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I received this question on my Instagram page in May while preparing for my month-long study abroad program in Spain. I needed to pause and reflect on how Spanish influences my personal growth and professional development.
Firstly, I want to recognize the privilege of learning a second language from a young age and traveling abroad to speak Spanish with native speakers. Although I am not fluent in Spanish, I am on the path to becoming bilingual. Throughout the past month, I gained independence in using Spanish in everyday contexts, from the market to the hospital.
This post reflects my Spanish language experience, my trip to Spain, and my budding identity of being "bilingual."
My Spanish Language Experience
My Spanish learning experience began when I was in third grade. Although I did not attend a Spanish immersion elementary school, I was able to participate in an after-school Spanish program. These sessions were my first formal exposure to the language and prepared me to enter structured instruction in 6th grade.
Over the next three years, I joined my classmates in daily lessons on beginner-level vocabulary and grammar. I don't remember much from these foundational years, but some highlights were watching a Spanish-language-learner TV show and dancing to Marc Anthony's "Vivi mi Vida" every Friday.
In high school, I decided to continue my Spanish education, setting off my love for international travel and the Spanish language. During my first year, I recall passing posters advertising an educational trip across Spain in the summer of 2016. I was eager to travel and use my beginning Spanish skills outside of the classroom, and thankfully, my parents supported my request to participate.
This trip to Spain pushed me far out of my comfort zone. I was 14, naïve, and a beginner-level Spanish speaker. I recall anxiously conjugating "Can we have a waiter, please?" at a local restaurant. Although it was a struggle to communicate, I looked up to my teachers and seniors in how they confidently immersed themselves in the language and culture.
I quickly became eager to use Spanish with locals despite my limited knowledge. By the end of the trip, I had learned more about the Spanish language and culture than I ever could in a classroom. Immersion in the local cadence, rhythm, accent, speed, and context deepened my knowledge and daily use of the language. I realized my capability to connect with native speakers in another language allowed me to become more acquainted with a different culture and way of life.
I knew my trip to Spain was just the beginning of my international travel adventures. Throughout the next three years of high school, I took every opportunity to use Spanish inside and outside the classroom. My Spanish skills blossomed, and I eventually reached a. point where I could sustain a long conversation with some fluidity. When the opportunity to travel to Peru came up in my senior year, I took it. This time, however, I was the one to translate and take more initiative within the program group.
While in Peru, I confronted my privilege, bias, and nerves with using Spanish. I had the opportunity to build relationships with a host family and partner with a local community to build the foundation of a restaurant. I became accustomed to using Spanish almost exclusively while adjusting to the high altitude. This trip also introduced me to travel outside of Europe and one of the indigenous communities in Latin America.
In college, I decided to continue my Spanish education. I completed Advanced Spanish before signing up for two upper-division classes related to Spanish cinema, culture, community, and history. All of my college Spanish courses challenged me to use critical thinking skills in another language. I began to think, analyze, and write in Spanish without translating. I continuously asked questions and investigated with curiosity.
I am grateful for the limited Spanish courses I took during my first two years. These courses diversified my learning while connecting me with a different community on campus. I made new friends with classmates and professors who continuously pushed and inspired me. Some of these relationships sustained throughout the pandemic and my study abroad trip to Salamanca, Spain.
Studying Abroad in Salamanca, Spain
My study abroad program in Salamanca was unlike my past travel experiences.
While abroad, I stayed with a host family, took classes at a university, and spoke Spanish in everyday contexts. I did not realize how much I missed traveling and connecting with people in a different language. I held onto the small connections and enduring conversations with the locals.
I still felt nervous approaching native speakers despite studying and speaking the language. On the other hand, I was not afraid to admit when I needed help or had a question. One of my favorite conversations, for example, was with a cheese vendor at a local market who patiently guided me to a cheese that fit my tastes.
My nightly discussions with my host mom confronted my vulnerability with using Spanish. Over dinner, we would discuss anything from my classes and local events to news stories, politics, and dating shows. Our relationship became a platform for asking questions about culture, language, and family.
My language and cultural knowledge further developed through my university courses, excursions, and online assignments. My language course explored different sectors of grammar and vocabulary that allowed me to discuss different periods, situations, and themes. My conversation and writing class scaffolded my skills in asking questions, describing directions and people, and stating commands. In art class, I encountered famous Spanish painters from Sofonisba to Picasso and analyzed various political and artistic eras in Spanish history.
Outside of my classes, the rest of the day was filled with meals and planned activities throughout the city. Through visits to the Catedral Vieja, Catedral Nueva, las tres fachadas, la Universidad de Salamanca, and various museums, outstanding faculty and tour guides told the story of Spain. A story of conquest, convivencia, conflict, domination, ingenuity, and power.
If I had to choose my favorite part of this experience, it would be building a physical connection to the history and culture. You see, reading about the history of a place through textbooks and images is one thing. However, learning about the Catholic conquest of Spain by visiting the Mezquita-Catedral in Córdoba --a physical representation of the Catholic invasion of a Muslim community-- brings in reality and substance.
I will miss so much about this beautiful city, especially the simple things, like my walk to school, chatting with my host mom during meals, and the €1.50 coffee. This trip has strengthened my dream to work and live abroad. There is much to learn from simply staying in one place for a while and starting a conversation.
What does it mean to be "Bilingual"?
Even after my trip to Spain, I find this question difficult to answer. I struggle to understand my level of fluency and how that relates to bilingualism. Fluency is hard to define. When will I think of myself as "fluent," and is being fluent different than being bilingual?
Honestly, I don't know how to answer those questions. Right now, I am not fluent in Spanish, but I speak with fluency. This means I don't have all of the vocabulary and grammar skills that are at the same level as my English skills. However, I have the cadence, flow, pronunciation, and natural rhythm defining fluency. While living in Salamanca, I spoke Spanish in everyday contexts and successfully relied on my Spanish.
Therefore, I am starting to identify as bilingual in Spanish and English. Bilingualism is demonstrated through adaptability, independence, confidence, and flexibility when fluently using both languages. I don't think there is a line I need to cross to be considered "fluent" in Spanish because I will always develop both my Spanish and English. While in Spain, I realized the utility of my Spanish outside of the classroom was more important than memorizing grammar rules and word families.
I began to understand that my bilingualism was related to my level of dependence on English. Could I describe an object, place, or person without using the English translation? Did I have to switch to English to ask a question or clarification in class? Could I use Spanish almost exclusively? Once I realized I didn't need to rely on English, I built more confidence in my fluency and independence in using Spanish.
My time in Spain not only scaffolded my language skills and knowledge of Spanish culture but also strengthened my connections to the language. I understand that a language is much more than a jumble of words that create meaning. Language carries so much cultural significance and history. It brings people together and strengthens opportunities to build new relationships. Finally, language allows humans to express themselves through the spoken and written word.
My Spanish education is far from over. I have much to learn from future travel and partnerships with Spanish-speaking communities. I'm excited to see how my Spanish will grow and where it will take me.
Meghan Hesterman (she/her) is a child advocate and education blogger. While a student at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD), she created Journal of a Future Teacher to share her journey in becoming an early childhood teacher.