Having a french dinner with other exchange students. The people in this photo can collectively speak seven languages: English, French, Greek, Spanish (Chilean, Colombian and Argentinian dialects), Italian, Dutch and Tagalog.
My oral and written communications skills have improved significantly over the past month that I have spent in Spain. And not in the way you would think.
Of course my Spanish has improved since being here. But where I’ve seen the most improvement is the clarity with which I communicate.
I not only have to think about what I am saying, but carefully consider to whom I am speaking. My friends’ abilities to speak English and Spanish range from that of a native speaker to just beginning to learn. And most of my friends have at least a conversational level of both. Because of this, conversations tend to take place in either English or Spanish and then bits and pieces are translated if someone doesn’t understand.
Because of this, I have to be very careful about the words I select. When I speak in English, I have to choose words that are precise enough to convey what I need to say, but also general enough so they are most likely in the vocabulary of a non-native speaker. When I speak in Spanish, I have to turn off my English brain and try to emulate the accent and syntax of my native speaker friends.
Even among my Spanish speaking friends, there are differences in their dialects. I have friends from all over Spain, Chile, Argentina, Colombia and Guatemala. As I speak to them, I alter my word choice slightly to speak “their version” of Spanish.
It’s the same with some of my friends who speak English. Some of them learned British English, so there are differences in pronunciation and lexicon.
This skill will serve me well long after I return back to the United States, especially working in the communications industry. As a journalist, it is my responsibility to take complicated, jargon-rich information and convey them to the public at an eighth grade reading level. As someone in the public relations industry, it’s my job to use the right language when I’m convincing a client of an idea, pitching a story to a news organization or communicating directly with people on social media.
I take it for granted in the United States that I can have a conversation with anybody–store clerks, friends, professors, etc–and both parties can understand completely. In Spanish, that’s not always the case. Even if I understand the words being said, I sometimes don’t know the connotation. And sometimes I don’t fully understand the connotation of the words I am using. The other day, I learned that in Spain the phrase “reuinirse” (which we learn in school means to meet or gather) implies a romantic date. Instead, they use “quedarse” which directly translated means to stay or remain. It’s little situations like this that have made me very conscious about the words that I choose.
I spend more time thinking about the words I want to select. Thinking about the implications they could have and carefully choosing the words to make my point have become habit for me. It’s a small thing, but it’s important step for me as I enter the professional world.