Learning Spanish and Making New Friends Abroad

“I stopped telling myself that I’m lost. I’m not. I’m on a road with no destination, I’m just driving with the hope that I’ll find a place that I like and I’ll stay there. I know I’m not lost, I’m on my way.” – Ahunnaya

My interview with Cate was similar to our first interview in that her answers were short and, of course, her humor came out in full swing again. However, this time it was especially different because she was more settled into her life in San Lorenzo de El Escorial. She has become acclimated in a short time. She continues to persevere by learning Spanish and also making new friends abroad.

Looking back at her first trimester goals, I asked some specific follow-up questions.

In reviewing our first interview, I noticed the theme of learning Spanish. I know it is a lifelong goal of hers. I asked, “How are you learning Spanish?” Cate replied, “I see a Spanish tutor once a week and I go to a Spanish Conversation Group for foreigners. My tutor recommends I read aloud in Spanish. So I do that for about an hour each day. I feel the process is excruciatingly slow.”

Sounding Stupid Learning a New Language

What stood out to me from Cate’s first interview was that she mentioned “sounding stupid” when trying to learn a new language. Personally, I know; I have been there, and anyone reading who has attempted to learn and speak a foreign language probably can relate to it as well. So I followed up to see if that feeling had subsided. Her response was very interesting, “ I feel ashamed to speak in Spanish because I was raised to speak grammatically correct in English. My brain is having a very hard time letting go of those constraints and just… speaking, regardless of the correctness.”

While living in Madrid, I have been interested to know how many teachers are learning Spanish through immersion. Cate’s town is further away from the tourist areas in the center of Madrid that have a tendency to have more English speaking areas. I asked, “Has learning Spanish helped with the immersion process in your town?” Cate replied, “It has helped a little with my Spanish but I spend a lot of time helping Spanish people with their English. Now, I am developing friendships in town, which is helping me learn Spanish while becoming immersed in the culture. It has been a slow process,” she said.

learning Spanish and making friends

Cate’s main goal is to have a basic, conversational level of Spanish without having to concentrate on each word. As Cate was saying this to me, I was thinking to myself, “this woman really is incredible.” She just had a conversation in Spanish with the server in the restaurant. I guess her perceptions of conversations and what others see as a conversation are altogether different. Cate is well on her way to achieving her life-long goal of learning Spanish.

What is a typical day at your school like?

“I arrive at 9:15, have a break with all of the other teachers from 12:00 to 12:30 and leave at 1:45. Typically I have one free period a day. I work together with the school’s bilingual coordinator who teaches Natural Science and Arts.”

How many people do you work with (auxiliars included) and how many classes do you teach?

“I work directly with only one teacher and spend the entire day with him. It’s a small school with only one class of students per grade (1st through 6th) and additionally, there is one other auxiliar.”

Communication in the school and outside of school:

Are you forming working relationships with coworkers?

“I have a decent working relationship with the one teacher with whom I spend my days. There is a cordial relationship with most of the other teachers but I see them only during the break.”

learning Spanish

Are you forming bonds with students?

“I like to think so! With some of them at least. I live and work in a very small town and all of the students live within a half-mile of me and the school. Every time I leave the house to go anywhere I run into at least some of them and am greeted very warmly.”

Does the school foster the creation and maintenance of these relationships inside and outside of the classroom?

“I wouldn’t say that they foster them, no. What relationships do occur happen organically.”

What is your favorite part of the day?

“Leaving! Five hours in a primary school is draining.”

How is material being taught to students?

“For Natural Science the students have textbooks. For Arts classes, all grades usually color pages that the teacher provides. Occasionally they are asked to draw an original picture. With the first graders, there is a lot more interaction as we teach them “actions.” The school also uses videos for English vocabulary and the majority of the rest is teaching from the textbooks with the accompanying video displays (smart boards.)”

How do you prepare your lessons for each class? If you don’t plan lessons, how do you prepare for class?

“I prepare for class by taking several deep breaths (and sometimes a prayer.) My contribution is just reading from the book either text or questions so there is nothing to prepare.”

Do you work at a bilingual school? What does that mean to you? What does that mean according to the Comunidad of Madrid?

“I do work at a bilingual school. To me, it means that the students are being exposed to English on a daily basis and that for some, a spark will be ignited and they will want to continue studying it. For most of the students at my school, their primary language is Arabic, Spanish is their second language and so English is actually their third. I presume that to the Comunidad of Madrid, providing bilingual educations offers their students a chance to be more competitive in the global job market.”

What standards are your classroom teachers using to measure the performance of their students?

“The students are graded by typical tests taken from their textbooks and their classroom behavior is weighted as well.”

Does your school have a set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills will help their students succeed?

“I have no idea. I assume that amongst the teachers and the director there is a shared set of goals.”

Looking back at our first Teach Abroad series interview, what have you learned most about yourself since your arrival to Spain both in the classroom and out of the classroom?

“I have learned that I am most definitely NOT meant to be a primary school teacher. I love playing with children and I love their innocence, curiosity and unspoiled playfulness. Something I do not love is trying to keep them in their chairs and paying attention. I have a whole new level of respect for teachers as a group. Outside of the classroom, I’ve learned that, apparently, frustration can’t kill me, because I have experienced levels of frustration that I never knew existed. I have learned that I don’t like to travel to new places alone as much as I thought I would and that there is no graceful way to face plant on cobblestone.”

Living abroad and teaching

What are your new goals and/or modifications to previous goals for 2017?

“I am redoubling my efforts with my Spanish studies and there are several more places in Spain that I absolutely have to see before I leave!”

In Cate’s first interview, she mentioned her ideal job description as being in a fast-paced environment with the ability to leave the job at work. She said, “essentially, I’m a pretty ridiculous person, and I can’t be happy doing anything serious all day. It just doesn’t suit me.” The role of teaching seems like it would fit this job description pretty well.

Knowing What You Want and Learning Spanish

What don’t you like? Cate answered, “I never wanted to be a manager or disciplinarian at work. I want to play with the kids- not discipline them.” Hearing this answer from Cate made me realize how much she has evolved since our first meeting at orientation. Now, she had made the decision that not only is she ridiculous and ok with it but she likes to have fun with kids. Cate has come a long way! She’s checking off her list of “to dos” and goals day-by-day and is thriving in her environment.

I looked up at Cate and realized that I have watched her evolve from day one at CIEE orientation; I know our time in Spain is coming closer to an end as we are being asked to continue our contracts. Some will either decide to leave and some will decide to stay. Cate hasn’t determined that answer yet. Time will tell and things will certainly be very different the next time I speak with her. She will either be staying or heading back. Stay tuned to see what “the rock” will be doing. I am really looking forward to hearing where she will be traveling next in order to use those basic Spanish conversational skills and making new friends!

by Leesa Truesdell