Lonely through language

Before starting my year abroad, I didn’t really know what to expect of my regional allocation: The Basque Country. I knew there were two co-official languages, that perhaps I might hear a little Basque in my workplace, and that it rains a lot.

I am studying French and Spanish, and have already completed my time living in France, where I chose to take on an internship in Paris. Now is the time for my Spanish to shine as I spend a year working as a British Council English Language Assistant.

I can’t fault the beauty of the Basque Country, the wonderful, welcoming colleagues with whom I work, or the incredible group of friends I have made since moving to Spain last September. But something coming to the surface, especially as I write this on my lunch break in the school, is the loneliness you can sometimes experience on a year abroad.

Alice in Wanderland Diary (15)

Of course there is the geographical element of loneliness; living away from home and family, but after a few years living away at university in Leeds, in Geneva as an Au Pair and in Paris for my term abroad, the distance isn’t the main factor coming into play, but the language.

Alice in Wanderland Diary (16)

Whilst living in France, both in Geneva and in Paris, I was able to understand the language, and communicate with the locals. There were always times when my language brain would temporarily cut out, and I’d miss part of a conversation, but generally I always had a pretty good understanding of what was going on.

Living in the Basque Country has proved to be a huge challenge. I can muster up a basic “Eskerrik asko” (Thank you) and “Agur” (See you later) when I need to, but have no further understanding of the language, the vocabulary or the grammatical structures, which differ greatly to any other language. I wasn’t aware before my very first day at work that my school was a Basque primary school. Lessons are taught in their local language, children chat in my lessons in Basque and the staff room is often full of Basque conversations, turning most of the school day in to a blur.


It might be easy for an outsider to see this as a perfect opportunity to launch in to a Spanish conversation and join the group, but come and be a fly on the wall for a day and you’ll notice it’s easier said than done. Sometimes I pick up on an odd Basque word here and there, but by the time I have formed a sentence in Spanish to join the conversation, the moment has passed and the group is laughing at the next joke.

Should I laugh? I could try a laugh to feel part of the group, but risk the embarrassing moment when a teacher wonders what I found funny, if I haven’t understood the conversation for the past twenty minutes.

I could ask the others to speak in Spanish, given that it’s their second language and one they know inside out. But do I risk insulting a group of people who are so passionate about their language, culture and traditions? Every day is a spiral of decisions to be made, in an environment where I am a pretty small fish in a pretty large pond.

Working in the Basque Country has so many advantages; a beautiful setting and kind people. But with it comes a constant sense of not completely fitting in through not knowing the language, something I didn’t think would be a huge problem on my Spanish year abroad.

Thank you for reading,


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