Vowels and Vistas: First Impressions of Spain from a Linguistic Perspective

La Plaza Mayor, located in the heart of Salamanca. On a typical Tuesday night, the University of Salamanca’s music group—La Tuna—flamboyantly plays traditional Spanish songs for Spaniards enjoying a late-night drink at the plaza.

¡Hola desde España!

Salamanca truly deserves to be called “La Ciudad Dorada,” or “The Golden City”: when the sun shines on the face of Salamanca’s sandstone buildings, the stone appears golden, a phenomenon that continues as the sun sets and the city’s lights illuminate the stone a lighter shade of gold into the darker hours of the night. As I’ve been in Salamanca, Spain, for about a month now, I’ve been reflecting a lot on my relationship with the Spanish language and reframing my goals for my semester abroad. I’ve been communicating in so much Spanish that I’m beginning to feel as though I’m losing my English! I like to believe that those of us who identify as bilingual or multilingual speakers have a special relationship with language, especially when exposure to multiple languages occurs at a young age. Growing up, I often felt as though I did not have the typical Spanish-speaking household: my mother would often speak to me in Spanish, her native tongue, but I would respond in English so that my father could at least deduce parts of the conversation, as he is not so familiar with the Spanish language. However, summers at home as a child would always yield renewed language exposure, as my grandmother—a non-English speaker—would often fly out from Peru to visit us in New York. And of course, coming from a multicultural household, my first words in Spanish revolved around food: upon being served some of my grandmother’s Peruvian chicken soup at the age of three, I took one glance and confidently said, “no pollito, Abuelita” (“no chicken, Grandma”), a line that continues to flabbergast my grandmother to this day as I was just beginning to grasp the language. While I’ve gained much experience in speaking Spanish since then, it is still much harder for me to produce elements of the language despite being able to understand almost everything I hear, most likely due to the imbalance of production and reception of the language in my household.

My interest in bilingualism and in what it means to identify as bilingual piqued in a LLAS (Latinx & Latin American Studies) class I took at Amherst my freshman spring, called Owning the Bilingual Self. I learned that the term for this interesting phenomenon of being able to comprehend a language but struggling with its oral elements is something called “receptive bilingualism.” This is also commonly referred to as “passive bilingualism,” but I tend to steer clear of using such terminology, as my relationship with the Spanish language is in no way passive, but active: I may not be the strongest speaker, but I will at least try to fumble my way through. 

Another concept I explored for that class as a part of my final project was the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and its implications for bilingual speakers. The following line, as published in a paper by the anthropologist-linguist Edward Sapir, is useful for understanding the concept of linguistic relativity: “Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society.” The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, then, states that it is the structure of a language that determines how a person utilizing that language perceives reality, which is tied to their perception of their experiences. One example of this is how the Spanish language uses gendered definite articles (“el” is the masculine article, and “la” is the feminine article) before their nouns, whereas in English, we only use a non-gendered definite article: “the.” Preliminary research has demonstrated that Spanish speakers may actually describe certain inanimate objects as having masculine/feminine characteristics as a result. More broadly, though, I am interested in exploring whether my increased usage of the Spanish language influences the way I perceive certain aspects of Spanish culture as well as my own experiences abroad. As language not only helps us comprehend the world around us but also ourselves, I wonder if my Spanish language immersion may affect how I perceive certain aspects of my identity, especially that of being bilingual. 

Thus, I hope that placing myself in a Spanish-speaking environment like Salamanca will force me to work the part of my brain that struggles to produce oral elements of the language. Unlike Madrid or Barcelona, Salamanca is a small enough city where there aren’t many locals expecting to revert to English whenever they see an American tourist, which is exactly the environment I need to practice my Spanish. And as I wait to board my plane back to the United States in December, I hope that I will able to call my grandmother and tell her that the youthful confidence I had at the age of three is back, and that I feel comfortable advocating for myself in Spanish, whether it’s in an academic setting, a work environment, or at home when I would rather not have chicken in my broth!

While I aim to explore different countries in Europe during my semester abroad, I’m interested in exploring many different areas within Spain to get a glimpse of a range of Spanish cultures, in addition to any variations in the way other regions speak Spanish or other languages. So far, I’ve already had a taste of this: at the very start of my program, I backpacked throughout the northwest of Galicia, a region in the Spanish northwest, to complete the last 100 kilometers of El Camino de Santiago. A renowned 780 km religious pilgrimage throughout the north of Spain, El Camino ends at the shrine of Saint James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. During my five days of walking through small Spanish pueblos and spending nights in albergues—or lodges built for pilgrims—I was excited to pick up hints of the Galego language. The similar subject + verb + object structure when constructing certain sentences in both Galego and Spanish allowed me to understand bits of Galego, though not all, as pronunciation and vocabulary differs across languages. At times, Galego sounded more like Portuguese than it did Spanish, which makes sense given Galicia’s geographic proximity to Portugal. 

Some beautiful mountains in Galicia on my trek to Santiago de Compostela! The spectacular views of the northern Spanish countryside—combined with the simplicity and serenity of moving from place to place afoot—is something I hope I will never forget.

Stay tuned for more reflections on my language journey and adventures in Spain! 

¡Hasta luego!

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