Language and Culture: Friends School Students in Spain

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Language and Culture: Friends School Students in Spain

The Friends School Language Trips: when all the hard work of the first two or

three years of studying a language finally pays off, and the juniors and seniors depart on a journey of sightseeing and immersion to the country of origin for their language. It’s exciting, it’s scary, it’s mind blowing, but what really is the purpose behind it? From a linguistic perspective, it’s quite simply a discovery of how much our lives, and the development of culture rest on the shoulders of our respective languages. Flying into Spain, it was already obvious that it was going to be hard to fit in anywhere due to the language barrier. What I had yet to realize was that it in fact requires a certain level of fluency to even be oneself; if we couldn’t explain ourselves, or defend ourselves, in the language of that country, how could we hope to be ok with the fact that we didn’t fit in anywhere? But it went further than that, deeper into the culture and history.

Our first day we visited Segovia for a few hours before meeting our host families, and we saw buildings  and an aqueduct built up using only stones by the Romans, who similarly built up the Spanish language using their own, like stones placed by history. The influence of Latin in the Spanish language is as clear as the Roman influence on Spanish architecture, which was never so clear as when we were standing directly beneath those stones. Further into our trip, the necessity for language, and the weight it carries, came up again and again.

The way time, language, and the people of a country interact was interesting to observe. The Spanish people tend to find humor through story and talking a great deal more than we do, and consequently they are constantly talking to one another, relating the stories of their day, talking about their past and comparing it to the present and even theorizing about the future, dragging dinner table conversations long past when Americans would have said good night. Their days, then, are organized and lengthened the same way. Leaving Madrid at eight in the morning, there was not a soul on the street who didn’t have to be, the avenues and sidewalks were empty, it was as if only a few people even lived in the capital. But late at night, from 10 pm to 3 am in 300-thousand-strong Valladolid, every alleyway and boulevard alike was filled to bursting with Spaniards walking, shouting above the fray, breaking off to enter nightclubs, and growing to fit any available space. If removed from any responsibility of work or school, I’m sure that the Spanish day would not start until noon and would not end until 4 or 5 am. Once again, the culture fits, and is indeed created by, the language.

The history of Spain and Spanish also influence how its people think about it, as well. Spain was a conqueror of most of South America, and after hundreds of years of being removed from original Spanish, the South American countries have developed their own accents and slang. This was the Spanish that we Americans came to Spain speaking, pronouncing “c” as “s” instead of “th” for example. The Spaniards, who think of themselves as much higher class Spanish speakers, as opposed to the English-cockney-like accents of Latin America, laughed at our attempts to pronounce the words, and repeated them for us so we would know how they should really be pronounced. After so many years of ownership of countries that speak your language, it’s hard to not feel a bit superior. This was the Spain that we entered, and immersed ourselves in for two weeks. Heavily influenced by ancient worlds, long days and longer nights, and with a bit of a superiority complex, Spain was a painful goodbye.

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