Your Guide To Studying Abroad In Spain

By Danielle Wirsansky on May 15, 2018

There are so many benefits to studying abroad. According to a study conducted by the University of California Merced, 84% of study abroad alumni felt their studies abroad helped them build valuable skills for the job market. 97% of study abroad students found employment within 12 months of graduation, when only 49% of college graduates found employment in the same period, which means that study abroad students they were twice as likely to find a job. And a whopping 70% of study abroad alumni claimed that because of study abroad they were more satisfied with their jobs. These are just a handful of the benefits that this study showed studying abroad had on college students.

Now Spain is a popular country for students to study abroad in. In fact, it ranks in the Top Ten Countries that American students study in for their study abroad experiences. So now you have chosen to study abroad (congratulations!)—and you are considering or have chosen to have that experience in Spain (congratulations again!). But it is a whole different world out there (or at least a whole different country) and that in and of itself can be a little bit intimidating. What do you do? How do you plan? Where do you even begin?

You want your experience to be just as positive as all those other people’s experiences who have studied abroad before you—and do not worry, it will be! Here is a hand dandy guide to studying abroad in Spain with a list of things to consider before you make it to Spain that will help you to make the most of your study abroad experience!

The Language Barrier

You have to remember that you chose to study in Spain, whose primary language is not English. Especially for those who have not traveled abroad as much, it can be easy to forget that not everyone everywhere you go will speak English. While English is taught at public schools in Spain, that does not mean that everyone is fluent. Especially older generations who did not have English as a part of their curriculum are less likely to be fluent in English.

That being said, the majority of Spanish residents do not speak English. The official language of Spain is Spanish, also called Castilian, and it is the first language of over 72% of the population. There are then regional languages such as Galician, which is spoken in the region of Galicia and Basque. The regional language spoken in Catalonia and the Balearic Islands is Catalan, while the closely-related Valencian is spoken in the Valencia region.

This does not mean that you need to speak fluent Spanish in order to get by (but it will certainly help!) An important phrase to learn in each country you visit that speaks a language other than English is, “Excuse me, do you speak English?” This will help cut down on any confusion that a language barrier might cause you. If they speak English and can help you, they will. If they cannot speak English, they may still try to help you—or find you someone that can. The people of Spain are known for being incredibly kind and friendly to strangers, helping with directions and the like, so do not let a language barrier deter you.

To help you out, the simplest way to ask “Excuse me, do you speak English?” is “Perdon, hablas ingles?”

Many study abroad programs that take place outside of an English speaking country offer language classes to help get you up to speed. Hopefully, you are able to make the most of that opportunity! There is nothing better than being immersed in a culture and country where the language is regularly used to help you actually learn it, rather than memorize and regurgitate it.

If you are taking these language classes and want to take it a step further or even if you cannot take these classes but want to try and learn the language on your own, there are many ways to do so! You can try apps like Duolingo or programs like Rosetta Stone. These kinds of programs often focus on vocabulary. Learning vocabulary is often the way people learn a new language.

However, one great tip you can try to help learn a new language, especially Spanish that is perhaps a little more unorthodox is to actually memorize entire chunks of text, especially a chunk with many unfamiliar words. It could be a song or a poem, something with a rhythm to help you get the hang of the words. Any kinds of words or verb conjugations that give you trouble—memorize a chunk of text that includes it to help you get past the troubles you are having with it. Working consistently at it every day for a chunk of time as well (devote a chunk of time to a chunk of text) will help you overcome any language barriers you are facing at a surface level and help you improve your language skills as you progress further into the language.

The Weather

Spain is known for its warm climate, an almost tropical climate, if you will. Located in the Mediterranean, people imagine its coastal towns and pristine beaches. However, no country has perfect weather all year round, and you should know what the weather will be like depending on when you will go. Maybe you will have the freedom to choose to study abroad when the weather best fits your preferences, but often you have to go when you can go and fit yourself to how the weather will be.

Spring

This is one of the most beautiful times of year in Spain. The warmth chases away the chill of winter and the weather is very pleasant. Breezes blow in fresh sea air. Northern regions experience heavy rains.

Summer

The heat becomes more stifling in the summer, and mixed in with the wetness of the season, it becomes hot, sticky, and humid. Citizens make off to the coast to help alleviate the pressing heat. This is peak travel time to Spain by tourists.

Autumn

The weather remains warm throughout the fall and only gradually becomes cooler. Beaches are often open even into November. Central Spain gets its heaviest rains then.

Winter

Winter in Spain is unique because it can be both cold and humid at the same time. Harsh winds or snow can erupt. It is also very rainy, as though to make up for the drier months.

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Wardrobe

People often take for granted that the way they dress every day in their home country is not the way that people dress every day in the country that they are studying abroad in. You need to doublecheck and coordinate your wardrobe with the weather, first of all. It might be dry and cold where you usually live, but wet and warm in Spain depending on the season. Make sure that you are dressed accordingly so that you do not get sick and so that you do not stick out like a sore thumb.

Speaking of sticking out like a sore thumb, you may also want to avoid dressing like the tourist you are. Read the following tips to help you avoid looking like a tourist while studying abroad:

  • In Spain, people do not often dress in bright or flashy colors or with very busy patterns. They are more likely to wear subdued colors and discrete, simple patterns that do not catch the eye as aggressively.
  • Printed words or labels on clothing are also fashion no-no’s and you will be easily marked a tourist for wearing clothing like that.
  • People dress much more conservatively in Spain. Modesty is important in their culture, so you will want to honor and respect that. Tank tops and mini skirts are frowned upon, and so is too casual clothing like sweatpants, sweatshirts, and T-shirts.
  • Going along in that vein, wearing shorts will be a dead giveaway that you are a tourist to the country. Pants, skirts, or dresses that go past the knee are much more the norm. This is in spite of the heat, so rather than wearing heavy denim jeans as is the norm in the United States, lighter fabrics are favored.
  • Fashion first. Being stylish, in style, and on top of the trends is very important. You do not dress casually when out and about the town. Even for simple outings, people take great care with their appearances, and you should too.
  • *This is a fashion no-no not only in Spain, but in Europe* — do not wear your sneakers or tennis shoes or risk being immediately spotted as a tourist! Sandals or leather shoes of good quality are much more the accepted footwear.

Etiquette

You should also know that, in other countries, what might be the accepted etiquette there might come as a surprise to you. Some of the accepted etiquette of Spain is very different from that of the United States. How you greet people, the amount of personal space allowed between people, and more, can all be at odds with what you are used to. As long as you have a heads up, you should be able to smoothly delve into these new customs.

  • Shake hands when first meeting a person or group of people. Shake everyone’s hands—men, women, and children alike—and be sure to shake everyone’s hands again when making an exit.
  • Expect to be interrupted—and often—when you speak and to be spoken over.
  • Kissing on the cheeks is a very big part of Spanish etiquette. Both men and women kiss each other on the cheeks, both cheeks too, even as mere acquaintances. A helpful hint: if someone expects to be kissed they will often offer up their cheek to help cue you in. The kiss is always on the cheek, and kisses on the lips are reserved for lovers only. And the kiss on the cheek should not be full on kisses, just simple brushes and pass overs of the lips.
  • Personal space is much narrower in Spain. People will often stand closer and be much more in your face than they would be in the United States. However, just because it is the norm does not mean that you should accept the practice if someone is making you feel uncomfortable. Just be diplomatic about the situation.
  • Do not touch someone that you do not know that well, whether it be a hug, a kiss, a touch on the arm, unless they touch you first to be sure that your touch is welcome.
  • You should always open a gift immediately upon receiving it and in front of the person who gave you the gift so they can enjoy watching you open the gift and so that you can give immediate thanks and recognition to them for the gift.
  • Remain standing unless invited to sit down and make sure that you do not have a designated seat before plunking yourself down.
  • Do not eat unless your host or hostess also begins to eat.
  • This tip should be taken by women especially—do not eat dinner alone in a restaurant or bar alone. However, it is generally acceptable to eat lunch by yourself.
  • Even though tips are built into your final bill, it is still customary to tip. 10% of the bill is generally an acceptable amount for a tip, though of course, it is always up to you how much or how often you tip.

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Cities to Visit

While in Spain, you should take the time to travel around it and experience all that the country has to offer beyond the city your program takes place in. Each city or town is different and has something unique to offer. You can’t fully immerse yourself in a culture until you have seen every facet of it, right?

Cities you cannot miss are of course Barcelona and Madrid. They are two of the biggest and most famous cities in Spain, and for good reason. They have a bustling city life, nightlife, fashion, culture, and attractions galore. But if you have time to visit a few other places, you should definitely put Valencia and Seville on your list. Valencia has a lot of history and is even rumored to be the home of what might actually be the Holy Grail.  Seville is aesthetically pleasing in the way that it was designed, so it is a pleasure simply to walk down the street. Its skyline at sunset is breathtaking.

As always, not every aspect of this guide may fit your experience when studying abroad in Spain, but it can certainly help you out in other ways. It is always better to be safe than sorry in these kinds of situations. However, what is most important is that you enjoy your time studying abroad in Spain and that you make the most of your experience while there. Do not let the opportunity to immerse yourself in a new culture pass you by or slip out of your grasp.

Danielle Wirsansky graduated from FSU with a BA in Theatre, a BA in Creative Writing with a minor in History, and an MA in Modern European History with a minor in Public History. While a graduate student, she served as the Communications Officer for the History Graduate Student Association and President/Artistic Director of White Mouse Theatre Productions. She studied abroad in London, England for the Spring 2015 semester at FSU's study center for the Playwriting Program and interned for the English National Theatre of Israel in Summer of 2015. Her first musical, City of Light, opened as part of FSU's New Horizons Festival in Spring of 2016. She has also won the MRCE and URCAA Research grants from FSU. In the past, she served as the Marketing Director for the FSU Student Theatre Association, the intern for the Holocaust Education Resource Council, and the research assistant of Prof. Nathan Stoltzfus. She has previously written for Context Florida (Contributing Writer), USA Today College (Contributing Writer), Sheroes of History (Contributing Blogger), No(le)Reservations (Contributing Blogger), Female, Reloaded (Arts/Entertainment Editor) , I Want a Buzz Magazine (intern), Mandarin Newsline (youth arts update columnist), Distink Designs (Guest blogger), whatscheaper.com (associate editor), escapewizard.com (associate editor), Spark TLH (Contributor), the Tallahassee Democrat (contributor), Elan Literary Magazine (Head of Marketing), and the Improviser Newspaper (Opinions Editor). Danielle has been lucky to be writing for Uloop since 2015 and to have served as the FSU Campus Editor since 2015.

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