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Living in a new language

Rachel Matheson
Rotary Traveler
Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Rachel Matheson Special to the Post IndependentPaula Matheson, left, of Glenwood Springs and Sophie Le Paih of San Sebastian, Spain met each other over the Easter holiday in San Sebastian. Matheson's daughter, Rachel, is staying with Le Paih and her family on a Rotary Exchange.
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Seven months ago, I didn’t know how to say “nice to meet you” in Spanish. I didn’t know how to respond to simple questions, buy a bus ticket, or even ask for water at the dinner table in my house. Today, I don’t think any more of these tasks than I did in Glenwood Springs.

Since Christmas time, things have been easier in Spain. I no longer need to think about what to say when someone on the street asks me for directions or when we are having a family conversation about the news report.

I now laugh at the jokes when I watch The Simpsons and understand the slang my friends use at school. I feel confident that the Spanish language does not limit my experience and life here is Spain like it did seven months ago.



It’s easy to say I live in a new place. But the real truth is that I live in a new language.

I didn’t fully realize how much my Spanish has improved until my real mom flew from Glenwood Springs to come see the life I’ve been living here in Spain. While eating Easter dinner with my entire Spanish host family, I had my first real opportunity to listen to a conversation in Spanish and translate it into English at the same time.



My Spanish host family enjoyed practicing their English with my mom, so we often switched from Spanish to English. Sometimes I lost track of what was said in English and what was said in Spanish, because I understand them the same. I would repeat things that had just been said in English to my mom, thinking it was said in Spanish and she couldn’t understand.

My mother acted just like I did when I first came to Spain, not knowing the language, the customs, what is polite, and generally being on the outside of every conversation. It was surprising to me that after my short time here in this culture I have switched to the other side of things; I understood and joked with the Spaniards as my mom filled my former shoes and smiled while waiting for a translation.

Looking back, I realize I’ve taken baby steps to arrive at this point. I listened to Spanish all day between going to school, TV, music, and my host family. I had countless games of charades, embarrassing mistakes in pronunciation, and constantly asking people to write down the words that I didn’t know.

My first weeks here I couldn’t recognize the difference between Spanish and Basque, and now I can not only speak Spanish, but also hear the different dialects of Basque when there are tourists in San Sebastian.

When I first arrived, I would fill my free time after school attempting conversation with my host family to practice speaking Spanish or I would flip through the channels on TV until I encountered a rerun of Friends or an American film that I knew.

I tried to listen to Spanish music, but was overwhelmed with the rapid lyrics and often ended up making up my own words.

Every day as I rode my bike home for lunch after school, I passed by an elementary school that has recess at the same time I passed by. I began slowing down on my bike as I passed the school each day to listen to the kids yell as they play. I always count how many Spanish words or phrases I can hear the children shout and try to beat the record I had set the day before. I think I have learned the most from little experiences like these.

I am still far from being fluent and continue to learn phrases and words every day, but after seven months in this foreign country I feel confident in answering questions, voicing my opinion, and being a participating member in my home, school, and community here in San Sebastian.

– Rachel Matheson, 17, is spending her junior year on a Rotary Youth Exchange trip to San Sebastian, Spain, sponsored by the Sunrise Rotary and Club Rotario. Her column, “Rotary Traveler,” appears on the third Tuesday of the month.


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