As I was getting mentally prepared to study abroad, one of the things I thought about most was meeting new people. Thinking about interacting with native Spaniards made me nervous because, although I am here to study the Spanish language, I began my trip thinking I would not have the abilities necessary to have meaningful conversations with native speakers. Within my first few hours in Spain, these fears diminished quickly.
Although every person will react differently to an American student/tourist speaking their native language badly, I have found the majority of native speakers to be extremely patient and helpful, as long as I put forth a concerted effort to speak and understand. This is important for two reasons. One is that being able to work my way through conversations, even if I struggle to speak perfectly or to fully understand what someone else is saying, is invaluable in helping me to improve my abilities. The other is that each time I have a positive experience with a native speaker, I gain more confidence to talk to more people, and the more Spaniards I meet, the more appreciation I gain for their culture and their country.
One example of this sort of interaction is a conversation I had with an elderly woman on a train between Sevilla and Málaga. I sat next to her for awhile thinking about how to properly engage her in conversation. I finally settled for asking her if she lived in Málaga, and the conversation never stopped after that. She told me all about her life and her family, the history of Spain, and the pride she has for her country. Although I did not even come close to understanding every word she said, and I did not get a chance to speak much myself, I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation. Getting to know a complete stranger in a different country and in a different language can be a profound experience, and I am fortunate to have had this opportunity during my trip.
My advice to anyone trying to meet new people in a different country is simple. Just try. Not all people will be as welcoming as some that I have met, and you should always be wary of people trying to take advantage of/rob you. It may also be the case that people in other countries are generally not as willing to talk to Americans as they seem to be in Spain. But if you are in a place where you feel comfortable, and especially if you have any ability to speak the native language of the country where you are staying, don’t be afraid to engage people in conversation. I am confident that some of my most memorable experiences from Spain will be the new people I have met and the conversations I have had with native speakers. If you want to truly experience the country where you are staying, the best way is to get to know the people who live there.