Magazine topic: 
Life around the world

Breaking the language barriers: part 2

by : 
JohnM

For the last three months of my year abroad in Seville, I lived in a new flat (in the area of Nervión) with a Spanish boy and two French girls – and we spoke to one another in Spanish. 

I remember my first weekend there. My new flatmates had organised a barbeque, inviting many Spanish people. But I was nervous. Everyone was talking in Spanish and I wasn't really used to this. I suppose that, as a language learner, speaking to my old flatmates in English all the time hadn't been good for me – after all, I was in Spain to speak the language, to improve it and to use it to communicate with others. But this isn't easy. At the barbeque, I was out of my comfort zone – and about to face new challenges and new language barriers.

Understanding foreigners speak in their native language can be difficult – even if you speak that language. For example, before moving to Seville, I thought that I'd be able to understand Spanish people fine. But this wasn't the case. I soon discovered that the Spanish you learn in the classroom is very different to the Spanish you hear in Spain. There's no doubt that Spaniards speak fast. Very fast. But in Seville, it's almost like they speak even faster. I remember that we didn't understand our Spanish flatmate when he spoke to us at first because he spoke so fast. Of course, he was speaking naturally (like he does with his family and friends) but this was just too fast for us.

Living in the south of Spain, I was also faced with an accent that's very different to the standard Spanish accent; in fact, I found it difficult to understand my flatmate at first due to his Andalusian accent. Unlike the Spanish I heard at school or at university, he didn't speak as clearly and even pronounced certain words differently – it was almost like he never closed his mouth when he spoke. Furthermore, it's very common that people in the south of Spain don't pronounce the letter 's' when it comes at the end of a word. Therefore, unless I knew exactly what my flatmate was saying, it was easy to get confused. To be understood, my flatmate had to speak much slower and with a controlled accent – like what I had to do with my old flatmates.

Before moving, I had been studying Spanish for seven years, but you can never be sure of how well you speak a language until you actually go to a country where that language is spoken. In Seville, I made many mistakes when I spoke in Spanish. Sometimes, I'd start to say something and then I'd get stuck – I would realise that I didn't actually know how to say what I wanted to say. But my Spanish flatmate was very helpful and I knew that if I didn't know how to say something, he would tell me. Other times, I would try to simplify what I wanted to say – I knew what I meant in English and could more or less say it in Spanish. But it's not so easy to translate successfully from one language to another. So, I often found it difficult to express myself properly.

But understanding and speaking in Spanish gradually got easier for me; in fact, towards the end, my Spanish flatmate could speak much faster and more naturally with us. And after a lot of practice, speaking in Spanish became more automatic for me. I think that living with a native speaker and being surrounded by the language from morning till night really helped me to improve – so much so that when we organised a second barbeque, I was a very confident Spanish speaker.

Language barriers are very common – even for language learners. And when you go abroad, there's no doubt that you will make mistakes and come across these barriers. But the real challenge is overcoming them. This requires a lot of time, effort and patience. But really, to break the barriers, we have to be willing to listen and to understand. We have to compromise.

Note: this is part two of John's post. You can read part one here.

Discussion

Do you agree with John, that learning a language requires a lot of time, effort and patience? How much time and effort do you put into learning English?