Study Abroad Perspective: Communication Transcends Language

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Practicing Spanish with Oriol and Ricard, friends I made at community college

I am glad to report that I am halfway through an amazing abroad semester here in Barcelona.  It has been a wild ride, and I wouldn’t change one minute.   Although seeing AC Milan and Barcelona in Camp Nou, enjoying the rich cultural experiences Catalonia offers day and night, drinking beer at Oktoberfest, pretending to know about wine in Porto, eating Spanish ham in Madrid, and touring ever which monetary, ruin, village, or natural reserve I can find has been exhilarating, I am here to improve my second language. Yes, the above sentence makes it seems like the only thing I am here for is vacationing on my parents dime, but the most incredible opportunity I have had is improving my second language skill.  I do not typically write this kind of article, but I hope that my trials and tribulations with my second language here in Barcelona can be useful, or at least entertaining to our readers.

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I spent a nice afternoon and dinner working on my Spanish in El Escorial, with the family of a friend I made in LA

Communication is an incredible phenomenon and the most expressive brand of communication is our body language.  Let me tell you, when I first started off here, I had that, and a foggy memory of textbook Spanish.  At times, it wasn’t pretty.  But it has been an amazing test for me, and a learning experience as to how I need to press-on, and how important body language really is.  In the states, my body language (for better or for worse), is involuntary.  My words and language are the main dish and the body language comes free of charge.  But here though, I am learning that it is more powerful than I ever thought.  A slight nod, a curl of the lip, a well-timed laugh or a good old fashioned smile goes much father than any word could take me, and I learned that very early on in my trip.  I have always been told how important it is, but being forced to use it has shed a new light on its true value.

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Long story short: I ended up here by invitation from a very nice family. I have followed up with them and they have become great friends for me in Barcelona. All the while practicing my Spanish.

My body language journey took me only so far, and I am lucky to say that the combination of a solid foundation, and some forced immersion, has actually produced a Spanish level that I am proud of.  I am no silver-tongued orator, but I understand and make myself understood.  All of this however comes at a price, exhaustion.  Operating in a second language can be truly exhausting, and my hat is off to the countless internationals we have at Haas, and all of UC Berkeley, who not only manage to complete a daily routine in their second language (hard enough for me), but they also take classes and research in the competitive environment which is UC Berkeley.

I do digress, but my above observation of exhaustion has taught me how important real listening is.  As I was forced to hang on every person’s every last word, I asked myself, what if I listened in English to a point of exhaustion?  I have heard the phrase ‘aggressive listener’ in a personal development business book.  That book called the reader to force themselves to listen aggressively, while here in Spain, my language barrier is teaching me to do it out of necessity … and it is working.  Rather than engage in my typical conversation multi-tasking (thinking of my next line before my partner has finished speaking), I hang on ever word, let them finish, process it, and move forward, as it should be.  I see it as quality over quantity in conversation, and I am sure that the same would apply ten fold in my first language, if I just listened a bit more.

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Tapas style eating is great, because everyone shares and talks a lot … all in Spanish of course.

Along with listening aggressively, comes eye contact, which I think deserves special attention on its own.  Eye contact is a basic human interaction.  Humans can detect even the most subtle facial expressions, and for a second language, they are important in understanding and communicating.  In my process of listening more aggressively, I of course started to make much more eye contact.  I was shocked at the value.  First of all, it often helped me decode what the person was saying, but I felt much more connected to them, and what they were saying.  It gives them a feeling of importance, and lets them know you are interested.

Oktoberfest: great practice in communication!
Oktoberfest: great practice in non-verbal communication! (a bit of a stretch, but this picture brings back great memories)

On the flip side, an issue I have seen in a lot of people (including myself), is that listening eye contact is easier than speaking eye contact.  When speaking and wrapped up in thought, you look everywhere except into the eyes of your conversation partner!  In Spanish I try to use my partners facial response to gauge my own word choice, my tone, and their understanding of my sentences.  A conversation partner’s eyes can tell you a lot about what you are saying, and I cannot wait to implement this more in English when I get back home.

I will continue with the chronological theme by presenting my most recently learned reality last, which is also the most powerful: word selection.  The famous adage, “less is more,” couldn’t be more true in this instance.  My best conversations are when I talk way less than the other person.  In the beginning, this was out of necessity.  I was lucky if I could ‘catch-up’ fast enough to interject anything worthwhile.  Now however, I can, but I don’t always do.  Being limited by my language skills has taught me to choose my words carefully.

I have joined a water polo club here in Barcelona.  GREAT place to practice my Spanish.
I have joined a water polo club here in Barcelona. GREAT place to practice my Spanish.

Long rambling responses and stories can get really ugly for me in Spanish.  Ugly is the wrong word, but letting your partner talk more, and looking for a way to respond concisely is something I should absolutely being doing more of in English.  I have always heard ‘listen more talk less,’ and it is not easy, but isn’t that not why we have two ears and one mouth? I remember my conversations back home, and now they seem like ping pong on steroids compared to the way I lead them here.  Being forced to slow down has taught me that it is better anyways!

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Enjoying Parc Güell!

Concluding, what I have discussed above is simply an explanation of how the experience of a second language has forced me to do many beneficial things.  I always knew body language and eye contact were important for instance, but I never had to use them.  This trip has forced me to, and I am so glad for the opportunity.  Go out today and pretend like English is your second language, you just might like it!

3 thoughts on “Study Abroad Perspective: Communication Transcends Language

  1. Denice Sy

    Hi Nik! If you ever feel like sharing your experience traveling abroad, please feel free to e-mail me and I’ll gladly get your article onto the blog 🙂

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