What Not to Put on Your Auxiliar To-Do List

I read the Facebook groups and occasionally the forums for this year’s Conversation Assistants in Spain. I see the various questions about what to bring, visas, NIEs, etc. I also see the questions about “bucket lists” or, if you want to use the less-annoying term, “goal lists.” You know, it’s cool to have goals. I’m pretty terrible at setting goals, so I’m inspired when people set goals and achieve them. But some goals should never be set. Let me tell you what not to put on your auxiliar/Spain “to-do” list.

  • Date a Spaniard—Wait, what? Is this really a goal of yours? I know, I know … I too am attached to one, and they are great. Well, Mario is great. But why oh why is your goal to date one? At the end of the day, Spaniards are humans, just like you. So perhaps you can understand why I find your goal of a Spanish significant other to be flat out stupid. They are not a commodity to be had. Sorry.

Spaniards aren’t an item to check off your to-do list.

  • Become fluent—Unless you come to Spain with an absurdly good level of Spanish, your Spanish is not going to progress to “fluent” level in just one year. Fluency is notoriously difficult level to achieve. Fluency requires immersion, a lot of speaking time, and loads of patience for the times when you don’t believe your Spanish is getting any better at all. It’s a good goal, but perhaps not so realistic if you only plan to stay a year. But don’t be discouraged! You can improve a lot—if you try.
  • Only hang out with Spaniards—I understand your motivation. I do! But, to me, this goal reeks of snobbery. I mean, I understand you, in a way: you want to embrace Spanish life, to have an authentic experience. But, seriously, is only hanging out with Spaniards feasible for you? You know, it is kind of nice to have a person who empathizes with you. I found my American auxiliar friends to be of great help. They knew what I was going through, and we made time to “tomar un café” once a week or so.

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Hanging out with all Spaniards. Am I cool or what?

  • Travel all over Europe—It’s just not possible, tempting as it may sound. While you definitely should take advantage of your time to travel around Europe a bit, you should also find time to explore your own area and even visit other areas of Spain!

Since I now feel like a total aguafiestas, I want to assure you that it’s not all a “no” for me. I’m not an expert, but here’s what I think sound like good, reasonable goals for your time in Spain:

  • Make some Spanish friends—Do it! You don’t want to only hang out with English speakers. I mean, yeah, it’s cool that your friends are also from Britain and Canada, but you did go all the way to Spain, and it wasn’t just to hang out with people from Illinois. (But people from Illinois are cool! I swear.)
  • Improve your SpanishYou’re going to Spain. You should learn Spanish if you don’t know it. Likewise, you should improve if you already know the basics.
  • Get to know your own town or area—Like I said above, your town or area likely has a lot to offer. Zamora, where my husband is from, is not a place most guiris put on their to-visit lists. Nonetheless, it is an interesting city, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know more about it over the years. Your town may not be Santiago de Compostela or Sevilla or Valencia, but it likely has something to offer.

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Exploring the province of Zamora: Toro’s wine festival.

  • Realize how capable you are: moving abroad, doing it all yourself—Maybe you’re just out of college, like I was, when I moved to Spain in 2009 to do an internship. I didn’t know anyone, but I packed all my stuff into one suitcase (how?), and landed in Salamanca in early September 2009. I had no idea that I’d meet my husband that very month, that I’d be moving back indefinitely in 2012 with a ring on my finger, that I’d have a family in Spain. I was alone, but I was capable. Moving abroad can be exciting, but it can also be scary. You’re doing it!

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26 comments

  1. I especially love the goal of becoming fluent. I think this is one of the most widely misunderstood aspects to living/working in a foreign country for a time. As soon as somebody learns that I lived in Spain (twice) their first question is “so you’re like fluent in Spanish, right?” What?! NO! haha, I wish. Language learning is a life long process.

  2. Very good advice. I would add, though, that making a point of not hanging out with English-speakers is a good thing if you’re only coming to Spain (or another foreign country) for a year. One doesn’t have to only hang out with Spaniards, but even hanging out with other Europeans allows you to use Spanish as a “lingua franca” and get some practice. I mean, if you’re in a foreign country for such a short period of time, make the most of it! :) Sooner than you’ll realize it will all be over and you can go back to your American routine.
    Also, I find expat blogs like this one can be a great “support system” for newcomers. ;)

    Un saludo

  3. Great tips! I tried hard not to hang out with other English-speakers at first to improve my Spanish. But when things get tough, it’s so nice to have somebody who speaks your language. I’ve re-thought my position since. :)

    And agh on the fluency thing! Everyone says that, and hardly anybody has a clear definition of what ‘fluent’ is.

    1. I think it’s totally worth it to try to hang out with non-English speakers. I just think it’s lame to reject friendships on the basis of such goals, you know?

  4. Oh the fluent question… People always ask me “So you’re fluent in 3 languages now!” (I grew up speaking French and do consider myself almost 100% bilingual) But I will never consider myself fluent in Spanish. Language learning is a life long process!

    I wish I had made more Spanish speaking friends. I made a few and they were great but it would have been nice to not hang out with English speakers so much. But I have to agree, you shouldn’t go to Spain with the attitude of “I will only hang out with Spanish speakers.” It is snobby and sounds very elitist. You aren’t in Spain trying to distance yourself from your own culture. You’re there to immerse yourself in a new culture, but that doesn’t mean you turn your back on your home country. I had a crazy American roommate who had really weird ideas about only talking to Spanish speakers and who got super annoyed whenever she heard Americans. Granted, she didn’t make many friends that way!

  5. Not to veer too off-topic here, but the background in the photo of you being cool with all Spaniards looks like it jumped right out of Pan’s Labyrinth.

  6. This is spot-on! I especially agree with the part of making both Spanish and American friends. Both are incredibly important to have while you’re abroad. Although sometimes I wish I spent a bit less time with Americans and more time with Spaniards, I wouldn’t trade my American friends in Spain for the world. Plus, non-local friends are more likely to want to travel with you, and travel buddies are awesome.

  7. I love this post! It’s nice to hear a down-to-earth response to how silly everyone’s sounding. Though I do think all the excitement of moving to a new place gets to people’s heads and makes them giddy with the possibilities — I know I certainly am. Except for the finding a Spaniard to date and marry bit…I was reading one discussion where people were (I think only half jokingly) already dreaming up their bilingual children.

  8. I loved this list! I think it really can apply to any country you go to live for an extended period of time. I especially liked the snobby “only hang out with Spaniards” don’t. When I studied in Chile I heard a story about a girl from the semester before “swearing off” English for the year. A girl from her group didn’t understand a Spanish word and when she asked her what it meant the broad actually had the nerve to spell out the English word in Spanish! I kid you not! I hope to follow these dos and don’ts when I arrive in Madrid for my first year as an aux two weeks from now! :)

  9. Well said, Kaley. I agree on “being fluent” as not a good goal. I fell for that idea and it was earlier this year in another post of yours that I really had to think about it and come to terms with the idea of fluency. I’ve certainly improved my Spanish but I wouldn’t say I’m fluent. Some friends find this surprising but they just don’t quite get it.
    And yes to the date a Spaniard. I feel I had so many people tell me before I left for Spain tell me I should date a Spanish guy as if I can go to the kiosk and order one. Hahaha.

    Great and funny post!

  10. luckily I didn’t have much expectations when going on my “assistant de langue” year in France. had a boyfriend at the moment so that was totally out of the question… the rest was almost impossible because I lived in the middle of nowhere so yeah… it wasn’t what I had expected. I improved a lot my French, for that I am grateful!

  11. Well, additionally, for what it’s worth, “fluency” has no real definition, it’s an extremely flexible term and can basically mean whatever you want it to mean. This is why linguists and language teachers avoid the term like the plague, instead opting for specific, known competency levels like CEFR to describe someone’s abilities in a particular language.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  12. Thanks for this post, particularly the last point on recognising your own capability – I leave in two weeks’ time for my post in Dénia, Alicante, and am trying to keep in mind that nobody expects me to be perfect or know everything, especially not in the first few days and weeks. It’s my first time living anywhere but the U.K., and I’m only a lowly third-year undergraduate, so I guess I have to give myself a break!

  13. Ha! This had me laughing out loud! Great list. Or really lists. I’m with you on the absurd lengths some go to to avoid their fellow English-speakers. It reminds me of the quote from Lerner’s “Leaving the Atocha Station” that I mentioned in my post on study abroad:

    “rather, I reserved my most intense antipathy for those Americans who attempted to blend in, who made Spanish friends and eschewed the company of their countrymen, who refused to speak English and who, when they spoke Spanish exaggerated the peninsular lisp…”

    Although I think fellow English speakers can become a crutch for those exchange students who only come for a year. For all the talk on fluency and English-avoidance, I actually think your point about appreciating the local and not weekend-tripping to Paris and Rome is the most poignant. I suspect a lot of Americans come to Spain under the following reasoning: 1) I took Spanish in school, and 2) I want to spend a year in Europe. Falling in love with Spain seems to happen much later.

    But how about instead of “date a Spaniard” they put “fall in love with a Spaniard and never return home.” It worked for us!

  14. Ha! This had me laughing out loud! Great list. Or really lists! Your discussion about exchange students who avoid English-speakers reminded me of the quote from Lerner’s “Leaving the Atocha Station” that I posted on my entry about study abroad not long ago:

    “…rather, I reserved my most intense antipathy for those Americans who attempted to blend in, who made Spanish friends and eschewed the company of their countrymen, who refused to speak English and who, when they spoke Spanish exaggerated the peninsular lisp…”

    Though I suspect that those who don’t avoid fellow English-speakers start to lean on their compatriots like a crutch, which can inhibit Spanish fluency if they’re only here for a year. For all the talk in comments here about fluency and dating the locals, I thought your most poignant recommendation was to go local rather than travel all over Europe. I suspect that many if not most American exchange students ended up in Spain through the following reasoning: 1) I took Spanish in school, and 2) I want to visit Europe! And they only fall in love with Spain itself much later.

    Perhaps people could replace “date a Spaniard” with “fall in love with a Spaniard and never return home”. It worked for us! ;-)

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