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Learning Languages and Studying Abroad in Granada, Spain

Flamenco dancers at festival in Sacromonte, Spain
Flamenco dancers gather before performing at the Dia de San Cecilio festival in Sacromonte.

Granada, Spain

“You have to invent a story. That’s the only way you’ll remember the steps,” Marta says to me with a smile as she twirls around the tiny patio in the flamenco bar with dramatic gestures that render me dizzy. She is trying to teach me flamenco, and I am trying to copy her every graceful move. I am not a dancer. You can ask anyone. I have no sense of rhythm whatsoever, and usually move as little as possible when on the dance floor.

But since coming to Spain, I have been doing a lot of things that I wouldn’t normally do. I’ve started eating fish, for example. I’ve put an honest effort into learning the flamenco, though I’m not sure I’ll ever look quite as good as my host sister Marta. I kiss people on both cheeks when I meet them. This can be very time-consuming when Marta introduces me to a large group of her friends. Overall, I’ve been trying to get out of my comfort zone, as you are taught in guidebooks and study abroad orientation sessions.

I have always wanted to travel, ever since I can remember. I recall my excitement as a kid when we got yet another exotic postcard from my uncle, a sociology professor who worked in Europe, Africa, and China. I was mesmerized by faded photos of water buffalo, long-necked women balancing jugs of water, and craggy mountain scenes that were like nothing I’d ever seen in New England.

My interest in other cultures continued through high school and college, and eventually I chose Translation as my major at Brown University. My primary focus has been Spanish, but last year I began studying Arabic and have fallen in love with it, as well. Studying abroad was a natural extension of my experience as a language student, and I began attending study abroad fairs at my university, where a variety of fellowships and study abroad programs offered to take me all over the world.

Patio of the lions in Alhambra, Granada
Patio de los leones in the Alhambra.

Finding a Program

With knowledge of Spanish and Arabic, I had a host of countries in which I could study. But because I was exploring study abroad options in late 2011 and early 2012, the Arab Spring was fresh on my mind. I’d heard stories about American students who’d had to flee Egypt with only a month of classes completed, so I decided to pick a Spanish-speaking country in which to base my studies, hoping for more political stability. My concentration advisor recommended an up-and-coming translation program Brown was offering at the University of Granada in Spain. I jumped at the chance to finally become fluent in Spanish, and I hoped that Spain’s geographic location might permit me to travel to an Arabic-speaking country while I was there.

In preparation, it’s often a good idea to seek out other students who have studied where you will be studying. Because my program was brand-new, I couldn’t ask specific questions about the university courses. But my program coordinators were able to tell me about the city and its Arabic history. I asked them basic questions about how to withdraw money, and the best mobile phone plan to get.

Somebody once told me that bigger cities tend to be more international and have more English speakers. Smaller cities tend to provide better language immersion experiences. From my experience, Granada has forced reliance on my Spanish entirely, and I think that as a result my language skills have improved. There are no other Americans in the Faculty of Translation, which has really widened my social horizons. I enjoy being in a smaller city because I have gotten to know it intimately, but I don’t feel as though I am lacking things to do, either. Granada is most definitely a university city, with a large portion of the population being students (and many are international). The characteristics of a location relate to the needs of each student, and they are important to take into consideration when choosing a program.

Finding a Program: More Info

When searching for the right study abroad experience, it’s useful to consult school advisors and other students. But the most important questions are the ones you ask yourself:

  • What kind of experience (academic, social, service) do I want?
  • Do I want to be in a large city or a small one? Or would I prefer rural life?
  • Will I be able to thrive in a country with very different cultural values than my own?

Answering these questions will help direct your search, but part of your experience will be adjusting your expectations to reality. Usually reality is far more interesting.

Student Life Abroad

I spent my first three weeks in Granada at the Center for Modern Languages. This institution is part of the UGR, but has many students enrolled for a month or two at a time to learn Spanish language. Socially, the CLM was a blast. The classes were interesting but not overwhelming, and there were numerous hikes and city outings where we could participate with our new friends. The Faculty is much more academically challenging (which I prefer) and was a little harder to get used to socially because I was one of a handful of foreign students in a largely Spanish school. But I valued these newer friendships because I felt a deeper connection with my classmates.

One of the the most challenging aspects about adjusting to life at a new university is finding balance. You want to get something out of your classes, but you’ll also want to “experience Spain” and learn as much about the culture as possible.

Street performance in Granada
A street performance in Plaza del Triunfo (Granada).

After the CLM, I began classes at the Faculty of Translation and Interpretation.

One of my most useful activities has been my weekly language exchange with Lucia, a PhD student from Cordoba. She and I walk around the city for an hour or so, and I speak in Spanish while she practices her English. I became open to her perspectives on everything from bullfighting to shopping. These language exchanges are fun and diverting, but also help bolster Spanish skills.

Student Life in Granada: More Info

Academics: (in Spanish)

Social: (in Spanish)

Service: (in Spanish)

Sometimes the most useful activity is simply to wander about the city to see what you can find!

Staying Connected

After announcing that you’re studying abroad, many people ask how you’ll stay in touch with friends and family. It’s a decidedly personal choice, and I decided not to keep a blog because I felt it was too public for many of the personal things I would write, nor was it as personal as a letter or postcard sent individually. Maybe in this day and age I am alone in my love for the written word, but I still cling to those memories of my uncle’s letters postmarked from another time zone. Instead, I have Flickr and Facebook accounts to which I regularly post photos. And I have written dozens of postcards and letters, mindful of the importance of that personal touch and the thrill at receiving correspondence from another continent.

Serving Moroccan tea in village in Morocco
Serving traditional Moroccan tea in a small village outside Chefchaouen.

Traveling and Learning

While in Spain, I took two kinds of trips, and I would recommend each for different reasons. At the end of February, I participated in a program called Morocco Exchange. The four days we spent traveling to and around Morocco were some of the best in my life. We started in Tangier, spent a few hours in Asilah and a day in Rabat, with a final stop in Chefchaouen. We did a few touristy things, such as visiting the king’s mausoleum and some magnificent Roman ruins in Chellah. But we also had the opportunity to converse with real Moroccan students, who answered our questions frankly and with good humor. I learned that most Moroccans are multi-lingual, facts about Muslims, as well as information about a few hot-button political issues.

About a month later, Spain celebrated Semana Santa (the week before Easter) with a weeklong vacation, and I planned a spur-of-the-moment trip to Valencia. Alone. It was challenging and a little lonely at times, but a really fantastic experience. I liked the freedom to do what I wanted when I wanted, and I also had the opportunity to meet some incredible people at the hostel. It can be extremely satisfying to do things by yourself, like navigating an entire city by bicycle. But one must take care, especially as a female, and be a little more vigilant when traveling alone.

City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia
City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia.

It’s a natural human instinct to want to control every situation. Traveling has taught me that this is impossible. But things usually do work out in the end. Buses break down. Planes are delayed. Taxi drivers bring you to the wrong hotel. Plans are thrown into flux because of inclement weather. In my experience traveling, it was helpful to have access to plenty of cash and a credit card while in transit. I have learned to be assertive (but still courteous), stay relaxed, and to not to get overly stressed out when things don’t go according to plan. And most importantly, I have become unashamed about asking for help or directions, because it usually saves time and frustration.

Traveling: More Info

Getting around:



As I write this, I sit at the desk in my bedroom in Granada. I have tried to reflect on my experience in the words above, but  know I will gain a whole new perspective when I return home. And this (aside from a big bowl of Chinese food) is perhaps what I am most looking forward to about the return home. But until then, I cherish those moments that every study abroad student experiences: those moments when you are simply awestruck. It might happen the first time you ride a camel or stumble into an authentic clothes-off Arab bath. Or it might happen as you gaze up at the Alhambra’s amber walls. Or as you laugh breathlessly with your host family as you all desperately try to pronounce Arnold Schwarzenegger. The last time it happened to me, I was walking down the street at dusk listening to someone play the accordion. The moon was out, and the air smelled of oranges. And I was quietly overwhelmed with gratitude at how lucky I was to be there.

Alhambra and Generalife at night in Granada
The Alhambra and Generalife at night. Sierra Nevadas in background.

My Spanish (and Moroccan) experiences have reaffirmed a belief in the importance of studying languages, as well. The American educational system tends to emphasize math, science, and written expression in English over learning a foreign language. This is most likely the result of a cultural attitude that persists: the rest of the world speaks English, so why bother learning a foreign language? And in this age of Google Translate and iPhone apps that make lightning-fast translations, it’s a reasonable question. I think speaking a foreign language is as symbolic as it is useful. People in Spain and Morocco alike have reacted with surprise, pleasure, and applauded my muddled efforts to speak to them in their own tongue. It shows that you value their culture and their language enough to study it. It’s a useful exercise in humility when you realize there are toddlers who can speak better than you. And for me, that unending quest for fluency is really appealing, intellectually.

Since I plan on continuing my language studies, I know that it is only a matter of time before I will be packing my suitcases and leaving the U.S. again. Morocco frequently returns to my thoughts, with its mountains, spice-scented air, and delicious food. I want to come back. I am currently exploring fellowship and scholarship options for after graduation. I don’t know where I’ll be or how I’ll get there, but I know I’ll be on the move again soon with a handful of postcards waiting to be sent.

Post-Graduation Options


Related Topics
Student-to-Student Reports
Study Abroad in Spain
Living Abroad in Spain

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