A defining moment for me in my out-of-classroom experience was when I had a lengthy conversation, fully in Spanish, with a guide from UNESCO World Heritage about moss. Specifically, we spoke about the moss stuck to some ruins of Machu Picchu, Peru, but the moss was the focus of the discussion.
This conversation about a mundane plant (albeit in an extraordinary place) will stick with me because it made me realize that I had accomplished my goal. When I arrived in Santiago, Chile for my semester abroad, I struggled to ask for directions. Speaking Spanish was terrifying—what if my accent was horrible? What if I couldn’t conjugate my verbs correctly? Well, I learned very quickly that my Spanish accent is just awful, and my conjugations are rarely correct, but it doesn’t matter. The guide at Machu Picchu did not care that I didn’t use the right subjunctive tense, he cared that I asked about the ecosystem of the site and was happy to answer my questions. Gaining the ability to exchange ideas and communicate in another language was the reason I wanted to study abroad.
After taking years of Spanish classes in the U.S., my capacity to have a one-on-one conversation with a native speaker was embarrassingly limited. I don’t fault my teachers or professors for this, it’s just how our education system works. In a typical classroom setting, a teacher lectures and students listen. This is effective to teach a mass of students proper grammar and it helps them understand the language. However, having to produce that language, out loud and in real time, is a whole new ball game.
I chose to study in Chile for its incredible nature (think Andes Mountains, Patagonia and the Atacama Desert) and its interesting political history (think Spanish colonization and Pinochet dictatorship). Luckily, it also turned out to be the Latin American country known for its extremely difficult accent and dialect. I say this is lucky because if I am proficient in Chilean Spanish, I’m can speak it anywhere. After four months of living with a host family, taking classes at a Chilean university and having to accomplish everyday tasks, like taking the bus or buying a coffee, my Spanish is exceptionally better. Although I do have more to learn.
I’m a journalism student and the ability to communicate is key for my future career. I want to ask lots of questions, investigate important issues and inform people about their own communities and those on the other side of the world. I can only do that job justice by communicating with a wide variety of people living diverse experiences. People should know that as Machu Picchu continues to become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Peru, its ecosystem is changing, which will require visitation restrictions in the future. I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t been able to speak Spanish with the guide, who was friendly and eager to tell me more.
I could write about hundred stories, just like my experience at Machu Picchu, from my semester in Latin America. I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to have had these interactions, improve my Spanish and learn more about moss in Peru.