Author: Henry Cohn
My time in Salamanca so far has been fascinating and relatively stress-free. As potentially one of the last British Erasmus students I feel privileged to be here and able to experience something completely out of the ordinary without needing to worry too much about the logistics. That said, when you’re poorly organised like me it is by no means easy.
Sensible advice before you go would be to make sure your Learning Agreement has been signed by all three parties, find lecture timetables, and of course complete any requirements sent from the university regarding matriculation (ie. health and travel insurance). I only did the last of these before going, having signed and submitted the Learning Agreement in May and forgetting about it until after the flight. Nonetheless this didn’t hinder my ability to attend classes from the start of term, although it did scare me into making “safe” choices which may not have been for the best – taking only afternoon lectures in first year subjects so that I would be able to follow about the same classmates and not worry about timetable changes. First year subjects here are by no means the easiest choices: I haven’t studied any equivalents of them before, and they almost all entail oral exams.
In fact if you want a relaxing year abroad I wouldn’t recommend Salamanca. In stark difference from Glasgow, I have to sit through a marathon of lectures every afternoon Monday-Thursday in the same room with only ten minute breaks, and no lecture slides on Moodle to rely on if I miss/don’t understand them. Examined classes (prácticas) began in early October and have been weekly for every subject since, with resources uploaded as little as a day beforehand, and no apparent equivalent to Good Cause if I miss one.
When you arrive on your year abroad you may, like me, feel out of your depth due to the language barrier, but it’s a great error to believe your Spanish is worse than everyone else’s English (or worse than other European students’ Spanish) – while informal conversations are still difficult for me, I sometimes find that when people regard my hesitation to respond to them as a reason to test their English it makes communication harder – in sum, communication is a struggle regardless of which language you’re speaking, so you might as well work on the one you came to learn. Of course the routine above has dramatically improved my listening comprehension in Spanish without me feeling as though I need to put myself out there in as many social situations as possible to achieve this. Studying law is a great way to learn a language since you learn new vocabulary along with everyone else and get a detailed practical dimension to its meaning. My experience of the economic policy class taught to law students on the other hand has been somewhat less positive, but as a whole it has been much better for my Spanish than any kind of formal education I’ve had in Scotland.
The staff and students are all quite friendly and accommodating of foreign students too, which makes life much easier. Teachers here make no pretence of evaluating work anonymously; on the contrary one lecturer from what I could understand told us that she recognises the faces of people who turn up to classes and takes this into account during the oral exam. But what we might call a failure of meritocracy is a much-needed shelter for intermediate Spanish speakers who know they won’t be picked on and made an example of, giving me the confidence to ask stupid questions and give stupid answers.
Despite this it is unpleasant to see that a strain of teaching by fear of public humiliation and jokes at an unprepared student’s expense is still active here. Spanish teachers have an accurate reputation for telling students off and complaining about anything, from getting to class five minutes late to looking at your phone to not studying enough, the tenor of which seems to me unnecessarily harsh. Even one of my less strict lecturers got angry at a student for leaving his lecture early for a timetable clash, jovially explaining to us in half-witted relation to the subject after letting him leave that although such conduct may not break a cast-iron legal or disciplinary norm, he still breached the graces of a good upbringing.
But I feel that I’m receiving a very decent education here. Sometimes described as “the Spanish Oxford” due to the universities’ medieval roots (although it is more historically comparable to Bologna), Salamanca has some of the self-assured pomposity that you would expect from that comparison though not quite the same rankings; however, living in a city this small with so much historical and cultural significance still makes what you learn seem more tangible and important, even from the slick, modern campus where the law faculty is.
Yet the demands of my studies haven’t stopped me from having a good social life here, and I have made some very good friends here though they are mainly (surprise surprise) other Erasmus students. As you may be able to tell from the general tone of this, Salamanca doesn’t have the most exciting night-life in Spain, although it does hold up well considering its size for small quirky cultural things like street parties (don’t miss out on “September fest” in the Barrio del Oeste) and there is always something weird going on in the Plaza Mayor, even on Sundays. All in all it has been an eye-opening experience so far, that I would highly recommend to anyone who reads this and thinks they can hack it.