Speaking Spanish Is Hard When Speaking English Is Easy

BARCELONA, Spain — On the first night of my summer study abroad program, our teaching fellow led 15 jet-lagged Harvard students through the narrow streets of Barcelona’s Old City to a restaurant off La Rambla, the city’s touristy yet iconic nucleus, which slices through the original part of the city. Brought to a long table on the roof deck of the short building, we met our professor and his family. The sun was setting, the wine flowed freely, and it felt like we could have been in the countryside rather than overlooking a bustling street. Still in the honeymoon period of my time in Barcelona, I made a comment to my roommate after dinner about how “European” that experience was. Her response? “I don’t know, I mean, everyone was speaking English.” There it was. Though not exactly accurate (I’m pretty sure speaking English and having a “European experience” are not mutually exclusive), her comment raised the ever-contentious issue of what language my peers and I would speak to each other throughout our five weeks in España. While we didn’t sign a language pact, it’s safe to say that all or almost all of us came here to strengthen our Spanish language skills. For me, I’m hoping to work in Latin America the year after I graduate. So doesn’t it make sense for us to speak in Spanish as much as possible? A day or two later, I asked my friend who had studied here in the spring what she thought. She suggested it was unnatural for people who share a native language to speak to each other in a different one. Her Spanish had gotten better anyway—but she was here for five months, while we’re here for just five weeks. My classmates and I have planned Spanish-only Tuesday, but it hasn’t happened once. My roommate has come in and tried to speak to me in Spanish, but I have trouble understanding her accent. And I have casually thrown Spanish words into English conversation, which has been my most successful attempt at speaking Spanish outside of the classroom. (Most often, I say “salud,” in both of its contexts—after someone sneezes or right before drinking.) There is also something ironic about the fact that we are taking Spanish courses in a region where Spanish is not the primary language. While everyone here does speak the language, Catalan is more common, and almost all signs, ads, and menus are in Catalan. The weekend that we went to Madrid, I was reminded that I am actually in Spain. So if we came here to get better at Spanish but we are speaking it only minimally outside of the classroom, what was the point? While I may not be lumbering through conversations in Spanish (or, likelier, Spanglish) with my American peers, there are the smaller day-to-day interactions: ordering coffee at the university, asking where the bathroom is, getting directions. I like to think that each of these has a small cumulative effect. In Madrid, a man with whom I shared a park bench was surprised when I told him I was from the United States, and he told me that my Spanish was “bastante bien”—good enough. If my Spanish has really improved during my short time here, then that’s bastante bien for me. —Victoria B. Kabak '09, a Crimson news executive, is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House.