Written by: Justin McCandless
I studied Spanish in class for something like six years before I found myself in a Spanish speaking country for the first time. I would be working as the only foreigner at an NGO in a town called Loja, Ecuador. It didn’t take me long to realize that all those years of classes were not enough to prepare me for the trip, unfortunately. A few minutes after getting off the plane in Quito, I tried to use my Spanish to ask a knowledgeable-looking person which way my connecting terminal was. His response, in broken English, was to ask me what I wanted. After six years of Spanish class, this was my first lesson in communication.
The ability to communicate is something that most people learn when they are children but then immediately forget when they try to speak a foreign language. It’s how you look someone in the eyes, speak clearly and confidently, and use body language to engage them in conversation. It’s vital in making sure that you’re understood, and as I stared at the floor and stammered through my question in Quito, it’s everything that I was lacking.
Fortunately, communication is a skill just like anything else, and there are plenty of ways to get better at it. By the end of my trip, I had succeeded in surviving day-to-day life in Spanish by engaging with my audience, anticipating their response, and, of course, practicing.
Engaging with your audience is all about being confident, even when you don’t know what you’re doing. You’ll be surprised at how much is said through your body, hands, and facial expression instead of your mouth. You might not be able to remember the correct verb conjugation every time, but you can definitely make sure that when you’re saying something positive, it looks like you’re saying something positive. If you are working on your vocabulary, don’t forget that some of the most important words in communication might be things like “Oh!”, “Umm…”, “Er…”, “Ah!”, and unfortunately, maybe “Oops.”