I owe a lot to my study abroad experience.
This whole “Spain thing,” if you will, started about three years ago in the fall of 2007, when I took the first steps toward applying to a program in Toledo, Spain. I had been studying Spanish since I was a 15 year-old sophomore in high school. From the very beginning, I loved it – Spanish, that is. In school, we learned Latin American Spanish, didn’t even bother with a verb form called vosotros, the second person plural. (It’s like our “you guys.”) The teachers scoffed, telling us, “You’ll never use it.” Well, they were right – in something like 95% of the cases. The other 5% of us did need it. My friend Lauren went to Spain in the summer of 2007, half a year before me. She certainly needed it. She had to learn the Spanish pronunciation, slang, vocabulary.
I’d no desire whatsoever to go to Latin America. If you look at this post, you’ll see that, unfortunately, on the coolness scale, Europe ranks low. “It is also important that you understand the study abroad ranking system. Europe/Australia form the base level, then Asia, then South America, and finally the trump card of studying abroad in Tibet. Then there is the conversation killer of studying abroad in Africa.” Yeah, I obviously did not care. I had always dreamed of Spain, its ancient cathedrals and winding streets, its Castilian allure. (I later learned about the ham.) So, Spain it was. Before my arrival, I had dreams of fluency, millions of Spanish friends, and a ticket back after graduation. I’d no idea most study abroad programs are designed for two things: travel and partying.
Travel: It’s nice if your daddy’s rich because, my dear, if not, your weekends will be spent in relative solitude. You see, all the other students have money enough to travel (almost) every weekend. They’ll go to Rome to eat gelato, Paris to climb the Eiffel Tower, London to mock the Palace guards, Prague to seem oh so Bohemian, and Amsterdam to discreetly (or not so discreetly) smoke pot in a “coffee” shop. I went to Lisbon one weekend and was shocked at the cost. Traveling to and from the airports is what kills you. It’s the unexpected, lurking cost that sneaks up behind you, wraps its bony fingers around your mouth, and silently chokes you. So, the best thing is if Daddy gives you $10,000 upfront.
Partying: Did you know the drinking age is lower in Europe? There is alcohol, and lots of it. In Spain, there is even the phenomenon known as botellón, where the collge/high school age students gather outside to drink out of 2-liter Fanta bottles mixed with cheap vodka or whisky. Since school is easy (usually), partying happens. And when I say happens, I am implying a conscious effort to party 5 days out of the week. You are in Europe, for God’s sake. Drink until you can’t see straight -it’s only natural. Plus, it perpetuates the ugly American stereotype and we can’t have that dying out, now can we?
But really. The main problem with studying abroad is the lack of contact with the local culture. It seems quite silly. You are in another country and yet you hang out with Americans. You can see them any day, walking along your campus’ tree-lined pathways. But you choose, time and again, to spend time with people who don’t speak the target language and aren’t that interesting anyway. This, I believe, is study abroad’s fundamental problem. We try to make students stay with families, but this system fails too. In Spain, the families are paid, naturally, and many do it for the money, not to introduce a foreign student into the local culture. It’s a shame, really, because knowing one Spaniard intimately can get you in the back door of Spain. (I do love Rick Steves.)
So, how do we solve this? I don’t really know. It’s frightening enough to put 20 year-olds in a foreign culture with 30 other companions. To put them somewhere completely alone? I don’t think it would work. But there has to be another way.
Alternately, you could just do what I did. Find a significant other. Best way to learn a language and a culture.