By Jacob Birsen
I spent the majority of my senior year in high school saving up money to go spend a portion of my summer with my best friend in Spain. For two years, I had been dreaming of visiting her and taking in another country’s culture. I had taken three years of Spanish in high school and I was finally ready to try out my Spanish in a real world environment.
However, on my first day in Barcelona, I realized that Catalan, not Spanish, was the primary language spoken. The ones who spoke Spanish primarily spoke it at a pace that was too fast for me to understand, so I wasn’t as vocal with the locals as I could have been. Towards the middle of my trip we were scheduled to go visit my friend’s extended family who lived about an hour outside of Barcelona. My lack of Catalan took me from very exciting to this portion of the trip to very nervous. Many of her older family members only spoke Catalan, and the few that did speak Spanish were always speaking in Catalan so it didn’t make a difference. When we arrived at the house of my friend’s grandparents, I was lost. I sat myself down on the couch and was basically waiting for it all to be over. I stayed this way for at least half an hour, completely intimidated by locals speaking a language I couldn’t understand. Some of the adults tried to speak to me, and although I responded in Spanish, they grew bored of my limited vocabulary and went back to speaking with the main group once again.
When dinner finally started, I was placed at the kids end of the table and, even though my friend was next to me, I still felt like I was in my own little world of English. However, dinner turned out to be the turning point in my night. On my other side was one of my friend’s younger cousins and I asked her something in Spanish and she replied to me at a speed I could accurately understand. We struck up a conversation and the night immediately became better. I soon came to realize that all the children wanted to talk to the American, and some even wanted to try their own English out! The rest of the night was spent talking to my new, albeit younger, friends and turned into one of my favorite nights from my trip.
Although I was originally hesitant about my speaking skills, after that night, I felt a lot more confident and started initiating with everybody I could in Spanish, even if they had previously been speaking Catalan. I realized that without practicing my second language I was never going to get better and I would be terrified of speaking to locals forever. My best advice for those learning a second language, especially English, is to practice as much as you can! Here at USC you have an amazing resource in the ALI, but don’t ever forget you have thousands of English speakers on campus which means thousands of opportunities to improve yourself and your language skills everyday!