Monday, May 6, 2013

How I Made My Study Abroad Successful


I just wanted to write a little bit (in English) about some things that I did to make my study abroad successful, give some advice, what I wish I'd done differently, and just comment on the program (a Spanish Immersion Study Abroad).

  • BRING YOUR OWN SUNSCREEN.I moved this one to the top of the list because it's so important. You would not believe how expensive sunscreen is in Costa Rica. For a medium sized bottle, it is about $20. And that's the cheapest that I found. You will go through that bottle in one weekend at the beach. The sun light here is more direct than the US, so the sun is a lot stronger. It doesn't feel hotter, but it feels stronger. It's difficult to explain the feeling of the sun because it is strange, but trust me, you'll want to bring sunscreen. I thought that I could just buy it here. I thought that because it was a tropical area, everyone needed it so it would be cheap. FALSO. Everyone here is tan and knows how to avoid the sun at all costs. Probably because it's more expensive to buy sunscreen than it is to just stay inside from 10am-3pm when the sun is the hottest and strongest. I sun burn very easily and therefore have to wear sunscreen on my face every day because just the walk to school (10 minutes) in the middle of the day burns me. So. If you are like me, make sure you bring enough face sunscreen as well because you may have to use it daily. I also suggest a sun hat. I didn't bring one because I'm not a hat person, but man do I wish I had one when we're at the beach and I see my roommate with her hat. 
  • Ignore catcalls. If you're a woman, they are going to yell at you. Don't look at them. If you do, they literally will follow you. That isn't a joke. Just keep looking straight ahead and ignore them. They usually just say things like "Hey beautiful" or "Hey gringa" or they whistle at you or honk their horns in their cars and yell. Sometimes, they say nasty things, IGNORE IT. Don't get angry and think you're going to tell them off. TERRIBLE IDEA. Just ignore it. And if it happens when you're passing someone on the street, walk on the side of the sidewalk that is closest to the road so that they cannot push you into a wall and rob you or kidnap you. This also makes it so they can't get too close to you. Sometimes, they will try to get close to you or like with me, they love how white my skin is and they will try to touch my arm. Just be confident and aware and be smart.
  • Do not go into a study abroad with the pressure to come out fluent. I had this idea in my head that I would go on a study abroad trip for a semester and come back speaking like a native speaker. This did not happen for me. And that's okay. My Spanish is TEN times better. I can understand people, speak, and think much more quickly and correctly in Spanish than I could before coming here. Many of the other students put so much pressure on themselves to be PERFECT at Spanish, that they stress themselves out too much and can't retain anything. What helped me the most was to just relax and let it come to me. I really only was able to do this after I decided to follow the Costa Rican idea of Pura Vida because normally I stress out over things like that too. But when you let yourself just relax and focus on understanding something as a whole instead of translating each individual word (and realizing how many words you don't know), you train your brain to accept Spanish. Eventually, you will be hearing things and understanding them without thinking about translating them into English in your head. 
  • Do not Skype your friends/family every day. You learn so much more when you are IN the culture, when you are forced to speak it every day because your host mom doesn't know English, and when you are constantly seeing signs and hearing things in Spanish. When you are skyping, facebooking, emailing, etc, in ENGLISH, it is harder for your brain to absorb Spanish. I know you miss your family and friends, but you have to remember why you're here. You're not here to sit around and cry about how you miss home or you miss your family. You came here because you want to learn to speak Spanish. Sure, you're going to have a few times when you break down and cry because you miss home. Talk to your family, but don't do it every day. Let yourself be submerged in the language. You have probably heard the saying "If you don't use it, you lose it." Don't let that happen to you while you are in another country studying a language. Many people on my trip skyped every day with friends/family and were on facebook all afternoon and then would complain about their Spanish not improving. Of course it won't if you aren't letting yourself be submerged in the language. What helped me with not talking to my family every day and submerging myself was to eat nutella
  • Watch movies in Spanish. They dub the cartoon movies with Spanish voice overs, go watch kids movies. They're easy to understand. Also, if you have Netflix, you can put movies in Spanish. It helped me to also put Spanish subtitles. Sometimes the subtitles are a little off from the audio, but it means the same thing so if you don't understand the audio, you can usually understand the subtitles or vice versa.
  • When you don't know a word, try to explain it in Spanish to someone. I can't tell you how many times I wanted to use a word that I did not know in Spanish. If you try to explain the word with words you DO know to your host mom or whoever you are talking to, you are using more Spanish vocabulary and that is much better for your brain to think that way in Spanish than for you to just look it up in a dictionary and say it. You won't learn it that way. I actually did not even bring a dictionary here. I used google translate for homework, but I really didn't need it very often.
  • Utilize your host family as a resource. Do not sit in your room all the time. Talk with your host family. They are host families for a reason-they want to help you. My host family was an older woman. She loves the companionship of having students. Most others are like this as well and as you will notice, they speak MUCH more slowly for you than people on the street will because they care that you understand. When they invite you places, go. When they eat dinner with you, ask about their day or the news. They are there to help you.
  • Try to talk to locals. This is easier said than done. And I understand that. Everyone will tell you to just talk to locals, but it is TERRIFYING. The first time that you speak Spanish to someone and they have to tell you they don't understand you, you will want to break down and cry. Don't. Use it as motivation to work on your accent and pronunciation. I was in a class with locals because my Spanish level was high enough from the states, so I had more opportunities than other students in my program who were in the beginner and intermediate Spanish classes with the program. SO. How do you do it if you have no classes with locals? Talk to your taxi drivers. They love it because most people ignore them. They will almost always compliment your Spanish also. Probably to be polite, but it is nice to hear. Also, don't be afraid to talk to your shop keepers either.
  • Ask for directions and recommendations. People are extremely helpful in Costa Rica at least. A big part of that I think is their lack of directions. Well, they just give directions differently. I felt a lot of the time that I was living in 1975 because people still use maps. People can even draw you maps! I always use my gps back home so it was just really different. People love to help you though. Be cautious, of course. But I found some amazing restaurants just by asking "Sabe sobre un restaurante que tenga buena comida?"
  • When locals speak to you in English, respond in Spanish. A problem that I ran into when I would travel on weekends, or in the city even, was that in touristy towns, everyone speaks English. Which sucks if you're trying to practice your Spanish. Even locals will speak to you in English. Ask them to speak to you in Spanish. Sometimes they do this weird thing where they'll start talking in Spanish then you respond in Spanish then they respond in English. The fact is that they want to practice their English. Great, but not for you. Try your best to make them speak Spanish or if not, keep responding in Spanish and let them respond in English.
  • Talk, talk, talk. The most important part of knowing a language is being able to speak it. In the US, they teach us more how to read and write. That's great, but that doesn't help me to communicate and apply the language with other people who speak it. That's why I came here, to speak better. If you don't try, you won't improve. It's as simple as that. Don't rely on another American's Spanish or that you'll find someone who speaks English. Speak for yourself. Again, easier said than done. But you have to learn to just let go of your fears and try or you won't speak any better when you leave than when you came.
  • Learn to laugh at yourself. This is SO important. I cannot tell you how many times I mixed up a word and said something that a Tico thought was funny and they started laughing at me. Usually, I would realize it right after and laugh with them. If you don't laugh it off, you'll stress yourself out and lose your confidence. You're in a foreign country and people already expect that you're just a tourist who only knows how to say Hola and Gracias. Don't be afraid to show off that you do know something, but at the same time don't be afraid to be wrong! I can't tell you how many times I mixed up the word for "blocks" and "notebooks" when asking for directions and said "So it's six notebooks east?" The Spanish words are very similar. It's going to happen to you, so just laugh it off. The locals aren't laughing at you because they're making fun of you, they're laughing because it was funny. If you said that in English to your friends, you'd all laugh too. Don't take it personally.
  • Remember you stand out and be safe. Not only am I a "gringa" which means a while woman, I a also a "macha" which means blonde. Not to mention that I am 6 feet tall. I stand out like a stain on a wedding dress. And that's okay. But if you stand out as much as me or even just as a gringo, you have to take your safety seriously. I don't just mean with catcalls. At night, it is extremely dangerous to be out on the street. Don't be an idiot and think "oh my house is 10 minutes away, I'll be fine" or "Well I'm in a group of six" OR ESPECIALLY "Well I'm walking with a guy so it's okay." FALSO. The people who got robbed in my program, were guys. It doesn't matter because you're all gringos. I lived ten minutes from the mall where taxis were. I always took a taxi at night. ALWAYS. One time, a taxi driver laughed at my roommate and I for taking a taxi such a short distance, but you have to ignore that because it is just a stupid idea to walk at night no matter where you are because you look like an easy target just because you look like a tourist. I look like MORE of a target because I'm white, a woman, and blonde. Be smart.
  • Don't go out with Ticos alone. This is focused more towards women travelling in CR. Like I said I'm a blonde and there aren't blonde Ticos. They are few and far between. SO. Guys like blonde girls. They like American girls period. Don't go alone with a Tico. Bring a friend. It isn't rude to do that either because I met up with some Ticos before and they brought friends without telling me, so it's acceptable to just show up with a friend. You're probably doing it to practice your Spanish anyway so I'm sure someone else in your program wants to go to practice too.
  • Explore Costa Rica. There are so many places to see in Costa Rica. You can't rely on a study abroad program to take you to EVERYTHING. You have a lot of free weekends. Save your money to go out of town with friends on the program. My favorite trip was one that I took on my own with friends. 
  • Budget your money wisely. I suggest knowing exactly how much you have to spend each week and sticking to that. Don't go broke. For me, all of my funds for this trip came from scholarships so I had a limited amount of money. It ended up being a little over $100 a week of spending money. I cut that down to $100 just in case I went over one week. I tried my best to stick to over all, $100 a week. I used an excel spreadsheet to keep track of my money. Every time that I spent money, I would add it to my excel sheet that subtracted it from my weekly amount and total amount. It is difficult to keep track when you are using cash, BE AWARE OF THIS and keep receipts or write things down, whatever you need to do to remember how much you spent. *watch out for fees from your bank on credit cards*
  • Bring good walking shoes. People interpret this as tennis shoes. No. You will hate wearing tennis shoes all the time. I suggest chacos, vans, keds or something similar. You will want a closed toed shoe. I left my vans last minute thinking I wouldn't need them and I regret it everyday. I have chacos which are great, but like I said, you'll want comfy walking shoes that are not tennis shoes.
  • Bring jeans. People tend to think, oh I'm going to Costa Rica, it'll be hot, I should wear shorts, a tank top, and flip flops everyday. FALSO. First of all, if you're a girl, you would get SO many catcalls it would be insane. You just don't wear shorts here. Some girls do, but it's not common, therefore, you can see why you'd get yelled at. It also is not THAT hot all the time. At night, it gets cold actually. I was glad I brought sweatpants to sleep in. I also suggest bringing cardigans or light jackets for if you're out at night because it does get cold.
  • If you have a blog, blog in Spanish. This is what I did and it was SO helpful. You probably can write very well in Spanish, better than you can speak it. But as you type every day in Spanish about your day, you will be amazed at how much your vocabulary has increased and how you don't have as much difficulty determining which tense to you (preterite vs imperfect, subjuntive vs indicative, etc). Blogger has a google translate gadget for your blog that makes it easy for your friends and family to still know what you're saying. 
  • Take lots of pictures. For a lot of people, this might be the only time that they get to come to whatever country you get to go to and you need to take advantage of that. Take pictures when you go places so that you will remember the places you've been and the stories that come with them later.
  • Don't bring any books in English. If you are serious about learning a foreign language, don't bring books in English with you. Not even for the plane ride. I have a kindle so I brought that and have found some free books in Spanish to read. If not, you should buy magazines in the country. They have all kinds and a lot of them are the same in the US but in Spanish which makes it easier for you to understand. The pictures help also.