ISEP Staff Stories: Learning a Language Abroad (Part 2)

A couple of weeks ago, we asked some ISEP staffers about their challenges learning languages when they studied, lived, or worked abroad. They admitted that while sometimes it was tricky, their efforts usually paid off not only with new vocabulary, but also with valuable lessons on perseverance and adaptability. The pinnacle of language learning, however, is perhaps the realization that — WOW — you can function in a completely different language! Again, we asked our super-duper staff to share stories about the defining moment that made them recognize that they could survive (and thrive!) in another language.

Program Officer Brittny!
Program Officer Brittny!

Brittny, Program Officer

Learned Egyptian Arabic, some Moroccan Arabic, and some choice French words (omelette avec du fromage s’il vous plait) while studying abroad in Egypt and Morocco

I wish I felt like I could function in Arabic! This moment never came for me. They say it takes at least 7 years to become fluent in Arabic, and even then it’s the most bare bones level of fluency. What made me feel accomplished was being able to direct a taxi driver to the right part of the city and making small talk with my favorite falafel vendor in my neighborhood. Baby steps!

Derek ISEP Regional Director with a panda
Hanging out with a panda in China

Derek, Regional Director

Learned Mandarin Chinese while living and working in China (but the most substantial improvement came at Middlebury’s intensive summer program in Vermont)

It took a long time, perhaps a year and a half, before it stopped becoming an incredibly surreal feeling to walk down the street and realize that you were living in a place where you couldn’t read any of the signs. You develop a sense of pride and accomplishment when you realize not only can you survive in a totally foreign environment, but you can thrive.

Karlene in the hills of Valparaiso
Karlene in the hills of Valparaiso

Karlene, Administrative Officer and Development Coordinator

Learned Spanish in Chile while on short-term study abroad for personal challenge

“Any red, orange or yellow micro will get you to the university,” my host family assured me. “The bus number and directional placards don’t matter.” This was true … except when it’s the driver’s final route of the day, as I discovered on my third day in the city. The bus turned left off of the main road and headed up into the hills surrounding Valparaíso.* “Don’t panic,” I told myself. “Just ride to the end of route, and take it in the opposite direction to get back to the main road.” Then the bus reached the bus yard, and the driver politely explained that I had to get off. I lost track of the number of kind people I spoke to in Spanish over the next hour and a half before I made it to la Católica. I was relieved to be back in a familiar place, and exhilarated that I had conquered being lost. But from that day forward, I made sure there was not a terminar placard in the window before boarding a micro for the remainder of my time in Valpo!

*the same ones that caught fire in March 2014.

Director of Communications and Marketing Kristen!
Director of Communications and Marketing Kristen!

Kristen, Director of Communications and Marketing

Learned Australian English (does that count?) from mates while studying abroad in Australia

When I first arrived at Uni (short for University), I struggled to communicate with my new housemates. But, after a pony (glass of beer) or some goon (cheap wine), we slowed down our pronunciations and began to understand each other. I couldn’t believe all the different terms they had for words and all the idioms! My uptight American self was frequently reminded to relax, have “no worries,” and that “we’re not playing for sheep stations.”

By the end of my six months, I could tell you, in Australian, how I spent a weekend:

After brekkie, we’d take a roadie to the footy and barrack for our favorite team. At the stadium we’d buy a dog’s eye and a coldie. We’d have to stop at the dunny, before heading to our mates with an esky packed full of cheese and Vegemite sangers. We’d grill eggs in toast crust — not prawns (shrimp) — on the barbie.

Program Assistant Annie!
Program Assistant Annie!

Annie, Program Assistant

Learned Spanish while studying abroad in Spain

My family came to visit me during Holy Week in Spain, and my host mom made a big paella lunch. I had to translate back and forth between my family and my host family (nine people in total) during the entire dinner. My mom stopped me at one point when I had turned to her to explain something my Spanish host sister had said because I was still speaking in Spanish and did not realize!


Nancy in Istanbul
Nancy in Istanbul

Nancy, Regional Director

Learned French while studying abroad in Paris and later working in France through the teaching assistant program

The best moments studying abroad are when you realize to embrace the small victories. For me that included getting through the check out at the grocery store exchanging pleasantries and understanding the amount owed without any hiccups. It also meant being honored when someone stops you on the streets to ask directions as if you were a local and completely fit in. I knew I was becoming fluent when my dreams were partly in French.

Have you experienced what it’s like to become fluent in a language other than your own? Tell us about it! You could be featured on the ISEP blog. Or read more about language learning from real ISEP students Renee and Jacquee.

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