By Julie Clack
Every summer, the Department of Spanish and Portuguese (SPO) sends students to countries around the world for immersive language experiences.
In 2018, students went to Toledo, Spain; Lisbon, Portugal; and Buenos Aires, Argentina to improve their Spanish and Portuguese. As students from these programs attest below, they ended up learning a lot more about each country’s people, customs and culture, and improving their language skills along the way.
Living with a host familyIn all three programs, students have the opportunity to live with a host family with whom they share meals and experiences. For many students, this aspect of the program is one of the most rewarding, both academically and personally.
“My favorite memory from studying abroad would probably [be] the hours spent in long conversations I had in Portuguese with my homestay mom, Margarida,” said Anne Sullivan-Crowley (Lisbon).
Beatrice Ferguson (Toledo) said, “From eating homemade paella and croquettes to just listening to their perspectives on Spanish politics and history, living with a host family was an amazing and immersive experience.”
Phoebe Warren (Toledo) agreed. “One of my favorite parts of the program was being able to talk about the social, political, and cultural issues we discussed in class with my host family each night. These conversations enriched and at times complicated my understanding of issues, and made my overall experience in Spain more meaningful.”
“I learned many words and phrases that are specific to Buenos Aires and learned about the politics, economics, and history of Argentina from many conversations with my host parents at dinners,” said Sarah Coffey.
Exploring nearby towns
A major component of each program are weekly day-long excursions to a nearby destination. In Toledo, studentsvisited Madrid; the Valle de los Caídos; and the “La Mancha” region, famous for its windmills in “Don Quixote.”
On their excursion to La Mancha, students were accompanied by Rafael Sanchez-Mateos Paniagua and his family, who are natives of the village Alcazar de San Juan. While students saw many sites that are not typical “tourist” stops, the excursion ended up being a favorite for many.
“In class, we learned about the unique role cemeteries play in rural Spanish society. To me, it had been an abstract, anthropological lesson. Pacing the broad gravel pathways with my professor’s mom, however, transformed the idea into a visceral encounter; I came to appreciate the village’s moving memorials to its departed ancestors” said Jon Ort. “The cemetery proved to be the most poignant and incisive distillation of Spanish culture that I had encountered.”Students in Portugal participated in excursions every week. These trips included viewing major sites and hidden treasures of Lisbon, a culinary tour, and Presença Africana em Lisboa (tracing the African presence in Lisbon). Students also visited Sintra to experience Cabo de Roca (the westernmost point of continental Europe) and enjoyed a seaside lunch.
“We really got a feel for the culture both inside and outside the classroom,” said Lisa Abascal (Lisbon). “Together as a group, we got to go on excursions that tied into what we were studying in class, which I really enjoyed.”
In Argentina, students visited Plaza de Mayo, experienced a tango performance, and had the opportunity to sign up for a variety of tours which highlighted a range of topics from literature to graffiti. However, it was a field trip to Estancia Estrella Federal, a ranch outside of Buenos Aires, that stood out to many.
“I think my favorite memory from my time in Argentina was our visit to La Estancia after the first week of our program,” said Tife Aladesuru. “After being immersed in the city for a week, I remember how clear the air felt, how bright the stars were, and how quiet and calm the atmosphere was. I rode a horse for the first time in six years, tried “asado” and “mate,” and enjoyed nature with my new classmates.”
Experiencing “culture shocks”
“Shocks Culturales,” as Professor Germán Labrador Méndez calls them, are a quintessential part of the study abroad experience. Unsurprisingly, many of these culture shocks involve food.
As Susan Orth (Toledo) observed, “They are things you would never think of, such as the concept of drinking beverages without ice, not using air conditioning, eating dinner at 11 p.m., or just being served foods that you come to learn are actually Spanish delicacies.”
“Their eating schedule was very different than I was used to — they eat a big meal in the middle of the day and then dinner is smaller and lighter. I really enjoyed the tapas in Spain, as well!” said Taylor Nolan (Toledo).
“One thing that surprised me about my experience was the food and the customs around eating,” said Krista Hoffman (Buenos Aires). “I ate dinner with my host family at 9:30 p.m. every night, and on the weekend, I would watch many sit down to eat dinner at a restaurant at midnight!”
Despite the late hours, Hoffman was impressed with the Argentinian dessert “dulce de leche,” which was a part of many snacks and meals.
“Dulce de leche is delicious and I think it should become a trend at Princeton!” Hoffman exclaimed.
Improving your language and culture knowledge“The time that I spent living and studying in Argentina helped improved my language abilities immensely,” said Aladesuru. “Living with a family who only spoke Spanish to me, chatting with friendly Uber drivers, and ordering coffees constantly all helped quell the fear of messing up which inhibited my speaking skills for years. “
“I realized within a day arriving that I just had to speak without thinking too much, and that even when I did fumble with words or conjugations, people were understanding.” He added, “All this helped me improve my speaking more within five weeks than I had in years.”
“While my major goal during the program was to better my Portuguese, one of the things I enjoyed most about the program was the opportunity to learn so much about a culture and history that was completely unknown to me,” said Sara Moreno (Lisbon).
“Studying in Spain helped me to understand the language, but more importantly, the culture, on a more intimate level,” said Victoria Gonzalez (Toledo). “It is incredible how much I learned about a part of the world that is an entire ocean away, and it is perhaps most comforting that it feels like my second home.”
As Orth remarked, “Overall, you can guarantee that, though only one short month, this program will completely change your language ability and understanding of [the country’s] culture.”