Bimbo Banter

What Learning a Second Language Taught Me About Communicating in My First

  • Wildcard
  • July 6, 2016
  • by Maddy Madrazo

Me and efe

This past spring I studied abroad in Madrid, Spain. During this time I travelled, drank sangria, ate a nauseating amount of Spanish ham and even attended a bullfight. While each was incredible, it was my immersion in the Spanish language that proved most valuable.

Between living with a Spanish host family, interning in an international news agency, and tutoring two young girls in English, I had ample opportunities to hear and speak Spanish. The combination of these experiences not only improved my Spanish skills but also left me with lessons to apply to my business communications in English.  

1. Details don’t always matter.

Detail-oriented, I obsess over specifics. Upon my arrival In Madrid, I was often frustrated during basic conversations that were not meant to be stressful simply because I was unable to translate every word or because I didn’t know the words to articulate my exact thoughts. When I stopped focusing on translating as precisely as possible, my ability to understand and speak Spanish improved.

In the same way that focusing on the big picture helped me decipher the core message of my conversations in Spanish, a focus on this “core message” is also relevant to business communication because ultimately your audience remembers the big picture, far less often the minor details.

2. Be confident.

Upon my arrival in Spain I had a broad reserve of Spanish vocabulary and grammar structures to pull from, but my ability to comfortably converse did not progress until I gained the confidence to make mistakes in conversation. Afraid of sounding stupid, for a long time I dreaded being asked a question in Spanish and only initiated conversations with others if necessary. Everything changed when I focused less on the embarrassment that accompanies misspeaking, and more on the message I was trying to communicate.

Confidence is also key in business communication, as it bestows a speaker with credibility and strengthens his or her message.

3. Focus on feeling.

Oddly, I don’t remember all the details of some of my most memorable conversations with Spaniards. What I do remember is how people like my host father Alejandro, the doorman Manuel or my fellow intern Isabel made me feel.

The passion in Alejandro’s voice when describing politics, Manuel’s use of hand gestures when explaining the time his phone was stolen, or Isabel’s quick pace while elaborating on her thesis not only completed my understanding of their discussions, but left me wanting to hear them speak more.

In business communication, more personal elements of communication (tone of voice, body language, rhythm, etc.) as well as feelings are often thought secondary to speech content; however, I now know that personal communicative cues combined with the feeling a speaker proves able to instill in an audience (i.e. via storytelling) are what set apart the good speakers from the great ones.   

While I’ve often wondered if it is possible to fully and accurately express myself in Spanish, I now believe that perhaps precision is not what matters. As Maya Angelou said, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

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