Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Barcelona Journal: Learning and Living in the World

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Barcelona Journal: Learning and Living in the World

Article excerpt

BARCELONA, SPAIN

At the seaside end of Barcelona's most famous boulevard, La Rambla, soars a statue of Christopher Columbus, his right arm stretching west, his outward gaze fixed on the horizon. The statue represents the pervasive mindset of Catalonia: a country must always look toward and appreciate other cultures and nations to learn and grow.

During a 10-day stint to northeastern Spain as part of an international seminar based at the University of Barcelona, I discovered this mentality is shared and taught by many at the university. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it's a phrase I've also heard in the United States, during interactions with sources and colleagues. After I returned from Barcelona, it resurfaced at a news conference on foreign students and international studies. Dr. Judith Kipper, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says American students must travel abroad and learn that they "live in the world" and not just in the United States.

Reflecting on my Spanish adventure, I can say that I tried to do just that--to live in the world, taking Barcelona for a classroom: I spoke the language, asked questions, read up on the city's history and explored the culture. In doing so, I learned more in 10 days than I did in some forgettable 12-week international-relations courses I survived as an undergraduate. And I discovered that what both the Spanish and American policy-wonks were saying was true, that delving into another culture is the best way to learn, and hopefully, to understand.

TALKING THE TALK

Barcelona is a polyglot, where the natives often speak at least three languages, including Spanish, English and Catalan, one of the romance languages that sounds something like a mixture of French, Italian and Portuguese. Dr. Carmen Barbosa-Torralbo, the leader of my seminar and director of the Brethren Colleges Abroad program in Barcelona, spoke all three languages fluently, as well as Italian and French. She said one of the first tasks American students studying at the University of Barcelona undertake is language immersion. In addition to formal classroom training, students are assigned to live with a family in Barcelona, with whom they learn to speak Spanish on a daily basis. Barbosa-Torralbo says the language often overwhelms the American students at first, but it takes little time for most to become adept at speaking and understanding. Once they do, she said, their confidence climbs, and they finish their studies not wanting to leave Barcelona.

During my first few days in Barcelona, I too experienced the language trepidation Barbosa-Torralbo mentioned. Though I studied Spanish in high school and college, I found myself stumbling on phrases, jumbling pronunciations and asking natives to slow down or to repeat themselves. I've never been so acutely aware of language and how vital it is to accomplishing the most basic tasks. I felt it when I needed to order extra towels from the hotel concierge, when I was buying a cup of coffee and when I got lost wandering the city and needed directions. Still I forced myself to speak Spanish. After about a week, my discomfort gave way to some measure of confidence, and my speed and pronunciation improved.

Had I lapsed back into the comfort of English, I wouldn't have connected as well with the locals, something I realized one morning at breakfast. I checked in with the hostess in Spanish, who kindly thanked me and was then met by a group of Frenchmen trying to speak to her in French. Figuring she didn't speak French, they switched to English and increased their volume several notches, still unsure if she'd understand. …

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