Michelle Davis is an American student determined to immerse herself in the Spanish culture


To be honest, I’m kind of an exception to the rule “how did you learn Spanish so well.” Having been born in Paris, France and raised by a Nicaraguan mother, I’m a language fiend so wanting to acquire fluency in Spanish has always been one of my desires. Though we never spoke Spanish at home, I still remember being infatuated with the way my mom’s sing-song voice pronounced the Spanish language as she spoke with her sisters and parents.

It took me until I was 10 years old to realize she actually spoke English differently than the rest of us. “Your mom has a thick accent, where is she from?” the parents of one of my friends asked one Saturday afternoon when my mom dropped me off for a play date.

I remember being absolutely shocked that her way of speaking English was something different to most people.

From that point forward, I made it my goal to learn Spanish – and to learn it well, so that I would be able to converse with her family without them thinking I was incompetent.

So that’s where it started. I enrolled myself in Spanish classes at my high school alongside the French ones I was taking, and when I entered the University, I declared Spanish as my second major – alongside Media Studies.

But speaking Spanish with Spaniards is a completely different animal than is speaking with Latin Americans.

Let’s start with the Castilian lisp that Spaniards throw into every word containing a “z” “ci” or “ce”.

My cousin jokingly forbade me when I left from coming back with the lisp. “Leave that sh*t in Spain cause you’ll never use it on this continent,” he said.

The first week I was here, I’d hear all my American friends in Spain trying to adopt the accent – they’d squeeze out “gratthiiiiass” – the word for thank you, or talk about how they live in “Valentthhhiiaa” in efforts to sound more Spanish. And I’d secretly make fun of them at first. But now every time I try to say “thank you” I have a mini inner identity crisis with myself. Sometimes a mini lisp will slip out, but it always surprises me and probably speaks more to the infectiousness of the immersive nature of this environment than to my desire to sound authentically Spanish, because I know I’ll never sound like a native Spaniard. I say way too many things that are apparently “Latin American.”

Michelle enjoying a chupito with a friend

Here are a few language identity crisis moments I’ve had while studying in Spain.

–The first time I ordered a shot at a bar, I asked for “un trago” which in Nicaragua is a totally normal way to say shot, though the word literally means “sip” or “swallow”. Let’s just say the bartender was not exactly politically correct in his response when he asked me what I was planning to “swallow”.

I soon found out the correct word for shot in Spain is “chupito”, which was fairly easy to learn considering me and my friends soon became regulars at a bar called “chupitos” which sold 2€ shots.

–I’ll meet kids out on the street who will ask me if I’m Mexican because I say “ahorita” instead of “ahora”. The diminutive of the word for “now”, I’ve been told, is explicitly Latin American.

So like, how exactly do you learn a language? Below are a few tips I’ve come across that have helped me in my studies.

–Learn to like music in the language you’re trying to learn. And listen to it often!

A few of my favorite Hispanic bands are:

1. Maná –a Mexican rockband from Guadalajara, Jalisco. Listen to “Bendito La Luz,” “Labios Compartidos” and “Vivir sin Aire”

2. Juanes – a Colombian solo artist who specializes in Latin pop rock. You’re guaranteed to hear “La Camisa Negra” if you walk into any Karaoke hub in Spain or Latin America

3. Aventura – bachata music group originally from New York. I really like “Dile al Amor” and “Obsecion”

4. Chino y Nacho – pop duo from Venezuela. Listen to “Niña Bonita” and I guarantee you’ll have trouble holding back a smile after the first chorus.

–Augment your listening abilities and vocabulary by watching movies and reality shows in the foreign language.

You’ve heard it before, but watching TV in another language seriously improves your ability to discern what people are saying, and teaches you language structure.

–And of course, STUDY ABROAD.

Part of me knows I’ll never sound like a native Spaniard because I say words which are distinctly Latin American, so I don’t want to risk mixing the lisp with the Latin American intonations and pop out of Spain in May with an accent which is indiscernible. . But the other part of me knows I could never fit in as an actual Latin American, so why not play around with the lisp. At least I know I’m being ironic about it. After all, cuando a roma fueres haz  lo que vieres.





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