Don’t Just Study Abroad: Live Abroad in Spain with These Culture and Language Tips
Looking forward to jamón ibérico, scorching beaches or meandering chats after class over tapas and vino (snacks and wine)?
Or… maybe you have no idea of what to expect from your study abroad trip to Spain. Does your mind draw a complete blank?
Let’s look at the individualized preparation for the social life and language in Spain that can help make sure you come away with a deeper knowledge of the country, better Spanish and amazing adventures to brag about endlessly when you return.
- Before You Go: What Spanish Skills Do You Need for Study Abroad?
- Once You Arrive: How to Socialize with Locals for an Authentic Experience
Before You Go: What Spanish Skills Do You Need for Study Abroad?
Practical Castilian Spanish
Whether you’re an expert Spanish speaker or a complete beginner, preparing your Castilian Spanish skills ahead of time will help you have the most authentic and enjoyable experience while studying abroad.
After all, there’s a difference between, say, chatting up Andalusian students in a tapas bar and acing a Puerto Rican literature class in Iowa.
The first step is to take an honest look at your communication skills in Spanish as they relate to the life you’ll be leading on your study abroad trip, and identify areas where you can improve. Here are the questions to consider.
- How’s your informal Spanish? It’s great if you can conjugate the past subjunctive perfectly, but you’ll also want to be able to use and understand the slang of Spain if you ever want to get a joke or understand your peers.
Here’s a great primer on essential European Spanish slang words.
- Can you handle vosotros, Spain’s version of the plural informal “you?” Particularly in the U.S., many students completely ignore this form, but then find that they really need to be able to understand and use it once in Spain.
And while that’s the big and obvious troublemaker, there are other differences between Latin American and European Spanish to be aware of as well.
- Do you have the vocabulary for the practicalities of student life in Spain? This includes knowing words that you’ll need to buy your contact lens solution, get a student ID, buy a theater ticket in Madrid (recommended!) and more.
You’ll also want to learn how Spaniards pronounce important local spots like the name of your campus, landmarks, nearby towns or cities, etc., so that you have an easier time if and when you get lost and need to ask for directions.
The pronunciation dictionary Forvo has audio from European Spanish speakers for many words and proper nouns. Or, you can learn by listening to native speakers speak Spanish in various situations. For example, on the FluentU immersion program you can watch authentic Spanish videos with interactive subtitles.
- Do you know Spanish words for the ways you like to socialize? Think about what you do in your own language to socialize—argue about politics, date and flirt, tell stories, go hiking, etc.—do you have the key words to do these things in Spanish?
There’s much more to consider about how to socialize in the second part of this article.
Familiarity with Regional Languages
In addition to the above, you should give at least some consideration to other languages of the region you’ll be studying in.
The region of the world that many people consider “Spain” is very much not considered “Spain” by everyone living there, and likewise the Spanish language isn’t favored by many. (That said, nearly everyone in these areas does speak Spanish very well as a second language.)
So before you go, take a careful look at where you’ll be studying and traveling and find out about the languages that are common there. Very likely, the study program you’ve signed up for is exclusively in Spanish (or even in English)—though some Catalan universities do expect foreign students to attend lectures in Catalan as well, often as per professors’ preferences.
But even if you don’t “need” the local language for your particular study abroad program, you’ll find that your ability to socialize and get through life is vastly improved if you make an effort to learn local tongues. At a minimum, learn basic pleasantries, polite phrases and some fun toasts and slang in local languages. You’d likely expect at least as much from foreigners who come to spend time in your part of the world.
Parla.cat gets glowing reviews from my friends who’ve used it for Catalan learning. This full course on Galician is appropriate for those who already speak Spanish.
It’s also worth considering the local accents, particularly if you’re going to be studying in the south of Spain. Andalusians’ pronunciation of Spanish can be shockingly hard for foreigners (and even Spanish people) to decipher. I’d strongly recommend preparing for it with local tutors (more on that below).
Personalized Language Targets
One of the best ways to get individualized language skills is through private online tutoring. It’s not at all expensive—especially if you compare it to tuition for a college class—and it’s incredibly effective for zeroing in on your target areas in terms of local Spanish accents, useful vocabulary and personal weak spots.
My favorite go-to for such classes is italki. It has lots of teachers from all parts of Spain and you’re even likely to find a student from your future university who offers informal tutoring online, and can give you a heads up on what to expect there.
Very likely, it’s a refreshing change from your college Spanish classes. The videos are conveniently organized by genre and learning level, and there are tons from Spain, like this very silly tapas restaurant commercial. You can check out the full video library for free with a FluentU trial.
Once You Arrive: How to Socialize with Locals for an Authentic Experience
Some students head out thinking they’ll never utter a word of English from the moment their plane lands in Spain. Oh dear me, no, not likely—especially if you don’t know how to make it happen.
If you want to really live the Spanish student life, you need to figure out how to get away from your fellow study abroad students so you can avoid the “English bubble” and experience the country like the locals do.
Here are some of the keys to think about as you prepare so that you’ll be off and running when you get there.
Continue with the Same Interests You Have at Home, but in Spain
Maybe you’re a big salsa, bachata or tango dancer? These things are from the Americas, not Spain, but lots of Spanish people love them and will love dancing with you. And/or: take some flamenco lessons!
Likewise, if you enjoy yoga, cooking, hiking, mushroom hunting, whatever—you’re likely to find a Spanish parallel where you can continue to do what you love. By socializing with such groups, you’ll be motivated to learn far more Spanish—and Spanish that’s more relevant to you—than you likely would in actual Spanish classes.
Do note that you’ll likely have to leave your campus to do these things. There isn’t as much of a “campus life” in Spanish universities as there is in the States, for example. Search instead for Facebook and Meetup groups that reflect your interests in your host city.
Enjoy Spaniards’ Natural Chattiness!
Spanish people love nothing more than to just stand around endlessly and gossip, chat and tell jokes. Depending on your home culture, there’s likely much less of a barrier in talking to strangers in Spain. Don’t be afraid to take part!
Bars are family and neighborly social spaces, unlike the wild silliness of the “bar scene” near many American/Irish/British/Canadian universities.
Go for a coffee, glass of wine or a caña (beer) and some tapas (snacks) and you’re very likely to wind up in a conversation. Go regularly, and you have instant neighborhood friends.
Get Out There and Start Dating
You don’t necessarily have to “take a break” or “open things up” with that love-muffin back home before you go… but it wouldn’t be a terrible idea for your Spanish.
There’s nothing like flirting to both motivate and accelerate language learning. You’ve likely heard that before, but it’s so, so true.
I hope I’ve given you the motivation to hit the ground running in Spain for one heck of a study abroad experience. There are plenty of other resources out there as well for more practical aspects and student life, and your home and host universities likely provide information and talks—pay special attention to advice from those who’ve already undertaken a similar trip.
As for my story, let me just add that I eventually made up for my Spanish study adventure manqué. I maybe didn’t get the most out of my first trip, but I was eventually able to take a second study abroad in Chile, and do some master’s work in Barcelona—and those times I was quite prepared to jump right into life as a student abroad.
Mose Hayward’s decades on the road have lead to other articles about travel hacks, including what to pack for study abroad.