I have always been interested in languages. Not enough to become a polyglot, but I thoroughly enjoyed taking Spanish in high school. When I was applying to study abroad, language played a big role in my decision to come to Spain. I could have gone to the United Kingdom, which had more engineering courses. I could have gone to Hong Kong and experienced a culture that is completely new to me. But I decided to come to Madrid because I knew I wanted to speak Spanish. I took 4 years of Spanish before college and hoped that spending a semester in Spain would make me close to fluent. However, now that I have been in Madrid for a week, I have come to realize it won’t be so easy. In fact, I have barely had to speak any Spanish at all.
I have always known that English is a world language, but I didn’t realize what that really meant until now. For example, I live in an apartment with roommates from all over Europe- France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, and Germany. Even though we are living in Spain, all of our conversations are in English. In most European countries it is required for students to learn English and many European universities have courses taught in English. Therefore, every international student I have met is fluent in English. In fact, most of them can also speak a third or fourth language as well. It is not uncommon to be in a group and suddenly hear the language switch mid-conversation. Since I spend most of my time surrounded by other students, whether in my apartment or on campus, I speak English most of the time.
Whenever I need to speak to somebody who is not a student, I always do so in Spanish. Sometimes the person will respond in English, but other times I will have the whole conversation in Spanish. I have noticed that when I make the effort to speak Spanish, the conversations tend to be longer and more sincere. There is a quote by Nelson Mandela, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” In my experience, this is absolutely true. Some Spaniards appreciate that I am speaking their language, even if they speak English as well. They don’t mind that it takes a bit longer for me to get the words out, and they are happy to help me with a word I don’t know. If I talk to them in English, they will help me with what I need. If I talk to them in Spanish, they will open up and we can have a real conversation.
One day I decided to see if I could create the same sort of connection with other international students. Obviously, I can’t have a full conversation in every language I hear, but maybe I could try something easier. I asked my French roommates if they could teach me a French greeting. I knew bonjour, but I wanted to learn something that was more informal, something that would surprise a French person when I said it. I was given a simple phrase, ça va, which means “what’s up?”. It is less formal than bonjour and is perfect for saying hello to other people your age. It can also be used as a response, meaning “I’m good” or “I’m fine”. But more importantly, it is easy to remember and even easier to say. Every time I meet somebody from France, I will ask “ça va?”. I have had various responses; some people start speaking to me in French, some smile and laugh, and others are just confused. In any case, that seems to break the ice and we proceed to have some real conversations. They appreciate that I tried to learn their language, even if it is just two words. Since learning ça va, I have learned “what’s up” in several other languages. For example, miten menee in Finnish, was geht in German, and hva skjer in Norwegian. Now every time I meet someone new, I ask where they are from. If I know how to greet them in their language, I will do so. If I don’t know their greeting, I will get to add another language to my collection.
Through these interactions, I have learned about the different cultures and lifestyles of people all around Europe. I have only been in Madrid for one week and I have already realized the importance of language, and how it can be used to gain new perspectives about the world. I can’t wait to see what the next four months bring!