Picture the scene. You’ve studied Spanish for around six years. You can confidently order from a tapas menu in a restaurant, discuss the benefits of recycling and recount what you enjoy doing in your spare time. When your third year of university descends, you move to sunny Spain and wait to be surrounded by Spanish friends and fluent in time for Christmas.
And then – it doesn’t quite happen.
The problem is that speaking a language isn’t quite enough. Competence will equip you with the skills to communicate and (more or less) be understood. Competence will ensure you can describe, factually, life. What it won’t do is let you express your personality.
Humour is difficult to pin down at the best of times, and the classic British sarcasm can often go undetected even by those who claim to speak English as a first language. (We’re looking at you, Americans.)
But, if you think about what you laugh about on a daily basis, it more than likely comes down to nuances of expression. Your exaggerated anecdote for dramatic emphasis, your quick retort, your play on words. While you can be more than capable of communicating in a foreign language, finding yourself suddenly without the ability to express succinctly and wittily what your really want to say can be surprisingly isolating.
I was lucky enough to be teaching this year in a school full of warm, friendly Spanish people who patiently explained the local customs, corrected my grammatical errors and put up with my more than occasional look of bewilderment. But there were still times when I was frustrated – at not understanding the joke in the staffroom, at not being able to make that ironic comment, at not coming across as politely as I (in a typical British fashion) wanted to. Laughing is something I think we tend to take for granted, and if you are struggling with the isolating effects of the language barrier, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s travel pages have lots of advice on dealing with mental health whilst abroad.
So to revise my title a little - now that I have your attention - here is some advice on how to make friends in Spain (even if you only speak a little Spanish):
1) Go for the chatty people
There’s nothing more awkward than two shy people trying to have a conversation. Now let’s elevate that to the level of one person trying to speak in their second (or third) language. If you make friends with talkative people, more than likely they’ll be able to fill in the gaps when you’re struggling, or even just go on a monologue when you’re having an off-day. They get to vent – and you improve listening skills! It’s a win-win.
2) Go for the language learners
Anyone with experience learning languages – even if that isn’t necessarily English – will empathise with your position, will effuse patience and won’t think badly of you for forgetting the word for ‘chair’.
3) Set up a tandem (‘intercambio’)
Speaking for half the time in one language and half the time in another is a great way to speak freely without feeling like a burden, because you both get to learn. And since they get to hear you speak in English too, they realise that you are actually capable of making a witty comment, which is always good.
4) Ask people for help
If there’s one thing people love, it’s feeling capable, and if you’re asking them for help in their own language, then they’re already highly qualified!
5) Show interest in people
Being understandably quieter outside of English, people may assume that you’re a little detached or stand-offish, when in reality you just can’t find the words. The best way to get around this is to just ask questions. Don’t be shy to ask people about their lives, and once they see you’re really interested, conversation will flow.
In the end, although it’s clear that language is pretty important when it comes to building relationships, it’s not the be-all and end-all. There is so much that can be communicated by body language and general positivity, and it is pleasantly surprising to see how much you can communicate when you really want to. There were many times during my year abroad when I became friends with people with whom I couldn’t quite share my soul, but it didn’t really matter. Sometimes hilarity strikes in the very absence of words, and while you may find yourself sincerely stripped of your sarcasm, there are endless other opportunities to laugh in the language learning process. Check out the FCO’s advice pages on Spain if you’re lucky enough to be heading to that sunny location, or head to the main page for advice on other countries and travel insurance tips.