Living with locals: the pros and cons
Emer O’Toole is studying French and Spanish at Queen’s University, Belfast, and is spending her year abroad working as a British Council language assistant in Castilla-La Mancha, Spain. Here is her insider guide to living with locals - the good and... the not-so-good.
Living with native speakers on your year abroad - it’s a fast-track way to find hundreds of new friends, immerse yourself in your new country’s culture and become fluent by Christmas, right? Maybe.
When I was in the process of organising my year abroad, everyone from university lecturers and British Council representatives to older students who’ve been there and done that emphasised the importance of living with locals. Although this can be rewarding, useful and a whole lot of fun, being the token ‘guiri’ in your flat has its downfalls, too.
Here are some of the main reasons why you should consider living with locals – and some of the potential problems to look out for.
1. The good
1. It’s easier to let on that you’re fluent
Being around native speakers is a great way to pick up little phrases and muletillas that can make your Spanish sound more nature. Peppering your speech with the odd “no jodas” or “pues nada” is a handy way to make your Spanish seem more colloquial and fluent, and copying your flatmates’ intonation, speech patterns or even hand gestures will help you along (if nothing else, it can distract from your not-quite-there-yet use of the subjunctive). They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, after all.
2. They can show you around
Granted, the grand tour of the town where I live lasted about seven minutes and consisted of “There’s the cathedral, there’s the plaza, there’s the other plaza, there’s the chino. Don’t go to that bar for tapas, it’s a rip-off. There’s the bus station. Questions?” However, for those of you living in a bigger or livelier city, having a native tour guide is an awesome way to go off the beaten track and discover your new home’s hidden gems.
3. You learn things you wouldn’t have learned otherwise…
Whether it’s domestic vocab on broken boilers and electricity bills, or insults about the upstairs neighbours who choose to arrange their furniture before dawn, having native speakers as flatmates is a great way to pick up words and phrases that you mightn’t have stumbled upon if you lived with other Anglophones.
4. ...without even trying
When your target language is the default one in your flat, just sitting in the living room can be a learning opportunity. Even if you’re too knackered to chat, having the Spanish TV or radio on in the background will help you to become more in-tune with your new country’s news stories, current affairs and, most importantly, so-bad-it’s-good daytime TV (‘Hombres y mujeres y viceversa’, anyone?). You don’t need even to sit through hard-hitting documentaries or a political Cara a cara to learn – even little things like watching a football match or sitcom will help you pick up silly words or phrases that could come in handy later. Plus, you’ll get a good laugh at some of the dubbed voices on Los Simpson.
5. They’ll ring the landlord so you don’t have to
Yes, your year abroad’s meant to be about proving your linguistic mettle while under pressure. But, let’s be honest – nobody wants to have to navigate the ever-scary waters of a foreign-language phone-call armed only with their trusty WordReference app when it’s 3 am and the smoke alarm’s blaring for no reason. Having a native speaker on your side can be brilliant when you first arrive in the country and haven’t a clue what’s going on. If you’re lucky enough to find nice flatmates, they can come in handy when it comes to dealing with administrative headaches like the NIE, setting up a bank account, or even decoding Spanish text-speak.
6. Three words: weekly beer fund
Cerveza > everything else. Just as it should be.
2. The not-so-good
1. Spaniards often head home at the weekends
It turns out that a mass exodus back home to get your washing done and stock up on Tupperwared meals for the week ahead isn’t unique to Northern Ireland’s students. In the region where I live, most Spanish students go back to their hometowns as soon as their week’s classes end, and the weekends can be dull if you’re flying solo. However, this can also act as a good incentive for you to get out and about, meet new people or even travel around the country - discovering a new Spanish city is infinitely better than having a three-day telenovela marathon all by yourself.
2. It can be tiring talking across a language divide all the time
When you’re tired, homesick and have spent the morning speaking at a classroom full of disinterested 14-year-olds in a weird, slowed-down imitation of your normal accent, going home and struggling to overcome a language barrier is often the last thing you feel like doing.
3. You’ll do a lot of smiling and nodding
All three of my flatmates come from small manchego towns, and they all speak with distinctive accents which are still taking some getting used to. Given that Spaniards seem to talk at the speed of light, and that each region and even town has its own colloquialisms and slang, I spent my first month asking my roomies to repeat themselves so that I had even the slightest idea what they were talking about. Even now, I sometimes find myself doing the tried-and-tested “laugh politely and hope it wasn’t a question” routine, but it’s worth persevering and asking them to slow down if you’re totally lost. Plus, if you’re used to hearing rural or unpolished accents at home, uni oral classes with patient native speakers will be a walk in the park (hopefully).
4. Believe it or not, you might end up speaking English
At the end of my second year of uni, when I told my Sevillian teacher where I’d be spending my year abroad, his response of “Oh! Well – that’ll be really…authentic” had me thinking that I’d be spending the year without having to speak any English at all. Yeah, not so much. Certain Spanish universities insist that their students obtain a certain level of English before they can graduate, no matter what their degree course is, so there’s a chance that your flatmates will want to use you as their English language conversation practice for the year. Understandable, but frustrating when you’re the one who’s gone to the trouble of ditching everything to move country for a year. Sure, be nice about it and help them out, but insist that it goes both ways.
5. They aren’t there to be your personal tutors
Unless you majorly fall on your feet and land yourself a flatmate with the patience of a saint and a lot of free time, just remember that your housemates mightn’t always have the time or the inclination to spend hours chatting with you. Just like UK students, Spaniards have a lot to do, like going to class, studying, working, spending time with their friends or partners and, of course, siesta-ing. Plus, if your schedules are different – if they’re at uni and you’re on a work placement, for example – you might end up like ships that pass in the night. Make the most of the time you do have with your flatmates – say yes to any social event you’re invited to, show that you’re keen to speak as much as possible and avoid hiding away in your room – but don’t get complacent about it either, and make sure to find other ways to talk to keep learning.
6. You’ll find weirdos wherever you go
There’s always a chance that your compañeros de piso will be antisocial, rude or just plain scary – it’s one of the risks involved in sharing a home with strangers in any country in the world. Don’t stress about it if you don’t automatically become besties with your housemates: there are plenty of other ways to learn, make friends and immerse yourself in your new country’s culture.
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