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How Living in a Spanish Speaking World Changed My Identity

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Figuring out who you are in a different language is not an easy task. While it may seem that achieving a certain degree of fluency in a language will facilitate the ability to express yourself as you do in your mother-tongue, studying abroad has shown me it is a process much more complex, challenging, frustrating, and rewarding; a process which allows exploration and growth.

When I first reached Buenos Aires, I experienced an unprecedented feeling of excitement. In only a month or two, I thought, I’d be speaking fluently and communicating at ease. While this vision was indeed fulfilled with each day that passed, I began noticing that the true challenge of living in Spanish is not necessarily speaking Spanish, but rather finding a way to be myself; to naturally express who I am as I do in English, but in a different context. The challenges I faced at the beginning eased with time; I had begun learning new words, understanding expressions and slang, and communicating more easily in groups. With each day that passed, I stopped translating in my head and communication came rather naturally, without much need to stop and think before I say anything. “¿che, qué estás haciendo?” or “vale la pena!” became phrases I heard so often, after a few weeks I found myself using them regularly.
The challenging part, however, was one that I did not foresee. While I had assumed I would face difficulties in my home-stay, university, and personal life, I had never imagined the difficulties of being sarcastic in Spanish, making a joke, or chiming into conversation naturally among other Spanish speakers. How was I to be myself, to be dryly funny or witty at the right time, in a different language? How was I to respond quickly or laugh at a situation using only a few words, like I do so often in English? That is a challenge I am still contemplating today, yet one that has brought with it much growth.

While it felt frustrating at times, I learned an incredibly valuable lesson—in Spanish, I may be someone else. With culture and a varying speaking ability influencing the ways in which I was interacting with others, I began discovering other sides of myself. Ones that are more adventurous, quieter, less productive, more open. In Spanish, I am a great listener, more attentive to the things people tell me and the ways they phrase themselves. In Spanish, I can ask about personal aspects of other people’s lives without crossing lines, as it is an acceptable way to show others that you care about them. In Spanish, moments are not measured by achievements but by time taken to enjoy them—days spent in cafes in which we spoke about absolutely nothing for hours would be considered productive in the best way. During the latter part of the program, when I was able to explore other regions and travel, I had the opportunity to discover the boundaries of my new identity in other contexts, ones in which I was meeting new people with every new place I reached. In Spanish, I was forming another identity that on one hand, fit how I thought of myself and on the other, illustrated who I could be, a change only possible through the complete change of my familiar environment.

Meeting new people from other parts of the United States, Europe, and Latin America made me realize that there is so much room for growth. I did not have to fit into a certain box, but rather, could keep exploring how people from different places along with the language I spoke with them impacted my own identity and way of communicating.
Learning to be myself while letting myself grow is how I would characterize what living abroad allows. It is not an easy process, but it is one that demonstrates how important it is to leave our comfort zones in order to discover sides we didn’t know existed. The changes I experienced as a result of studying in Buenos Aires are ones that no other experience could provide. Its impact, furthermore, is one that I still see in my everyday life here in the States. Sitting in my university in New Orleans, I am able to look back at my experience and see the ways it has shaped me as the person I am today: global-minded and more sure of what I’m looking for.

Lipaz Avigal is a student at Tulane University and studied abroad with IFSA on the Argentine Universities Program in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2017.