On Language Barriers and Joining a Choir

I came to Spain speaking almost none of the language. I took one semester of Spanish way back at the beginning of Freshman year, but that didn’t stick with me for very long. I figured, why not just go? I’d immerse myself in Spanish and come out, if not fluent, at least able to cobble together a coherent conversation.  I knew there would be a language barrier, but I thought that it would affect me in terms of my ability to read street signs and ask order correctly at restaurants.  The so-called barrier would crumble down pretty quickly, right?

In the weeks that I’ve been here in Madrid though, I’ve realized that language barriers go beyond those simple logistical issues; they’re made of a pretty strong stone.  It´s easy for me to garble out a sentence or two asking where the bathroom is or how to get to the Reina Sofia museum. What´s harder is finding ways to connect with the people around me on a deeper, more personal level.

Most nights at Amherst, my friends and I have family dinner in upstairs Val. We chat and laugh and pick at soggy greens and melting ice cream as most Amherst kids do, not wanting to settle into a night of homework, and also just enjoying the company of a pretty spectacular group of people.

Dinner here, thus far, looks something like this: my lovely, kind, patient host mom comes and to tell Julia and I that dinner is ready. We walk into the kitchen, and she says… something that I don´t understand. I say, “que?” and she repeats herself. I, still not understanding, turn to Julia who mutters, “she asked you to help get the cups out.” Ahh, I nod, make a mental note of how to say “cup,” and turn to the cabinet. A minute later, the three of us are sitting at the narrow white-laminate counter where we eat dinner. My host mom again turns to me, and says…  something else. My stomach sinks a little as I reply “que?” and try to master a confused-and-apologetic yet appreciative-and-eager-to-learn smile. She repeats herself more slowly, and I turn again to Julia, who whispers “she asked you to hold out your plate so she can serve you.” I nod, make another mental note, and hold out my plate. And so the cycle continues.

Soon enough, my host mom and Julia are chatting away in Spanish about the history and politics of Spain. I sit between them, turning back and forth to watch them speak, as though reading their lips will let me understand more. I can usually follow along enough to catch the broad shape of their conversation, but very few of the details filter down to me. I get “king… son… scandal… very bad…” but the details of the scandal and its consequences for the country hover somewhere outside my realm of comprehension.

Every so often I catch a word I learned in Spanish 102 that morning. Por eso, that means so! See, I am learning something, I remind myself. Baby steps, right?

At least, that´s what I keep telling myself. But sometimes, I miss being able to join in the conversation.

I have a lot more unstructured time here than I do at Amherst. Back at school I spend more time in class and doing homework, then there are Choir rehearsals, PA meetings, campus festivals, days of dialogue, my job in Frost, and more.  Mixed into those activities are a lot of interesting conversations – with friends, with professors, with random people in the Grab-n-Go line. Here though, I have a few hours in class each day and maybe an hour of homework. Even with the added commute time, my days are not very structured. Of course that’s by design – I couldn’t see much of the city if I spent my whole semester in the library. But that’s left me with the question of how I fill my time, and that’s where the language barrier comes around once again.

How do I find things to do, things that don´t involve me standing alone in front of a 15th century Flemish painting every afternoon, when I can´t talk to people? A lot of students on my program joined gyms, which seem to solve some of this free-time problem. I´ve always been more of an outdoor runner though, and on my student budget, I´d rather spend my money on an exciting weekend away than on a gym membership. Others on the program seem to have solved the problem by going out most nights then sleeping away the day, but again, that´s not really my scene.

And where are the conversations?

Then, last week, I found a music school with a Broadway singing class. Back at Amherst I sing in Women’s Chorus. Those hours in Arms are some of my favorite each week; it doesn’t matter how many pages I have left to write for my Anthro class or how unprepared I am for Orgo; during rehearsal I get to sing and blend in with my friends and just be.

My stomach was writhing when I walked into the music school here in Madrid; what if I wasn’t good enough? What if they didn’t want a random foreigner invading their space?

The teacher, a fat man with a mischievous, friendly smile, always dressed in black pants, a black teeshirt, and black suspenders, started into the class with some of the fastest (and dirtiest) Spanish I’ve heard so far. I understood maybe three words? But then we started to sing.

The young woman next to me stood close and conducted lightly so I could follow the melody. After a few wrong notes, I was blending in. I sounded like part of the group! The woman, Paula, smiled and squinted her eyes in that friendly singer way that means “I see you, keep going.”

There were more wrong notes, both that night and the other two times I’ve been back to class. But I already love my hours in in MusicaCreativa because, through the singing, I get to connect with people again. I get to share a smile of mutual appreciation with the man across from me as another singer completes a particularly good riff. And when the sopranos go off pitch on that one high note, we all groan and try to sharpen the note together.

I’m not talking much with the other people in the class, but we’re communicating. And maybe by May, after many, many more baby steps, our conversation will contain words as well as music.

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