HomeQ&AWhat's it like being in a Spanish speaking country for the first time?

What's it like being in a Spanish speaking country for the first time?

7
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I've never gone to any Spanish speaking countries, so I've always wondered what it's like for people who have. How much experience did you have with Spanish going there? Was it overwhelming? Did it take a while getting used to the culture? And do people talk a lot differently then from what you had learned?

6079 views
updated JUN 9, 2010
posted by psyche_of_frogs
Good question and even better answers ;) - bomberapolaca, JUN 6, 2010

10 Answers

3
votes

It is AMAZING.

I had studied 4 years of Spanish before going: 1 year with a Puertorican, 2 with Spaniards, and 1 with an American who had studied in Spain. So I had gotten a fairly diverse education of the language. Still, the language and the speed took some getting used to, as did the colloquialisms. Listening to one teacher talk for 50 minutes a day 5 days a week is VERY different than listening to everyone around you speak for about 18 hours a day, 7 days a week. The culture is also very different. But do it. I'm certain that there is nothing better you can do for your Spanish OR for your growth as a person. smile

updated JUN 6, 2010
posted by asdfghjkl4
3
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AWESOME!!! and yes, they speak differently. but only a little. I learned Mexican Spanish and then went to Costa Rica, so it was really different. my Spanish was already advanced, so it wasn't too hard to figure out. the other people who were with me did not have as much practice, so it was a little harder for them, but even with the language barrier, they got along fine, and además, they loved it.

updated JUN 6, 2010
posted by dnboone12
3
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If I may use a much over-used word: Awesome! It can be complete sensory overload, but it is an experience that you'll never forget.

I had some experience speaking Spanish, but only in classroom and group-conversations (which usually had only English speakers who were leaning), not in a real life situation. The first Spanish speaking country that I visited was Cuba.

I went with a group, none of whom spoke Spanish, except for me. The Cuban people were extremely understanding and helpful. One of the things that you learn to do quickly is talk around words that you don't know. You will find that many people in Spanish speaking countries also speak English and between their English and your Spanish, you'll be OK.

One thing that helped was that the Cuban people were expecting our group. I can't relate to an experience where I would be going without any connections when I arrived. That would be another exciting experience though.

The language wasn't too different from what I had learned, but of course there were a lot of expressions that I didn't understand and had to ask for help with.

As I said, you won't forget your first trip! smile

updated JUN 6, 2010
edited by Delores--Lindsey
posted by Delores--Lindsey
2
votes

I think it depends on your level of Spanish. If you speak pretty much no Spanish at all, I would imagine that for most people it wouldn't be too daunting. I think of the average American tourist with no foreign-language abilities as fairly confident of his ability to find food and shelter by smiling, gesturing, pointing, making faces, pointing to things on the menu, shouting slowly in English (the belief that everyone understands English if spoken loudly and slowly enough is remarkably widespread, if unconscious!), reading from the phrase book while pronouncing all the Hs, and finding someone with at least a little English. Someone with this level of Spanish (the none to hola range) is not worried about speaking correctly and, with fairly good reason, does not live in fear of dying or getting utterly lost and starving in a gutter for lack of the requisite vocabulary to carry on a conversation about the different varieties of fish available in the market with the local vendor. Their lack of ability to communicate well is not as breathtakingly obvious to them as it is to people who know enough Spanish to realize how little they know. When you don't speak any Spanish at all, it is not as embarrassing to read from a phrasebook and point.
But, like Socrates, many people become more keenly aware of their linguistic shortcomings, the more they learn. To people with a bit of Spanish, perhaps a year or two of Spanish in school, however, their own inability to communicate nuance is often upsetting. They may forget their carefully studied vocabulary lists, read a menu and realize that despite a chapter on food in their textbook, they haven't the slightest idea what half the menu says, that they don't understand much that isn't spoken by a voice actor on a Spanish-learning tape reading a scripted conversation, or briefly panic when they try to speak to someone in Spanish and think that they have actually forgotten all their Spanish when they don't understand a word of the response before realizing their interlocutor is speaking Quechua. The difference between the classroom and actual interactions is vast, and with a bit of knowledge comes the pressing awareness of the vastness of your ignorance. It can be paralyzing. However, this fades fairly quickly, I find. Once you have been in a Spanish-speaking country long enough, you gain the confidence of the none-hola range tourist. Once you loosen up a bit, it becomes apparent that you use everything you remember and don't need anything you've forgotten, and it's all okay. Every little bit helps, and you really are better off than you were before you spoke any Spanish at all. Your ability to conjugate verbs may be sketchy, you may misuse por and para or ser and estar or the preterit and the imperfect, but you get your point across, people are pretty patient, and glad that you're trying to speak their language rather than just barreling through in English. It's pretty easy to get around and get stuff done even if your Spanish is quite bad, or if your accent is very strong or you can't roll your Rs, or really anything else you were afraid of.
Anyway, to summarize, it's largely a matter of confidence and a little practice hearing Spanish spoken. There are lots of people who have a very basic understanding of Spanish, who speak with strong accents, who have limited vocabularies, who don't conjugate verbs well, but who were much better equipped to navigate a day in Spain than those studious AP Spanish students going over the intricacies of the subjunctive (I know, I was one of the latter group). They get along just fine and are not reciting verb conjugations in their heads before a conversation with the waiter or the bank teller. They navigate Spanish-speaking life easily. And eventually, with a bit of study, their spoken Spanish comes out as well as the written Spanish of those verb chart-reciting AP students.
Well, that was more another huge paragraph than a concise summary. Here's the real summary then: Don't worry. Just talk.

updated JUN 6, 2010
edited by MacFadden
posted by MacFadden
That's a really great read, very encouraging. And I love the "zero to hola" line. I'll use that one. - Goyo, JUN 6, 2010
2
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From what others have told me - and this is briefly mentioned in the answer from "asdfghjkl4" - the biggest difference in how people talk - compared with what has been heard in a learning situation - is, quite simply, the speed of the speech.

I have so often heard from native English speakers: "people sure speak Spanish quickly around here, don't they?" (and it doesn't matter which Spanish-speaking country or region we are in). As a fluent Spanish-speaker I realize that the speed of the speech is actually quite normal! So, when folks make a comment like that I try to gently remind them that these native Spanish-speakers would say exactly the same thing about English-speakers if they travelled to an English-speaking country.

updated JUN 6, 2010
posted by waltico
I agree with your excellent observation. I have friends who sometimes tell me to slow down, so I'd hate to think what a non-English speaker would think. lol :-) - Delores--Lindsey, JUN 5, 2010
1
vote

All great answers so far. Not much I can add, other than to say I agree with what they've said. I moved to Venezuela when I was in high school. I'd had 2 years of Spanish in U.S. high schools. I lived in Caracas for two years. It took me 6 months before I felt comfortable holding a conversation at speed with a Venezuelan. Even by Spanish speaking standards, they talk very fast, they chop off the ends of words, they don't pronounce the 's', or the 'd' if it's between two vowels. All that said, someone with 2 years of high school Spanish is not going to be able to hold a conversation at speed with a native of any country. Every locale will have it's own idiosyncrasies that won't match what you were taught in school, especially when they start throwing around the slang and swear words.

On the other hand, once I said "Mas despacio, por favor", they'd smile and help me all the way. Getting used to the culture is another big adventure. Even if you understand the language, you might not get the references. On the third hand, I've also traveled to Asia. The culture and environment in most Spanish speaking countries is a lot more familiar and comfortable for most English speaking people than Asia. Great places, but much more different in their own ways.

All said, I can't recommend it more. Wonderful experience.

updated JUN 9, 2010
posted by KevinB
I would add that the culture in Latin American countries and even in southern Spain is still far closer to American culture than most of the culture in peninsular Spain. - asdfghjkl4, JUN 9, 2010
1
vote

I loved being suddenly immersed in Spanish when I arrived in Mexico. The people were wonderful and I knew a lot more Spanish than I thought I did. It really makes a difference when you need to speak a language just for survival!

updated JUN 6, 2010
posted by --Mariana--
1
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It's a "rush"!

updated JUN 6, 2010
posted by nonombre
1
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In my experience, visiting Spain twice many many years ago and Honduras more recently, I have to say that I was in all instances treated like a king. People where jovial, friendly and very helpful. In both countries I quickly made acquaintances. Note that in all cases I didn't speak Spanish at all but I have always made an effort to learn a few words…to show them I cared.

Again, from personal experience, I noticed that among the 10 or 11 countries I visited only Germany and America (as nations more than individuals) treated foreigners like crap.

updated JUN 6, 2010
posted by sfrenchie
1
vote

When i was still young enough not to care of consequences ( oh happy days) an ex girl friend a ballet dancer was dancing at the top hotel in Mexico city ,I was invited to stay there by her boyfriend who was Manager of the hotel . I turned up with my Wife and 5 year old son . Her friend was a terrific guy , he loaned me his Mercedes car to use , he also gave me tickets to Teatro des artes,the bull fights , and all meals were free. We all had a fantastic time even though i had not a word of Spanish only Italian , one memorable trip way up in the mountains i ran out of gasoline fortunately two young boys found us and took me on a long walk to a Pueblo and i was able to buy gasoline from the local "Happy house" with all the girls laughing and gesturing to me as I siphoned gas out of a 40 gallon drum, those lovely boys took me back to my car in one piece and we went off to Taxco. i often wonder what happened to those great kids and hope i compensated them sufficiently for saving me from not only an empty tank but from the clutches of those very lovely Siñoritas .My first and only forey into a Spanish speaking country was incredible I was overwhelmed by the country and it's people . One night we went to dinner in a home in ciudad mexico the Hostess was the mother of a student in a School in Canada which my eldest son taught, I told this dear lady i could not eat as Monctezuma had his hands firmly around my gut. She laughed and gave me an alcoholic drink, actually many many drinks , they fixed me real good , and for the rest of my stay i drank a steady supply of these drinks which made for a memorable but sadly forgetable visit to Mexico. i shall return.I wonder if i can find that Pueblo, Oh the drinks were "Margaritas" Great medcine!

updated JUN 6, 2010
posted by ray76
Wow...sounds like a wonderful experience! - --Mariana--, JUN 6, 2010
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