Marks returns after year in Spain
Spending a formative year in a foreign country is quite possibly the fastest way an adolescent can transition into an adult. Fairfield resident Jonah Marks can attest to that.
Marks, 17, returned earlier this month from a yearlong Rotary exchange program in Spain. He lived in the northern port city of Santander, where he stayed with three host families during the year and attended a local high school where all the classes were taught in Spanish.
The young man from Fairfield had a daunting task ahead of him when he arrived in the country in late August of 2013. He had taken a few years of Spanish at Fairfield High School, but was still far from fluent in the language. He was also the only American at the high school, which meant he either had to make friends with the Spaniards or have no friends at all.
Twelve months later, Marks feels like a different person. He said he matured immensely during his time on the Iberian Peninsula. He sought out the Rotary exchange program and did all the paperwork for it, which included managing his immigration documents and classes in Spain.
“When you go on an exchange like this, you can’t expect someone else to manage your schoolwork and visa,” he said.
Speaking Spanish is now second nature to him. Being the only American was no impediment at all as he made friends easily and has corresponded with them on a regular basis since returning to the states. A few of his Spanish friends went to the airport the day he left to bid him goodbye.
Marks said going on the exchange was one of the most fulfilling things he’s ever done in his life. Living in a foreign country with different customs and a different language proved to be a challenge at first, though.
“I thought I knew a fair amount of Spanish, but when I arrived, I realized I wasn’t as prepared as I thought I was,” he said. “I’ve talked to a lot of people and that was a pretty common realization.”
One big difference Marks had to become accustomed to was the accent of Spain. In Fairfield, he had learned Latin American Spanish, which differs in pronunciation and certain vocabulary from the Spanish in Europe.
“They speak a lot faster in Spain,” he said. “The first bit is difficult. You have to do your best to push through it, but after that it becomes really cool. For the first two or three months, it’s all you’re thinking about. You’re just trying to make yourself understood.”
Marks talked with a few people before he left who told him that if they ever went on an exchange, it would be to an English-speaking country because they were afraid of the language barrier.
“Learning a language happens so naturally that by Christmas you’ll stop worrying about it,” Marks said. “The last month I was there, the language was not a problem at all. The first few days I was back in the United States, I kept accidentally speaking Spanish to my family.”
Marks said he insisted on speaking Spanish the entire time he was in Spain, even to his friends who had a handle on English. He found going to the movie theater was a good way to learn Spanish, too. After a year immersed in the language, he is now fluent in Spanish, and said that speaking it is nearly as comfortable as conversing in his native English.
He would like to put his Spanish skills to use in his future endeavors, which he said could include teaching English in Latin America.
The language was the largest obstacle Marks faced in adjusting to life in his host country, but there were other obstacles, too, many of which having to do with the different daily routine in Spain. The school day lasted from 8:30 a.m. until 2:25 p.m. and did not include a lunch, but rather a couple of breaks for snacks. Marks usually didn’t eat lunch until about 3 p.m. when he returned to his host parents’ home.
Most Spaniards take an afternoon nap every day called a “siesta.” Marks said nearly every business shuts its doors from 2-5 p.m., which was inconvenient for the foreigners who saw that as an ideal time to go shopping.
On the weekends, Marks and his friends liked going to the beach and sailing, which is very popular in Spain. On school nights, he had free time to go to the gym, play soccer or rugby, catch a movie or study his textbooks. In Santander, Marks took chemistry and physics classes taught in Spanish just like the other students at the high school.
“I still had to do homework,” he said. “It’s not like this was a vacation.”
Marks performed all the household chores his adoptive brothers and sisters had to do since he was considered part of the family. One chore he didn’t have to worry about was drying his clothes in a drier, because none of the families he stayed with had them. He said nearly everyone dried their clothes by hanging them on a clothesline.
One of his host families ate supper at 9 p.m., and another ate closer to 10 p.m. It took him a long time to adjust to such a late eating schedule, and it has taken him just as long to adjust back to the earlier times now that he’s in America.
“I still find myself eating at 9 or 10 o’clock at night now that I’m here,” he said. “It’s taken me longer to adjust to that than it did to adjust to the jet lag.”
Spanish cuisine is heavy on meat and seafood, Marks said. He said he loved the food his host families prepared. However, the country did lack one thing he craved – peanut butter.
The high school in Santander differed from Marks’s hometown school in a number of ways. For starters, none of the classrooms in Santander were decorated. They consisted solely of desks and a chalkboard.
“My class had a projector, and we thought that was pretty cool,” Marks said.
Instead of the students changing rooms throughout the day as they do in America, the teachers are the ones who bounce from class to class in Spain. The teacher usually lectures for 45-60 minutes.
Marks said daily assignments are rarer in Spain and that most students spend their time studying the notes they’ve taken in class. Group projects are also unusual in Spain, and that memorizing the material is stressed instead. Marks said he only did a couple of group projects all year.
“The classes in Spain are more advanced, and the students know a lot, but they may not know how to work in groups as well,” he said. “I prefer the American system.”
Marks has a few words of advice for anyone planning to spend a significant amount of time in a foreign country.
“Prioritize spending time with the locals instead of other Americans,” he said. “It will help you learn the culture and the language much more thoroughly.”