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Student Takes Her Language Skills Abroad

Mariah Nelson in front of the Plaza de Espana in Sevilla, Spain.

Mariah Nelson in front of the Plaza de Espana in Sevilla, Spain. 


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Mariah Nelson was a freshman in college when she realized her language skills were valuable and worth pursuing. She had studied Spanish throughout elementary, middle and high school, which gave her a rudimentary understanding of the language. Her basic Spanish comprehension gave her the ability to help someone who needed it.

During the second semester of her first year here at UW-Madison, Nelson volunteered weekly at The River Food Pantry with Badger Volunteers. At the pantry, she escorted visitors through the process, helping them pick out food. One day, towards the end of her shift, a gentleman came through who only spoke Spanish, and didn’t understand a lot of English. While other staffers were unintentionally overwhelming the visitor with English conversation, Nelson offered her help using her Spanish skills.

“Even though I didn’t really have a ton of Spanish ability at that point, you could just tell he was really grateful and he got a better gist of what was going on,” Nelson said. “That was really the first time I used my Spanish skills in a non-classroom experience.”

Prior to that encounter, Nelson said she was on the fence about whether or not Spanish was something worth pursuing for her. She attributes that experience at the pantry as being the turning point when she knew proficiency in another language would be a valuable skill.

Abroad in Sevilla

Flash forward to her junior year at UW-Madison, Nelson, who is pursuing a major in Management and Human Resources and a certificate in Spanish, prepared to take her Spanish language skills abroad to Sevilla, Spain. Ever since she first arrived on campus, she had heard a lot of people talk about studying abroad, and it initially sounded like an unrealistic opportunity for her.

“The more you talk to people about it, the more you get excited that it’s even an opportunity for you here at the University,” Nelson said. “When I was applying I was still undecided that it was even something I wanted to do.”

She views herself as more of a safe personality, and was hesitant about traveling so far from home for such an extended period of time. Although she knew it was an entirely Spanish-speaking program, she was still surprised at the level of language skills she needed to communicate effectively in Spain.  

“Learning Spanish in the classroom is so different than taking your language abilities into an actual conversational setting,” Nelson said of the immersive language program.

From her first step off the plane in Sevilla, to her last goodbye before she returned home in May, everything was in Spanish. Nelson opted for a homestay, meaning she lived with a family who primarily spoke Spanish with her. The immersion program integrates students directly with the city and culture.

Nelson’s day-to-day schedule consisted of spending a decent amount of time speaking Spanish. When she wasn’t conversing with her host family in their apartment or practicing Spanish in class, she was exploring the city. The first two weeks of her program included an intensive Spanish course, where students focused on grammar and reading comprehension. After those two weeks, everything was in Spanish, even her business courses.

“We had a lot of opportunities throughout the program to connect with Spanish students who were studying in the business program,” Nelson said. “At the first few events, the Spanish students spoke only English and the American students spoke only Spanish, so it was like a double-loop learning.”

The only time her program allowed her to speak English was when the group traveled to Morocco. During the trip, her program met with students in Morocco and the only language they had in common was English. She said this was one of her favorite trips abroad because she was exposed to a new way of life and was able to experience the Moroccan culture, which Nelson said is “completely different from Spain.”

Back on Campus

When she returned to campus after studying abroad, Nelson was initially apprehensive about how her Spanish skills abroad would transfer back to campus. During her first semester back, she enrolled in a Spanish phonetics class which studied different dialects and their pronunciations. This ended up being the perfect class for her after returning from abroad because it still challenged her. It felt like a good addition to the knowledge she already had, Nelson said, and also helped her understand why the people in Sevilla spoke the way they did based on different phonetic processes. 

As a senior finishing her last semester of undergrad at UW-Madison, Nelson said she hopes to be using her Spanish skills in the near future. As a Human Resources major, she envisions a job within HR that will utilize her bilingual ability. Within the next five years, she set the goal for herself to be a certified medical interpreter, even if it’s something she’s pursuing on the side.

“I think it’s becoming increasingly important to have those interpretation options because our country is becoming more and more diverse in terms of the languages we speak,” Nelson said, in reference to using her Spanish skills for translation purposes in the future.

Advice for Future Language Learners

As for future Badgers looking to study languages, Nelson has some good advice.

“Keep an open mind. The first couple classes that are the pre-reqs can sometimes be tough, but once you get through that and delve further into the language, it’s going to be well-worth having to take those classes in the beginning.”

She also wants future students to know that the opportunities to use the language aren’t always going to be handed to them. Students might have to go and search for those opportunities, but when they find them, they’re going to be the best learning they’ll get with the language.

For anyone thinking of studying abroad with a language, Nelson encourages them to go for it.

“I personally feel the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in a space where you have to use it – like studying abroad. You know more than you think,” Nelson said.

 For more information about studying languages on campus, go to and for more information about studying abroad with a language, visit




Story by Emily Curtis, Language Institute

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