Why You Don’t Need to Know a Foreign Language to Communicate in Another Country

A bit of background on myself: I am 20-year-old architecture student double majoring in Spanish. I’ve been studying Spanish since I was 13 years old and am absolutely set on making it a part of my career in the field of architecture and construction, and this trip is my first time out of the country.

With that knowledge, the title of this post probably sounds pretty stupid. I’ve spent a good portion of my life studying to become bilingual, to be able to communicate with people from other backgrounds both in the United States and abroad, and I waited this long to travel and put my language skills to use because I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to make it in a Spanish-speaking country unless I was completely fluent. But out of the hundred or so students that are here with me in Costa Rica right now with Sol Education Abroad, maybe five of us were fluent when we arrived. Maybe.

Let me tell you this, though: you don’t have to know a word of Spanish to study abroad in a Spanish-speaking country.

It’s not that there are plenty of people who speak English, because there aren’t. It’s not because there will always be a friend around to help translate, because there won’t be. It’s because, aside from whatever language we grew up speaking, we all have very deeply-rooted things in common that we can share without saying a word.

Today, I spent the part of the afternoon that wasn’t rainy volunteering with elementary school kids. (“Volunteering” is always perceived to mean the fulfillment of some kind of heroic civic duty, but really I went to a park and played with some people that were half my height, and that’s what that means.) We played frisbee, jumped rope, had sack races, and–of course–played soccer.

My team was stacked with the best 8-year-old goalkeeper, an 11-year-old future seleccionado, and me, with all of my two seasons of college intramural experience. The 11-year-old, who was too shy to even announce his name when we all introduced ourselves at the beginning, was on fire. He was fast, he was competitive, and he had surprising and impressive footwork for being less than four and half feet tall. We made a great attacking pair, and ended up with a lot of assists between the two of us. Despite the amount of soccer I’ve been watching, I haven’t acquired the instinctive yelling to teammates in Spanish yet, and this kid barely said a word, but one of the best connections I’ve made with any stranger since I’ve been in Costa Rica was after I passed to him for his first goal, and he gave me a huge smile and a thumbs up.

If there’s anything that I’ve learned here, it’s that there are two things that connect all human beings (although James Maslow didn’t include one of them in his hierarchy of human needs): a desire to feel accepted and sports.

I haven’t known the majority of the people that I’ve celebrated with over Costa Rica’s World Cup wins, but you connect with each other in unspoken ways through smiles, cheering, tears, and sometimes just a thumbs up. Body language is so much more powerful than we often realize, and it’s because it’s innately ingrained in the range of human perception, but we don’t usually need it until we don’t have words to share with each other.

So you don’t need to speak perfect Spanish–or any at all, really–to make it in a foreign country. You don’t need a translator by your side or a Spanish dictionary app open on your phone at all times. You just need an open mind, an open heart, and a desire to learn.

To read more about my study abroad experience, visit my bilingual blog here.

¡Pura vida!

Emily

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