Hawn, Stephen

Name: Stephen Hawn
E-mail: shawn@nd.edu
Location of Study: Salamanca, Spain
Program of Study: Cursos Internacionales, Universidad de Salamanca
Sponsors: J. Patrick Rogers & Joe Loughrey

A brief personal bio:

I was born and lived the first eight years of my life in Alexandria, Virginia.  I then moved to Louisville, Kentucky for three years.  After that, I moved to Hinsdale, Illinois, which is where I currently live.  I attended Hinsdale Central High School.  I played four years of High School tennis, and I enjoyed my classes in the sciences and Spanish.

Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:

The SLA grant will allow me to drastically improve my Spanish.  I do enjoy learning Spanish simply for the joy of studying a foreign language, but this is by no means the entirety of the significance of the grant for me.  I would like to someday become a doctor.  Many patients in the United States are Spanish-speakers, and being able to care for them as a doctor in their native language will no doubt help to establish the crucial doctor-patient trust that is necessary for optimal healthcare.  Additionally, I would like to someday join a service program, such as Doctors Without Borders.  I feel that a strong command of the Spanish language would drastically improve my effectiveness in such a program.

What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:

I plan to use the SLA grant as an amazing opportunity to drastically improve my oral skills in the Spanish language.  My goal is that by the end of the summer, I will be conversationally fluent in the Spanish language.   In order to accomplish this, I intend to try to speak as little English as possible, so that I will be constantly immersed in the language and culture.  I will spend everyday studying Spanish and practicing speaking with native speakers.  Additionally, I would like to gain a greater understanding for the Spanish culture and their values.  I will attempt to gain this understanding by interacting with the culture as much as possible.  This could mean simply having a lot of conversations with natives, or it could mean going to a lot of cultural festivities, or participating in many other culturally immersive activities.

My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:

  1. By the end of the summer, I will able to understand almost everything that is said in a normal conversation between two native Spanish speakers.
  2. By the end of the summer, I will be able to speak Spanish with an accent that is both easily intelligible to native speakers and is non-offensive to their ears.
  3. By the end of the summer, I will be able to express myself both clearly and naturally in Spanish, without hesitation.
  4. By the end of the summer, I will have gained a much greater understanding for Spanish culture and values.

My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:

In order to maximize my experience while in Spain, I will extensively prepare for the trip before I go.   I will try to listen to spoken Spanish for at least an hour everyday.  Spoken Spanish is available on the T.V., and in a myriad of forms on the Internet.  Additionally, I will spend some time each day focusing on the pronunciation of spoken Spanish.  I will do my best to imitate the sounds made by the native speakers.  I will also get really psyched for my trip by listening to some really good Spanish music.  I believe all of this will allow me to use my time in Spain more efficiently.

Reflective Journal Entry 1: Update on Progress Made Towards Language Acquisition Goals

I have been living here in Salamanca for about two weeks now. It has been hectic adapting to living here, but I think I am now ready to report back with what progress I have made. When I first arrived in Salamanca, I couldn’t understand almost any of the Spanish that was spoken between native speakers. It seemed to me that every sentence spoken was just one giant word slurred together.

Before continuing, I would like to take a moment to draw attention to the huge difference between the Spanish that is spoken to you as a foreigner, and the Spanish that native speakers speak to each other. In my Spanish classes in high school and at Notre Dame, the professors always spoke slowly and annunciated very clearly. Even here in Spain, the professors of my Spanish-for-foreigners class speak much more clearly and slowly than most Spanish people speak. At times, it almost feels like they are speaking a whole different language than the Spanish spoken among native speakers. Clearly, I have aspirations of understanding the Spanish that is spoken outside of the Spanish-for-foreigners class. However, realizing these aspirations has not proven as easy or automatic as I would have liked.

After two weeks being immersed in a Spanish-speaking environment, I can now say I understand much more of this spoken, colloquial Spanish than I understood before. However, I am still far from understanding everything that is said. Recently, I have begun to be able to follow conversations among Spanish speakers of around my age. While I am far from understanding everything that they say, at least I usually have a general idea of what they are talking about. To someone reading this blog, this probably doesn’t seem like much of an accomplishment at all. Objectively speaking, it probably isn’t that much of an accomplishment. However, it is progress and it is movement in the right direction. I hope that upon leaving, I will be able to understand most sentences. It may not sound like much, but if you can understand most of the spoken, slurred Spanish sentences between two native Spanish speakers, you aren’t too far from being fluent.

For me, this all goes to prove how many different levels of “fluency” there are. I can read and comprehend a Spanish newspaper very well. I can speak and express myself well too. However, none of this seems to have prepared me for the most difficult challenge: understanding colloquial, slurred, spoken Spanish. I hope, with time, my oral comprehension will greatly improve. I anticipated oral comprehension being the greatest challenge before I came, and I will continue to fight to achieve my goal. By “fight”, I mean that I will continue to surround myself with this spoken Spanish whenever possible, and I will really, really try to listen well.

Reflective Journal Entry 2:

In this journal entry, I would like to briefly describe what a typical day is like for me here in Salamanca, Spain. I have class Monday-Friday at 9 in the morning. On weekdays, I wake up around 8; I then quickly shower, eat a snack in my room, and start my ten-minute walk to class. My walk cuts through through narrow, sloping streets; it is very reminiscent of a stereotypical picture of a southern European city. My class is located near the center of the historic city of Salamanca. A wall, decorated with sculptures dating back hundreds of years, can be seen by looking out the window of our classroom.

My first class of the day is two hours of Spanish grammar. It is taught by a man named JuanMa (short for Juan Manuel). While most of the students already have a fairly good understanding of the rudiments of Spanish grammar, there is always room to improve. JuanMa is a friendly guy in his early thirties. He does his best to make the often-dry subject of grammar more exciting. After grammar, my next class, Conversation and Writing, is an hour long. In this class, we don’t do very much. We mostly just sit and talk and occasionally do a class activity. While it doesn’t seem like much, activities like these force us to practice our Spanish. My final class of the day, Oral Skills, is also an hour long. In this class, we are asked to give presentations about controversial subjects for the purpose of spurring debate (and therefore forcing us to talk).

My last class of the day, Oral Skills, ends around 1:15. I then walk back to my dorm and relax for a few minutes before we eat lunch at 2 o’clock. Before coming to Salamanca, I had known a girl here named Clara. I purposely chose to live in the same residence hall as her, so that I could hang out with her and her friends. This has proven to be a great decision, because it is her friends with whom I eat lunch and dinner everyday, and it is her friends with whom I spend a lot of my free time. I consider myself very fortunate to have the opportunity to hang out with Spanish people so often, as most of the other foreigners here in Salamanca seem to spend most of their time with other foreigners. I did not come to Salamanca to practice my English with other Americans, so I am thrilled to have the opportunity to hang out with Spanish people.

After finishing lunch around 3 o’clock, most of my friends return to their rooms to study or take a siesta. While I sometimes spend the afternoons doing something in Salamanca, I spend most of the afternoons taking a siesta, working out, and enjoying some downtime in my room. After listening to and speaking Spanish for six hours, some downtime is much appreciated.

Dinner in Spain isn’t usually until nine or ten at night. It was a little hard to adjust to such a late dinner at first, but now I don’t even really get hungry early. After dinner, we sometimes go to a friend’s room and relax for a while before returning to our own rooms to go to sleep.

Reflective Journal Entry 3:

I would like to write a brief journal entry about the use of bad words in Spain. I chose to interview two university students about the use of palabrotas in the Spanish language. I was not able to interview an older adult about the subject, which is unfortunate, because an adult may have a different opinion about the matter than a twenty-year old student. When I was visiting Costa Rica about a year and a half ago, a man told me that cursing in Spain is more common, colloquial and light-hearted than in Costa Rica. He even said it was funny to hear Spanish tourists visiting Costa Rica and swearing loudly in public. For him, the use of such words represented a lack of respect and a proper upbringing. However, in Spain, the situation appears to be entirely different. When I walk through the streets, I hear 50-year-old men and woman swearing loudly in conversation even though they are neither angry nor upset. It appears that the words have simply taken on a lighter connotation.

I asked my friends to pick out a few of the most common curse words. They identified Joder (roughly translates to “fuck”) and Hijo de Puta (“son of a bitch”). Additionally, they identified Me Cago en tu Puta Madre (roughly “I shit on your bitch/whore of a mother”) as the most powerful insult in the Spanish language. Another comical, related expression is Me Cago en Dios, which translates to “I shit on God”. It is used when you are fed up with everything. It should be noted that all of these expressions can be heard colloquially in the street and they don’t appear to be offensive, unless they are intended as such. If I had to guess, I would say they are significantly less powerful than their English counterparts, despite the fact that these words are the most inappropriate words that exist in the Spanish language. My friends said that the words are not usually used with adults or in polite company. They are usually used when the speaker is angry or is joking around with friends. However, when I went to the main plaza to watch Spain play in the Eurocup, I heard a myriad of Joder’s every time anything of the least significance happened, despite the fact that many of the people there were older adults. Perhaps it is better to say that curse words are not used in formal settings.

Reflective Journal Entry 4:

Sexism is a topic very often talked about in Spanish culture. Terms such as Machismo have even made their way into the English language. I spoke to a Spanish guy and a Spanish girl about what they thought about sexism in modern day Spanish society. Both were generally in agreement that, although Spain is progressing, sexism is still a problem. Many issues, such as pregnancy, maternal leave, and differing job salaries, are analogous to the issues we debate in the United States. However, other issues appear to be more unique to Spain. For example, the most prominent Spanish dictionary, Real Academia, is infamous for defining words in a shamelessly sexist way. The Real Academia defines an orphan as someone who has lost one or both parents, but especially a father. My friend, who studies translation, gave other examples of words that are also defined in sexist or patronizing way. Another possible form of sexism that I have noticed is that it is common for men to shout at woman in the street. And it goes without saying that the things they shout aren’t always very respectful. Such behavior in the US is rare and borders on sexual harassment; in Spain it seems to be more common.

However, both of my friends insisted that Spain is moving rapidly in the right direction. While they acknowledged that older people tend to retain the typical gender roles, the younger generation has embraced the values of the 21st century. However, the girl I spoke with thought that the younger generation, although much improved, still has a ways to go. She estimated that 20% of university students here have a machista attitude, and that such an attitude is not restricted to only guys; girls often embrace conservative, patronizing gender roles also.

Reflective Journal Entry 5:

I interviewed three Spanish university students about their opinions of the United States. The first girl I interviewed said that she viewed the US as a more advanced and free nation. However, when she mentioned homosexual rights, I was forced to correct her and point out that homosexual marriage is still illegal in most US states, whereas it has been legal in Spain for the last seven years. However, in other social issues, such as sexism, it could be argued that the US has an edge.

The second guy I spoke with talked more about US foreign policy. He said that Spain acquiesced to Bush and sent some soldiers to Iraq with the US, but it was an extremely unpopular decision. He gave that as a reason for why the Spanish often detest Bush so much. It is unfortunate that our last president is often viewed as a fool who lacked common sense, but this view is not so different than what sizable portion of the US thinks. However, Obama has been seen as a massive improvement over Bush in Spain. My friend thought that the fact that Obama is black represents progress and tolerance. It should also be noted that the Spanish newspapers (at least the ones I read) show a bias towards Obama, hoping that he gets reelected.
The third and final girl I spoke with had spent a year in the US, and therefore had a lot more to say. From her perspective, she saw the US as the country that controls the economy of the world. She also thought it was a unique and interesting country due to it’s mix of people from different heritages. She added that it was more diverse than the relatively homogenous Spanish population. However, she was not a fan of the emphasis that American culture places on monetary success. She believes that Americans tend to live to work, while Spanish people tend to work to live. Spanish people will often take pay cuts to work more enjoyable jobs with fewer hours. Monetary success seems to be of secondary concern.

Before concluding this article, I should mention that I did meet one other girl (a friend of a friend) who gave me her opinion of the US without even being asked. When I asked her why she didn’t like US, she gave a laundry list of reasons. When she said our foreign policy was terrible, I asked her why. She rudely responded by asking me if I had ever heard of countries called Iraq and Israel. When I pronounced a word wrong, she told me I sounded like George W. Bush trying to speak Spanish. Clearly, I didn’t like her very much. It’s important to note that there are people like that in Spain, although they are definitely a small minority. Most people seem to have a generally positive, if occasionally critical, view of the US.

Reflective Journal Entry 6:

Now that I am back in the United States, I would like to write a very brief journal entry summarizing my feelings towards my trip to Spain. Although the trip was difficult and presented many challenges, I feel that it was a positive experience. There is something to be said for learning to adapt and live in a foreign environment. At times, it felt lonely. I spent the majority of my time with other Spanish people, and I was forced to speak and listen in a language that I was not fluent in. It is frustrating to not understand when someone is trying to explain something to you. However, such struggles taught me to appreciate what I take for granite when I speak English. Furthermore, as time went on, I was able to understand more and more Spanish, and I was able to express myself better and better. By the end, I had noticed dramatic improvements in my language abilities. If I was able to spend an additional six months in a similar immersive environment, I think I would be effectively fluent in Spanish by the end of the six months.

Postcard(s) from Abroad:

Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:

One of the first things I learned upon arrival in Spain was that the language skills we learn in the classroom do not perfectly translate to the skills needed for everyday interactions. Simply put, I should have listened to more casual, spoken, slurred Spanish before going to Salamanca.  That being said, perhaps the only place I really could have learned those oral skills was in Salamanca. My primary summer goal was to be able to understand casual, slurred, spoken Spanish. While I largely did achieve this goal, I would still say I have some work to go. I believe with more time I could fully achieve this oral comprehension goal.  The cultural differences between Spain and the US are minor, but there were still some interesting cultural experiences that I have detailed in my above journals.

Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:

As a result of this summer abroad experience, I have learned to appreciate the slight differences between cultures. For example, in America, it is considered polite to eat with your left hand in your lap during a formal dinner. In Spain, it is considered polite to eat with your forearms on the table. To a Spanish person, eating with your left hand in your lap is rude and appears as if you are touching yourself while you are eating. For me, it is impossible to decide which social norm is objectively better.  In other words, I have learned that there is not necessarily a right way to do things. My advice for a future SLA grant recipient would be to go into the experience with a very open mind, and to not be too quick to judge a culture just because they do things differently. This is easier said than done.

How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:

Although I made large language gains over the summer, I would not yet consider myself fluent, at least not by my definition of fluency. I would like to spend at least six more months fully immersed in a Spanish-speaking environment.  I intend to use my Spanish skills later in life in healthcare, assuming my current plan to become a Physician pans out.  In the meantime, I need to maintain my language skills and find a way to spend at least six months in an immersive Spanish-speaking environment.