I felt so trapped by my own shyness to speak another language. But those experiences just sweeten moments where, after persevering, you actually say something right in the other language.
Coming to Madrid as a six-month exchange student from Australia, I’d assumed I’d become fluent in Spanish within weeks, forced into absorbing the language and unable to communicate in English. I’d probably overestimated my Spanish skills, and certainly my speaking confidence. I also hadn’t considered that all my new friends in Madrid would be English-speaking students, hailing from almost every country other than Spain. It quickly became apparent that I would have to make a concerted effort to speak the language. But that’s difficult when you have a less-than-fluent grasp.
So what can you do? Approaching native speakers takes a lot of confidence, and it can feel a little clumsy and opportunistic to do so in the hope of improving your Spanish. Luckily, as I found out soon after moving here, there are plenty of language Intercambios in Madrid. They’re organised meetings in a bar or cafeteria where people of all nationalities come to practise their various languages. You get a nametag with your country of origin, buy a drink and have the chance to meet people from around the world.
I’ve been to a couple of different Intercambios since coming to Madrid. I’ll admit, the first one was a bit of a disaster. The bar was nice, but I arrived too early and there were very few people there. Soon after arriving with my Italian friend an older Spanish man overheard us speaking English and quickly latched onto us. He was determined to practise his English – in the form of long, tedious monologues about his work. We sat with him for about an hour, unsure of how to shake him off, until eventually I made some excuse about being tired and left. That’s it, we just went home, and I do blame myself for not making more of an effort.
The second Intercambio, organised by the Erasmus Student Network at my university, wasn’t a lot better. I found myself sitting in the corner table full of Americans and Australians, all with a fairly limited grasp of Spanish. You can imagine how much was spoken (none). Once again, I felt terribly guilty for not trying harder.
The third Intercambio I went to was a much greater success. It was at Ole Lola, a bar with a lovely atmosphere typical of trendy Chueca. This time, I was a little more determined. I brushed off the advances of the apparently inevitable seedy old Intercambio man, ordered a glass of wine and tapas and headed for the opposite side of the restaurant. I met a few people my age – exchange students from Latin America and the US wanting to practise both English and Spanish. I spoke slowly and, quite frankly, awfully, but afterwards I was quietly proud of the fact that I spoke at all. And on a side note, the tapas were easily the best I’ve had in Madrid. All round, a wonderful evening.
So I guess what I’m trying to say here is that you shouldn’t give up the first time you make a weak attempt at another language, because it is hard. And kind of soul-destroying. After my first attempts at Intercambio I felt so trapped by my own shyness to speak another language that I was filled with a gross sort of self-hatred. But those experiences just sweeten moments where, after persevering, you actually say something right in the other language. It can feel a little daunting to speak to someone in his or her native language, but it’s a truism that most people are friendly, patient and willing to help out (particularly Spanish speakers)!
The Intercambios are really a wonderful idea to learn and teach languages in a mutually beneficial environment. And I will certainly be going back for more.
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