A student told me the other day that she’d be taking part in a long-term program in Costa Rica following graduation and wondered if I had any advice to give her about living in a foreign country. Though I’ve lived in both Spain and Nicaragua, I hadn’t thought about that issue in a long time. After some reflection on my time oversees, here’s what I’d tell her:
Study up on culture shock
The shock to your system caused by a sudden transfer to a different environment is a very real phenomenon that you should be prepared for. (I once met a young lady in Nicaragua who was supposed to teach with me for a semester. She was totally unprepared for living conditions and was literally on a plane back to the U.S. less than 48 hours later.) Find a good website or get your hands on a book that explains the issues and gives you concrete advice for dealing with the weird feelings you’ll encounter after your transition. And don’t worry, it gets better. In fact, you’ll probably have some “reverse culture shock” once you head back home.
Study up on the history and culture
The more you know about where you’re going, the less weird it will seem when you get there. Having a good handle on what has happened in your new home as well as the different traditions, music, foods, celebrations, morals, and beliefs will not only help you feel more at ease, it will also help you be more effective in whatever you’re doing. You’re also much more likely to build better, deeper relationships with the locals if you know a bit about them (Shameless plug: Spanish411.net Spanish Speaking Countries research page).
Get up to speed on current events
History and culture are a good starting point, but you should also be knowledgeable of what’s currently happening in the country. Are they about to elect a new president? Was there a recent natural disaster? Economic crisis? Transportation strike? How can you answer all these questions? Start taking a peek at the website of a local newspaper (Shameless plug: Spanish411.net Spanish Language Newspapers page). Check the State Department website for any travel advisories. Also, see if you can find a North American contact already living there who wouldn’t mind emailing you or Skyping with you about what it’s like.
Brush up on your Spanish
A good three- or four-year high school Spanish program should provide you with a strong foundation of vocabulary and grammar, but the curriculum probably wasn’t made for your specific needs. So design your own. Brainstorm the words you’ll need to know that weren’t in your Spanish textbook and look them up. Make your own custom dictionary. Review your verb conjugations. Will you be speaking primarily in the present tense? In the past? Will you need to use commands? (Shameless plug: Spanish411.net Basic Spanish Phrases page, Spanish411.net Spanish Lessons)
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
You should expect to have some trouble communing and you may say the wrong thing from time to time, but don’t worry about it. Remember that you have to crawl before you can walk, and walk before you can run. If you wait until you’re comfortable to start talking to people, you’ll never talk to anyone. It takes time to develop fluency, but you’ve got to be bold to start. And a great thing about Spanish-speaking countries is that Hispanics tend to be very generous and fun-loving people.
¡Buena Suerte, Marisol!