Unexpected truth about Spain: Sometimes, when you speak Spanish to a Spaniard, they speak English back to you. For them, it’s “easier” because we’re heavily accented and stumble at times. Of course, they do the same things in English, but that’s irrelevant to them. Sometimes, the English they speak back to you is an exclamation that they don’t speak English… after you’ve spoken to them in Spanish. That is upsetting. If I wanted to speak to them in English, I would have. That, however, is not why I decided to spend a semester in Spain. I came to Spain to get better at Spanish, to speak it, to practice and learn and interact with the language. Not to be told to switch back to my native language.
This rarely, if ever, happened to me in Salamanca. Salamanca is a university town more than familiar with foreign students. There is a very large “Erasmus” (European study abroad exchange) population in the small town, and the citizens of Salamanca are very patient with their language-learners, waiting for them to think of the right words when they get stuck and gently coaching them to the proper form when they make mistakes. Shop owners, teachers, street artists, everyone wants to help them learn. There are designated language exchanges for those who would like to practice other languages with foreign students instead of Spanish. Spanish is by far the default, however. A lot of people, especially older people, hardly even speak English there, so they prefer broken Spanish to English.
Madrid, however, is an entirely different story. Almost everywhere I went would pick up on the fact that we were Americans and switch to English even if my friends and I tried to speak Spanish with them. They would bring us English menus instead of Spanish ones by default, would ask if we needed people to explain things to us, and one man even had the whole “I don’t speak English reaction” to my asking what a menu item was (in Spanish). It was unbelievably frustrating for my friends and I in a language-intensive immersion program and made me so happy I had chosen a smaller, less touristy, more academic location for my semester abroad.