I have been on my year abroad for just over six months. During this time I have been based in Bogotá, Colombia and have gradually adjusted to living life in a different language.
However, when I first arrived, I was definitely in for a linguistic shock!
These are the lessons I learned when my daily life went from English to Spanish:
People Think You Are an Idiot
It’s a sad but true reality that when you cannot speak a language fluently, it can lead people to perceive you as less intelligent than them.
In my early days, I often felt frustrated that people were not taking me seriously or just didn’t respect my opinions as much as they would have if I had possessed more fluency. While annoying, this does make sense – it was obvious that I was having to carefully think about each sentence I was saying, causing me to pause a lot.
On one of my first nights in my new flat, my housemate slowly explained to me how to boil potatoes and use kitchen utensils. I felt indignant at first – of course I know how to cook! Shortly afterwards though, I realised that as a non-native-speaker-newbie, it seemed like I needed help with more than just Spanish.
I have to say that this experience has vastly increased my respect and empathy for everyone living in a different language – it’s easy to underestimate people when they can’t communicate perfectly, but that is not an indicator of what they really know.
Those Early Morning Feels
Anyone that knows me knows that I’m not the best at springing out of bed in the mornings, but during my first few weeks in Colombia I was repeatedly caught out by having to be on ‘Spanish mode’ first thing.
I would wake up and start talking to my housemates in English without thinking about it, before suddenly changing ‘Hello’ to ‘Hola’.
Impossible To Blend In
When I first arrived, I was determined to learn to speak Spanish like a true Colombian so that people would never know the difference by the time I left.
Six months down the line, I’ve had to readjust this goal, my sole comfort found in realising that it’s totally normal for people to speak with an accent even after they’ve lived in another country for years.
While I’m fortunate enough to look Latin American and can physically blend into a crowd, this illusion is shattered when I open my mouth. Upon asking anything – from the price of an avocado to the name of the next bus stop – I am almost always asked where I’m from and then, why I’m in Colombia.
In addition, I’ve realised that this perceived sign of unfamiliarity has gotten me some pretty inflated prices – that very avocado seller quoted about 3x what I’d expected to pay!
At first, I perceived my accent as a sign of failure – but now, I am just trying my best to speak as well and as clearly as I can and have accepted that I will probably never sound like Bogotá Spanish is my first language, because, well, it isn’t.
Talk All The Time!
Despite this though, the only way I found to grow my confidence and improve my Spanish was to speak it as much as possible.
Over time, I’ve felt much more able to express myself clearly and let my personality shine through!