First of all, let me state that I am privileged by the sole fact that I am a native English speaker and that I was born in the United States of America and have had (and still have) access to so many amazing opportunities in the world. I never forget either one of these things no matter where I go or who I meet. I am very thankful for my native language and nationality. However, I am not a fan of being catered to and do my best to go visit countries where I can speak the local language (eg: Spanish) and can "leave English at home" so to speak. Well, I needed it when I went to Portugal an Morocco for the first time a few years ago but those stories are for another day. Spanish came in handy in both places surprisingly but more so in Morocco than Portugal if you can believe it.

However, when I went to France for two weeks last December, I felt paralyzed in quite a few (what should have been) easy social situations. I don't know more than just a few words and phrases in French and didn't feel compelled to study up on anything before I left for my trip. (Mistake number one.)  And what's more is that I didn't think that the fact that the large language barrier would e a problem for me as I don't really care for the French language in the first place (don't hurt me, francofiles, French food is amazing!). The worst thing of all was that in France, I didn't stand out (at least not too much). My dark brunette hair, black eyebrows and slightly olive tinted skin made me blend in very well with the French-Parisian scene that winter, despite the large number of nationalities that are represented in France today.

I think what took me longer to get used to was the cost of Paris. It ain't cheap!

Well, if you look like one of the locals, what will other locals do to you? Ask you questions or make comments to you in the local language, of course!

Had I been in Portugal (whose language I have actually studied these past two years or so) this would've been a positive experience. I would've practically welcomed all the exposure to the language and after that, I would've asked for more. But French is not Portuguese, even though they had some similarities in vocabulary that I was not expecting. I was lost in translation during my 5 day stay in the City of Lights but had a magnificent time there. By the end of my time in the city, I found that -after forcing myself to listen- that I could understand maybe 30% of spoken French and even understood directions that were given to me and two new friends but I sure couldn't have repeated them to you if asked, haha.

I managed to find this and other important landmarks on my own so things weren't TOO bad....
Thankfully I got relief from my language woes when I headed South to visit my American friend Gwen who is teaching English in Grenoble, France. Gwen has studied French for years and speaks fluently with an almost unnoticeable accent, in my opinion. We needed each other during the holidays and had a wonderful visit together, our mixed cultures and languages aside. She helped me more than she will ever know with diligently translating from French to English from general conversations to song lyrics to prayers to most of a sermon at her church. She even helped unite two non-English speakers and one non-French speakers (me) and help us understand one another while we all spent the day together adventuring in the snow and countryside near Grenoble.

With my amazing friend and personal translator (right) for the week, Gwen!
How I coped: I've come to the realization that I must force myself to learn a little bit of the local language before I go and then keep a humble and non-judging attitude during the course of my stay in a new country. I also make sure to learn how to say, "Do you speak English?" in the local language so that the person I'm trying to get help from knows that I am really trying my best to connect with the culture and its language. I don't always handle these complex language situations with grace but I'm learning as I go.

One lesson and day at a time...

Have you lived abroad for a long period of time before? Where did you live? What things did you learn? Do you have any tips for current or expats in the making? Share your stories in the comments below!

Friday, May 8, 2015

[Week 4] Galego Word of the Week: Lar


Pronunciation: Lahr

Translation (to English): Home, house

A typical Galician house (and what most small town residents live in)

Man lars scattered about in the hills and countryside outside of La Coruña 
A cute mailbox slot with a beautiful handpainted tile above it as seen in Oleiros

As I may have mentioned in a previous post, Galego and Portuguese are very closely related lingusitically. Galego is believed to be the "mother" of Portuguese which means it came first and Portuguese was created second. There are debates on this very issue so I won't go on any more with that discussion. I'll save it for another entry perhaps. I have been putting off writing this post (and continuing the series) due to some trips that kept me busy and a lack of time to fully research the words I planned to share with you all this spring. I also could not find a lot of information on this particular word, "lar," but managed to have a breakthrough today and can now finish explaining about this word. I hope you will enjoy learning about it as much as I have.

The definition of a "lar" according to a Brazilian Portuguese dictionary is this: a place where there is harmony, where people live and feel good about themselves. Example sentence: My home is my kingdom [castle].

One big cultural difference that I've noticed between the US and Spain over the years is how private Spanish people are when it comes to their home and family. The culture in general almost always goes out to restaurants, bars, clubs, parks, beaches, etc, to be with their friends and celebrate events or just to have a normal get together. You don't see many house parties or gatherings in the home unless it is something family related as in a birthday, anniversary or first communion party or confirmation (if the family is Catholic). On the contrary, in the US, it's common to invite your friends over to your house for a number of reasons and most of them are informal. Your home (or neighborhood rather) in the US is most often where your first friendships began by giving someone a simple invitation to come play or watch a movie at your house. There are rarely any limits on when and why you can come over, just that you do.

The home is very important and almost sacred to Spanish people across the country as a whole but especially in Galicia. They won't invite just anyone to their home but when they do, you'll know that the invitation came from the heart.

Not everyone lives in a home similar to the ones I shared above. In fact, most people in Galicia live in a flat or apartment with their family or with flatmates. Another commonality that I've found to be true in almost all of Spain, is that while someone may say they're from a city, it's highly likely that they're actually from a small town outside of the city. There's also a high chance that their grandparents (and even their parents) still live there and the city dweller will go home to visit their pueblo at least once a month if not more. And as much as a gallego might enjoy living in the city, there is nothing like a visit home and the chance to taste their mother's cooking again and bring enough Tupperware containers back to their flat for the following week's meals.

What most gallegos actually live in - flats (pisos) [Photo taken from my rooftop]

I personally have been to a handful of Spanish family's homes over the years (mostly in Andalusian homes) and consider each visit a privilege. I've yet to be invited to celebrate an event or share a meal in a Galician home but I hope to one day have the honor. I've been regularly attending church here and have been a guest at a few Sunday meals after the service but I feel like that is just a taste of what it's like to fellowship with a Galician person. To an outsider, a gallego can seem unapproachable and unfriendly. They can also appear to have cliques or groups of people that they will only hang around and talk to. This is partially due to habit and the fact that many of the local people in this region have lived here most of their lives. They are bound to still have childhood friends living near them or family friends whom they've known forever.

In my experiences, I have found that they are very quick to help a person in need whether it's with the language or giving directions (some will even walk with you to your destination!). However, they are not very trusting as a whole and a person has to earn the trust of a gallego before becoming their friend. Once you earn that trust and begin a friendship, though, they will consider you a friend for life. Nothing and no one are taken very lightly here in Galicia. 

A Galician tapas feast that you can enjoy in a lar or in a restaurante
For many gallegos, the home can represent many things. It can be a place of rest and relaxation after a long hard day of work. It can be a loving and warm retreat from the rest of the world and its gloomy rainy days. It can also be a place of fellowship and a place where you can eat some of the best food of your life and miss that food while you're away. A lar to a gallego will be the place where you are the safest and most loved. It's where you will make a regular house a home that will linger in your mind and heart for many, many years to come.

Have you ever been invited to eat dinner or attend a special party at a Spanish family's home? What was it like? If you live in or know people from Galicia, do you find the topics I addressed above to be true when it comes to Galician homes and families? Tell me about your experiences below!

Hogar dulce hogar (home sweet home)