To be perfectly honest, I haven’t a clue where to begin when trying to summarize what I have just experienced. I feel as if my eyes have been opened to a truth that I’ve always known but never understood. Before this trip, the furthest that I’d ever traveled was to Disney World. I thought that after spending almost a month on a different continent with people from around the world, I’d really know the world. Now, if anything, I understand how little of the world I actually know and I find that as a result, I have a new insatiable desire to experience as much as I possibly can. For the past three weeks, I’ve been living in a 16th century monestary in the town of El Escorial. I’ve met people from five continents and have heard at least seven languages fluently spoken. Despite the incredible diversity, the most amazing and memorable thing experienced was how easily and naturally everyone coexsisted. For example, on the night of the world cup finals, we all stayed up late to eagerly watch the simple game of “who can kick a ball into a net more often.” This game was of course far from simple, however, as it was already the epitamy of the true reason for spectating sports: uniting different groups of people through the hope of a specific, impartially achievable goal. As we watched the game, friendly but almost humorously intense arguments were being made for each team; although we had to be quiet because some of the younger children were falling asleep. As the situation was unfolding, it couldn’t have felt more natural. Later that night however, I had a sudden realization of the weight of the situation that I had just experienced. The arguing over the game could be heard in English, Spanish, Catalan, French, Russian, and even Chinese. The little boy who fell asleep on my shoulder later in the game was from Equatorial Guinea. In the room where we watched the game that stood for the unification of nations, there sat young people who were doing just that without even intending to. Perhaps the lesson to be learned from that is that although people may be divided by language, economic backround, race, or geography, there is nothing from that that hinders the ability to coexsist normally and naturally. People often refer to foreign places as “different worlds,” and I understand this reference. When I landed in Spain, everything was different and it felt as if I was in a different world. However, I was reminded by the natural and harmonious relationships between campers from seemingly different worlds that the truth is that we all exsist within the same world, and we all have that and many more things than we realize in common.
At my school, Spanish classes have been required since the fifth grade. As a result, my initial motivation to start learning a second language was simply the desire to graduate middle school. As the years went on, however, and I started to learn more about myself, I decided that I wanted to be a doctor and was taught that there was a demand for spanish speaking doctors in the United States. This new personal motivation to learn a second language was certainly helpful, however looking back, it was an intangible goal and solely that would not have been enough of a motivation. I believe that Darwinian principles are appliciple in the case of learning a language. It’s incredibly difficult to posess the ability to speak a language without experiencing the need to do so. When returning home from traveling, people generally ask about things you did, tourist attractions you visited, food you tried, or things you bought. Although I did amazing things in amazing places while eating amazing food and buying a few souveniers, the part of this trip that meant the most and the thing I’ll never forget was the people I met. There were so many incredible people with such fun personalities and interesting stories to tell. The desire to converse with people was my first ever tangible goal to learn a language. Foreign language classes are exactly as they sound: foreign. It’s hard to appreciate a class that teaches something which you can’t relate to. Motivation to learn a foreign language cannot be taught; it absolutely must be experienced. I’ve been taking spanish classes for five years now and the relationships I’ve formed in the past three weeks would be motivation enough for five hundred years of Spanish classes.
One of the most interesting people I met was an eighteen year old girl named Sara who was from Austrailia. She was only at the camp during the day and only for a few days, however her story was so fascinating that I felt as if I knew all about her. Sara had a curiosity and desire to experience the world like I’ve never seen before. I saw her eyes light up at the mere sight of a map on the wall and I watched her excitedly point to nearly every city exclaiming her desire to travel there. She was taking a gap year to travel before starting her University, and was staying in Madrid for a full year with host families. Sara had never taken a single Spanish class, neither in Australia nor Spain. She was, however, fluent in Spanish after only five months, simply through immersion in the Spanish language and the necessity and desire to communicate. It was hard to believe that what students spend years and years being taught could simply be acquired in a matter of months, however this supports the hypothesis that the ability to speak a language comes from the experience of the need to use it.
My best friend at this camp was a girl my age named Jamie from Colorado. She was the only other girl who spoke English as a first language. I had only met her for the first time in the Madrid airport, however I quickly grew closer with her than friends I’d known for years. Jamie was different from me in nearly every way: I like what I call “chill” music while she prefered classical music written centuries ago. My family was from Europe and although my grandparents can speak Italian, I’ve only ever spoken English and Spanish. Jamie spoke fluent Vietnameese at home and so she was already entirely bilingual. Jamie was in the orchestra at her school while I play on the field hockey team. She was always reading while I was always writing. In this case, I watched as the power of a single similarity, a language, connected an inseperable friendship between two otherwise entirely different people.
On the first day in the airport, I met Jamie and also a boy named Nikolai. He looked perhaps Italian, spoke fluent English with a seemingly European accent, said he was from the small country of Malta, and was flying to Madrid from his home in Hong Kong. I’ve never studied the demographics of Hong Kong and so I can’t say that I expected anything different, but his background was quite honestly spectacular. I felt myself shyly asking quite unintelligent questions such as “why English” and “why not also Chinese,” but he was just so fascinating. Nikolai had a personality and sense of humor like any teenager and he, Jamie, and I became a trio of best friends, despite the fact that he resided seven thousand and five hundred miles from Jamie, and an additional five hundred from me.
As the three of us were the oldest campers at the camp, we befriended the young adult monitors quite closely. It’s no surprise that people between the ages of eighteen and twenty five would seem pretty cool, but they were literally some of the coolest people I’ve ever met. One monitora was a twenty three year old aspiring English teacher. Her name was Patricia although we called her Beyoncé as a joke resulting from quite humorous singing in the shower. She patiently listened as I butchered my way through the Spanish language and then and excitedly asked us to teach her “cool English expressions.” I almost felt a sense of pride from the way she so eagerly listened to what I would say, in both English and Spanish. She spoke a completely different language, however we were able to communicate incredibly well because we were both eager to learn each other’s language. We had inside jokes in both languages and I’ll never forget funny memories with her. For example, one time I said “see ya” and she heard “silla,” the Spanish word for chair. We then began saying “chair” whenever saying goodbye and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to hear “see ya” without thinking of her again. We spoke English and Spanish together, however she always encouraged me to try to speak Spanish. We usually hung out as a group of Jamie, Nikolai, Patricia, myself, and two other monitors. Concha was Patricia’s apparent best friend, and her easy going and honest personality was just fun to be around. Although she spoke a decent amount of English, she always encouraged me to tell every story in Spanish. David was their third friend and he was the comedian of the group. He didn’t speak a word of English but he was always willing to slow down and simplify what he joked about in Spanish. I found myself wanting to just hang out and converse as much as possible with the three of them, and to do so, I had to speak in Spanish. That sort of motivation to speak another language cannot be taught in a classroom, and I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to experience it.
The list of people that I’ve met and befriended in the past three weeks also includes two girls and a boy from Russia who spoke Russian, English, and some Spanish. One of the sweetest people that I met was a thirteen year old Catalan girl who spoke fluent Spanish and Catalan. There were also three additional younger boys from Hong Kong who spoke English and Chinese, a group of about 15 kids from Equatorial Guinea who spoke French and Spanish, and maybe 60 kids from Spain who were learning English or French. While I’ll probably never forget the taste of Jamón, the view of red rooftops and mountains from my window, or the sights of Madrid landmarks, I know that I will never ever forget the people that I met and the hilarious, deeply thoughtful, or just plain fun memories we all shared. I think it’s safe to say that without the opportunity to attend this camp, I never would have crossed paths with these people whom I now consider to be close and perhaps life-long friends. As I am forever glad to have gotten to know these people, I am eternally grateful to all that made this experience possible. Seeing the way people from around the world naturally befriended each other as if different continents, languages, and races hardly made any difference was incredible to experience. I know that I’ll always have memories to cherish from this experience and I feel like a richer person for having those memories.
Months ago I wrote an essay in order to apply for this opportunity. I wrote about empathy and how just a simple shared experience could lead to a whole new understanding for one another. At the time, I don’t think I fully understood the extent of that. I must admit that it’s difficult to put into words the extent of that which I now understand about diversity. People might say happiness, alegria, felicitat, bonheur, sự sung sướng, счастье, or 幸福, but they’re all seeking the same thing. People may laugh, se ríen, riuen, ils rient, họ cười, они смеются, or 他們笑, but still be laughing together. We may call ourselves friends, amigos, amics, amis, bạn bè, друзья, or 朋友, but the universal truth is that we’ll never forget the memories we’ve shared.