Global Correspondents, Semester Abroad Brinn’s Lessons in Fluency: How to get a root canal in Spanish

March 30, 2023
By Brinn Gammer, College '24

CASA Santiago: Chilean Universities Program, Chile

Brinn is one of the Semester Abroad Global Correspondents writing and sharing her experience abroad during the Spring 2023 semester. Follow along with the group of correspondents on our blog and look out for their images on the @pennabroad Instagram feed.

Before arriving to Santiago de Chile—and even when I was perusing study abroad programs months beforehand—I knew that I had only one goal for this semester: return completely fluent in Spanish. My knowledge of the language, I felt, had grown significantly in the year prior. Whereas in my spring 2022 semester I was terrified to speak about Latin American literature in SPAN212, I was now headed to take all of my subject courses in my second language. Confident as I may have been that I could study and take classes, I’ve since come to realize the existence of an ultimate level of fluency—basically, how to get a root canal in Spanish.

To save this blog post from too many boring details, I’ll sum it up quickly: right before leaving the US, I had a filling on my first (small!) cavity. However, over the course of my first three weeks here in Santiago, it became clear that something was wrong, especially when the one side of my jaw was puffed up like a bowling ball. As inconvenient as it may be to need emergency dental procedures in your first couple weeks of study abroad, I must say that there’s something to be learned from quickly pacing into an emergency room, unsure if the strange looks the staff are giving you are from your language abilities or your swollen face.

My realization about fluency happened during the root canal, when the odontologist instructed “Abre la boca”—open your mouth. Without thinking, without translating or pausing, I just did it. Such instruction is definitely to be expected during a dental treatment, but it was indubitably amazing to realize that I could live my life in another language.

Probably due to my lack of travel experience prior to this semester, I’ve never before gotten to experience daily life in a different culture. Maybe this point goes without saying, and maybe I should’ve expected it... But expecting and living are two different experiences entirely. While I used to think that the pinnacle of fluency was being able to get your point across in another language and thinking without actively translating, my first month here has made me amend my goal. I’m more or less fluent already, but I’m not at the level I want to be at just yet. Between the way other students my age chismear—or chitchat—using slang, the names of different assignment types that I’ve only ever known in English (What’s the difference
between an aporte and an encargo? What about a ponderación?), and many other facets of daily living, I now know that I’m a bit farther from native bilingualism than I originally thought.

It’s clear that no matter how many Duolingo lessons I complete, how many language courses I take, or how much I talk to friends and family in Spanish, nothing will compare to the immersion of being abroad. Becoming natively fluent, I think, requires challenging yourself to talk with native speakers every chance you get and trying to leave most of your previous expectations at home. I’ve loved every experience I’ve had in Santiago up to this point—whether it be sitting in class trying to absorb as much information as possible, travelling to cultural centers and indigenous reservations, or heading to the beach with friends. The only thing that makes this journey more enriching is the ability to constantly practice my passion for language.

So, while I don’t recommend the experience of a root canal to anyone per se, there are palpable benefits to having intense, real-life practice in another language. And, looking on the bright side, I know now a ton of tooth-related vocabulary. 

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The Semester Abroad (SA) program offers undergraduate students the opportunity to study in a new global community through extended study for a semester or year. Penn Abroad partners with top institutions around the globe and collaborates with Penn’s undergraduate schools to offer programs for students across academic disciplines.

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