Studying abroad teaches lessons in grammar, silence

This summer I spent 11 weeks bouncing around the world with 23 other Tech students. This fall I chose to continue my foreign language education by studying abroad in Granada, in the desperate hopes that someone will finally teach me how to properly use the subjunctive tense in Spanish.

However, more than a grammar lesson, this fall has in its short two weeks proved to be a lesson in silence.

Any good American has seen the adorable yet depressing Disney film Bambi, where the rabbit Thumper is chastised by his mother that unless you have something good to say, you don’t say anything at all.

As I bounce around Europe, starting in London, and so far routing through two Spanish cities (Malaga and Granada), I have learned that we English-speaking Americans have to use that tactful silence more than most.

For one thing, the only guaranteed way I have found to avoid Spanish grammar errors is to not speak. Not to say that I walk around the house I share with another American girl and a Spanish Señora like a ghost, but I speak less in Spanish than I do in English. Really, the main fear isn’t even looking illiterate, which I am very willing to admit to any native speaker that I am. The real fear is insulting someone beyond belief.

It is far too simple to make a fatal colloquial error, such as calling someone verde, or green, meaning jealous in English, but perverted in Spain. Plus, any entry-level speaker knows the humiliating realization that comes when you are informed you just called yourself pregnant, instead of embarrassed.

Silence, tactful acceptance that this is how this country is, has also helped keep me sane so far this fall. There is nothing more annoying than the one girl in our program who can’t seem to keep her mouth closed about every small problem that she encounters.

For example, the traditional Spanish breakfast is toast and coffee. Now, we in America might think we have traditions, but compared to the Spanish we simply have a few things we like. By traditional breakfast, the Spanish mean the only breakfast, in every house, every single day. Every single student in our program has been reduced nearly to the point of tears when they enter the kitchen of their family and are greeted by a cheery older Spanish woman and yet another large plate of bread for the tenth day in a row, with roughly 100 more days of dry toast ahead of us.

Without the silence that we are all beginning to accept, who knows how many well-intentioned, traditional Spanish housewives would have been offended by now, not to mention the almost painful silence induced every time I see a young Spanish man with a mullet walking by, confident in his incredibly trashy look.

Silence has also served me well in my increasingly difficult job as a representative of the United States. Nearly every European who I have encountered holds some sort of firm opinion, be it political, cultural or just plain rude, about our country. While tempting to correct the constant generalizations tossed out about Americans, I have learned it does little more than enforce the common ideas held.

Instead, I try to just sit silently and pray that they will take my polite acceptance of their critique as an invitation to stop, or at least to not direct their venom at me. Really, between the toast and the grammar, I don’t know how much more silence I can bear.