Last fall, I studied abroad in Madrid and lived in a homestay. Upon arrival, my Spanish skills were weak at best, and I naively assumed that my host mother would speak at least basic English. As it turned out, she didn’t speak any English at all, which is rather common for the older generations in Spain.

Though my transition into my program was difficult because of this, my time in Madrid evolved into an incredibly rewarding experience. For the first time in my life, I was forced to speak a language other than English every day. 

The constant interactions between my host mother and me helped me greatly improve my skills. I came to understand the importance of learning another language. After living in a Spanish-speaking household for four months, my attitude toward the Spanish language changed significantly. The experience gave me the motivation and interest to continue studying it further. 

I studied Spanish from kindergarten all the way up to junior year in high school, but I never felt like I truly developed any skill with it. I took Spanish again at the University of Richmond to fulfill the general education requirement. However, even then, I grasped the fundamentals but couldn’t have a natural conversation. 

Most importantly, I didn’t have a strong drive to learn the language to the point of being able to create meaningful interactions with other speakers. However, once I was immersed in the language and culture of Madrid, that changed.

For me, learning in a classroom setting was not enough to convince me of the practicality of knowing another language. Being immersed in Spanish -- especially at home -- completely changed this. 

After countless instances of attempting to communicate thoughts by piecing together words haphazardly, I recognized the benefits of speaking a second language. 

For example, one night after my host mom had served dinner, I asked her what type of meat was in the dish. She said, ‘vaca,’ which meant ‘cow’ in Spanish; however, I didn’t know that at the time so after moments of her trying to explain cow, she let out a loud ‘mooo.’ 

We both burst into laughter, realizing the ridiculousness that can sometimes accompany language barriers. The most significant learning moments came when my host mom explained Spanish, and I had to grasp at the meaning with my limited Spanish. 

I’m abundantly grateful for the opportunity of having lived in Madrid, especially with a Spanish-speaking family.

Contact contributor Jacob Lamar at jacob.lamar@richmond.edu.