What I Know Now About the Spanish Language

When I moved to Madrid, Spain to teach English, I didn’t know that I would also end up being a student of the Spanish language. Here I was, teaching English by day, learning new Spanish words and expressions, and training my hearing to the Spanish accent by night. As a Latina born and raised in the US, I grew up listening to, and muttering my first words in Spanish thanks to my Mexican parents. A gift I truly appreciate, and one that I knew I surely had a good understanding of. That was, of course, until I moved to Spain and learned that I had some more learning to do. Here are five things I learned about the Spanish language, as a native speaker myself.

1. Not All Spanish Language Is the Same

I consider myself to be fully bilingual in English and Spanish. I can write, read, speak and understand Spanish pretty well. However, the more I spoke with Spaniards and the more I listened to conversations around me at work, and with my host parents, the more I started to question what I thought I actually knew about the Spanish language. 

I realized through funny mistakes and misunderstandings on both sides that Mexican Spanish was actually very different from Spain Spanish in many ways. From the differences in accent, to vocabulary words and slang, to different meanings of words used in Spain vs. in Mexico. It was a lot that I did not anticipate, maybe foolishly, but it made for great learning experiences. I had plenty of funny ice-breakers with strangers. I grew a deeper appreciation for the Spanish language. 

For instance, let’s take the word “heater” which in Mexican Spanish, we would say calenton. In Spain, they would say estufa, which means cooking stove in Mexican Spanish. The funny thing here is that it makes total sense. However, it’s just not a word I would use for a heater. Yet that was the word they used in Spain.  

Another quick example is the word “straw.” In Mexico, we would call this popote, while in Spain, the word is pajita. Two completely different sounding words that can cause quite a moment of confusion for both Mexicans and Spaniards.  My mom learned this the funny/hard way when she was visiting me in Madrid — thanks, mom! 

I was suddenly hearing Spanish words for everyday things that sounded like a whole different language at times. It was intimidating in the beginning. However, I realized the grand opportunity to re-learn the Spanish language in a country where Spanish was the main language.

2. I Unexpectedly Relearned a Language I Thought I Already Knew

Moving to Spain meant a lot of changes and adjustments. One of them was expanding my knowledge of the Spanish language, which I did not expect. Relearning Spanish in Spain allowed me to learn words I didn’t know in Spanish to begin with, which was surprisingly refreshing.  Every day I was learning new vocabulary words that back home, I would have never used. For example, insurance? In Spain, it’s seguro. I would have said aseguranza which is not an actual Spanish word. It’s Spanglish. And like this, I learned a lot. I realized that senderismo meant hiking, andar meant to go for a walk, and nevera meant refrigerator. I used completely different words for these words. 

I’ll admit that the first few months, the constant and unexpected relearning of my native Spanish felt a bit intimidating. It was a bit of an identity crisis each time someone didn’t understand me, or vice versa. I had always identified as a fluent Spanish speaker. All of a sudden I faced the challenge of not being able to communicate with my peers that well. 

I felt nervous to speak, and even dumb at times. However, being an English teacher, I was reminded every day by my students what the process to learn a new language was like. I learned how to be ok with feeling silly at times. It’s not that serious, and it can be fun to learn new words in a foreign language. At the end of the day, I was grateful to know the Spanish language, whether it was slightly different or not.

3. Speaking Spanglish and Other Dialects

Maybe Spanglish is not a fully recognized language. But the truth is, there is a whole population of us that speak Spanglish in the US. Approximately 40 million people in the US speak Spanglish, a hybrid language of English and Spanish. This “agreed upon” language came about after the Mexican-American War of 1948. A unique combination of sounds, words, and meanings became widespread during the 50’s and 60s  with the waves of immigrants from Latin America coming to the US. 

After coming back from Spain, my new workplace in the US involved a lot of Spanish speaking — a continuation of my learning and appreciation of the Spanish language. This time, however, with my recent experience of being in Spain, I couldn’t help but think about this other variation of Spanish – Spanglish. I thought about the different versions of Spanglish spoken throughout the US the more I interacted with other different Spanish speakers in the US. The Spanglish that people in Texas and California speak is different from the one in Florida, or New York for instance. It reminded me of the differences in Spanish spoken in Andalucia vs. the Basque Country within Spain, or the different dialects of Spanish spoken all throughout Latin America.  Different, yet similarly understood. 

What I know now about the Spanish language is that it’s much more diverse, complex, beautiful, and rich than I ever really thought it was. I cultivated such gratitude to know this beautiful language. In fact, I’m now learning a few of the different dialects in other Spanish-speaking countries. I’m paying more attention to other countries and their specific and beautiful ways of speaking Spanish — from their accents, to their slang, and unique and cultural Spanish words. 

4. The Spanish Language Is Much Richer Than I Thought

I began to experience a newfound appreciation for Spanish after being in Spain for just a few weeks. I came to a realization of the differences between Spain and Mexican Spanish dialects. Every single day I learned a new expression or word. I had never really realized the richness of the diversity – the bending of the meaning of words that differ between countries and cultures. How amazing is it that approximately 18 countries in the world speak Spanish, with each having their own version of it? That one expression can mean one thing in one country, and it can mean something completely different in another? It’s exciting, funny, wonderful, and extremely interesting.

Another very interesting thing I learned about the Spanish language was the complexities of Spanish, and how it’s spoken differently not only between Mexicans and Spaniards, but also within Spain regionally. That was a whole other level of learning that allowed me to dive deeper into how rich — culturally and linguistically — Spanish is. What I know now about the Spanish language is that language in and of itself is such a powerful tool to communicate and get to know a culture. It is also an incredibly helpful tool to make friends, connections, get out of your comfort zone, and to appreciate something you already knew, just a bit deeper.

5. The Spanish Language Gave Lasting Friendships

Whether I am at home, or I am living in Spain, knowing the Spanish language has always allowed me to make friends with other Spanish speakers. It’s a common thread that connects people, knowing the same language. Although it makes sense, it rings especially true when traveling. Whenever I reflect on my living experience in Spain, I can’t help but feel even more gratitude for speaking Spanish, no matter how different it sounded to Spaniards. 

Speaking Spanish allowed me to connect with my co-workers, have conversations, learn how friendships are made in a foreign country, and also share more of myself authentically with locals. Whether it was a conversation over cultural differences at dinner with my host parents, or sharing my travel plans with my co-workers and getting suggestions from them, speaking Spanish facilitated my ability to connect with the people and culture of Spain so much. In the same way, it was an opportunity to share not only Mexican culture with my host parents, but also cook for them a Mexican feast. If I hadn’t known Spanish, my experience would have potentially looked very different. 

The Wrap-Up

The irony of it all was that when I first arrived in Spain, my Spanish host family, co-workers, and friends didn’t understand me completely because I spoke Mexican-Spanish and Spanglish. However, when I came back home, my Mexican family and friends struggled to understand some of the expressions I was using.  

Now, I had learned and expanded my own knowledge of the Spanish language, while living and immersing myself in Spanish culture and dialect. I used words like que guay, estropear, and other interesting words unique to Spain that I couldn’t let go of. 

In the end, I learned quickly that Mexican-Spanish differs in many ways from Spain-Spanish. While I felt very grateful to know some version of Spanish, I didn’t know that my year teaching English in Spain would also deepen my appreciation for a language I already thought I knew. I realized throughout my time living in Spain that Spanish comes in all sounds, speeds, and expressions. Language in and of itself is such a powerful tool to connect and learn about a culture on a deeper level. Especially when it’s your own. 

Teaching During a Pandemic: A Teacher Abroad

By Amanda WhittenSelfie of Amanda Whitten while abroad teaching during a pandemic.

Catch up on Amanda’s first interview before joining her for the second part of her three-part interview!

This has been one of the weirdest years ever for me, not just for teaching, but in general. I’m sure that the same could be said for everyone else, as well. It’s been transformative in a number of ways, which I’ll get to in a moment. This year has affected my relationships with my students, my co-workers, and even myself. One thing is for sure: the world is changing and we must adapt to it. Read on to find out how I adapted to teaching during a pandemic!

What is a typical day at your school like? 

Pre-coronavirus, I typically arrived 20-30 minutes before class because of the public transportation schedule. As soon as I arrived, I’d head to the English department room, my safe haven, and hideout. Then, I’d check to make sure that I had all my ducks in a row and that I knew what I was supposed to be doing for each of my classes. I’d also make any last-minute necessary lesson plans or preparations and basically mentally prepare myself to go into performance mode. If I had any extra time, I’d go downstairs to the cafeteria to have a coffee and chat with any of the teachers already there.

This year, classes ranged from about 9:25am to 2:00pm, which is a pretty easy schedule, I’d say. Some days, I’d have a planning period, and other days I’d have a constant stream of classes apart from one break from 11:10am to 11:40am.

Afterwards, I’d rush home, eat very quickly, and then rush back into the world to go to my private lessons, academy classes, or whatever else I had going on. Of course, I had to adjust to teaching during a pandemic, so that all changed. I spent more time doing hobbies such as painting, and am really proud of how much I’ve grown as an artist so far! 

Teaching During a Pandemic

When the coronavirus pandemic initially began, I’d wake up an hour early, eat breakfast, shower, prepare my headset, laptop, and generally wait attentively to see if any students needed any help or wanted to talk in general. Other than that, I just uploaded their various activities and scheduled them to appear during class time. Kahoot and Educaplay were invaluable online resources for making quizzes about literally anything that the students could complete. 

After a while, other than the occasional video call, I started waking up two minutes before class because I had discovered, much to my lazy side’s delight, that Google classroom could be downloaded on cell phones. Then I could lazily browse and be “present” in class while laying in bed. A difficult and tiresome job, really.  

How many people do you work with? How many classes do you teach?

I interact frequently with a nucleus of about four to five teachers, but usually there are many more who actually teach at the school. At IES Pablo Neruda, I had sixteen classes and therefore, had sixteen working hours. 

Are you forming working relationships with coworkers?

I considered myself very lucky at what was, until June 30th, my current school. With a good rapport with all of the teachers I worked with, I developed what I would consider actual friendships with at least three of them. I really admire all of the teachers I personally worked with and basically feel that I won the lottery. All I wanted was to feel respected, appreciated, and accepted here in Spain. They did an amazing job of doing that for me. It was and is mutual. Even while teaching during a pandemic, I can honestly say these were the best coworkers I’ve had so far in Spain.

Amanda Whitten and Leganes while Amanda was abroad teaching during a pandemic

What is your favorite part of the day? Why?

I would say that I had a few favorite groups that I really enjoyed working with. A bachillerato group I worked with always reacted enthusiastically to my activities whether an introduction to country music (seeing these kids goofily sing Garth Brooks literally made my year) or getting into heated debates, I had so much fun. I also really enjoyed teaching my 1st eso kids, which are pretty much 6th graders. They are still so full of excitement for learning. They loved telling me about their favorite foods and what they did on the weekends. How could I not adore them? 

I have a few favorite students scattered here and there: naughty ones who could make me laugh as well as academic and friendly ones who enjoyed interacting with me. All of these students made my days more enjoyable. While I can’t say that I had a specific favorite part of each day, I can say that I had certain highlights during the week. It makes leaving this part of my life behind all the more bittersweet.

How is the material being taught to students? Is there a specific method being used?

It really depends on whichever teacher is in charge. For example, one teacher may prefer to heavily rely on going through the book via a program on the computer. This makes it easy to correct and grade exercises as a group. Others focus on using their book as a guideline, choosing to focus more on activities and conversation. The former may be easier, but it is so much more boring for both me and the students. The latter can be more challenging, but it is so much more fun and engaging, provided the students are interested. 

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

Some classes required no preparation whatsoever. One teacher would give me the page numbers and exercises to correct via the computer program, and that was it. Usually, I was told that I had the freedom to come up with extra activities, but since these instructions were usually given right before class or the day before, I rarely ever knew what we were going to be going over. And for those classes, the activities were meant to “complement” the lesson, not detract. 

For other classes, I would be given a topic to make a presentation on or perhaps a topic to practice conversation around. These practice conversations would be easy enough to research a bit, and perhaps make a PowerPoint if necessary. 

Amanda Whitten pointing at a frog while abroad in Madrid teaching during a pandemic

Still, others would have me go over certain pages in the book, but without an answer key. I usually answered the questions myself before class so that I didn’t embarrass myself in front of the kids, teens, or even literal adults. 

Fortunately for me, I never had to worry about teaching actual grammar at this school, thank goodness. The teachers left the listening and conversation practice up to me, for the most part. And if there’s anything that I apparently have a gift for, it is a gift for gab. 

Do you work at a bilingual school? Is English being taught as a subject or throughout all classes?

I have worked at a bilingual school in the past, but I much preferred working at a traditional school. The reason being is that it’s difficult to teach technical concepts such as art theory or, god forbid, science and math, to even the most academically advanced students. Yes, I much prefer the straightforwardness of teaching ESL English in English classes rather than English through a different subject. I can’t imagine the challenges of teaching during a pandemic at a bilingual school. 

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

If the students managed to speak up at all, they would get a point in their favor in the grade book. This would all add up at the end of the year, and it could hurt or help their grade. It was really all about mere participation, with the exception of when students gave rubric graded speeches. I’m sure that the teachers themselves had more extensive ways of measuring progress. However, in my classes, it was all about showing up and speaking up, no matter how quietly or hesitantly. Honestly, it was good enough for me because, concerning foreign languages, it’s not about the destination, but the journey. And that journey is rocky and full of humiliating errors. So if they even dare to take a step, I applaud them. 

Amanda's work station while teaching during a pandemic.
My work station I set up to teach during the pandemic.

 

Looking back at our first interview, what have you learned most about yourself in the classroom this year?

My answer applies not just to our first interview, but also all the way to the beginning of my illustrious teaching career. I have learned to relax, breathe when rattled, not be a hammer, and be a high five. I have learned that having a good time, even if just playing an invigorating game, can be worth fifteen grammar lessons. If a student is laughing and smiling, then they are learning. 

Amanda will share her plans for next year in a follow-up interview. We look forward to hearing what she has to say and where her future will take her, especially considering her success in teaching during a pandemic. Be on the lookout for her third interview.

Moving Abroad While Pursuing My Dream

 

Au Pair Madrid Spain Amanda WhittenAmanda Whitten has been a writer for Dreams Abroad since September 2017. During the 2020 Coronavirus lockdown in Madrid, Spain, she had plenty of time on her hands after moving abroad and living there for several years. She has given teach abroad interviews before, but we wanted to share her experiences moving abroad while pursuing her dreams, too. Amanda is from Oklahoma and has been abroad in Madrid since 2016. She is currently a language and culture assistant at a school in a town called Leganés and is pursuing her dream of living abroad in a different country. 

She was asked similar questions that we ask our first-year teachers but we are still excited to hear about her experience!

When did you arrive in Madrid?

“I first arrived bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in mid-September 2016. I’ve been here for about three-and-a-half years.”

Why did you choose to teach abroad in Spain?

“I chose to teach abroad in Spain for a number of reasons. First, Spanish was the language that I had chosen to learn by default — my high school only offered Spanish. The university I attended offered several languages, but Spanish was the only one with a full major. Because of that, I knew that I wanted to go to a Spanish-speaking country. I studied abroad during 2012 in Buenos Aires, Argentina and I became aware that they offered teach abroad programs around the world. Since I had already been to South America, I decided against applying to teach in Chile. I came to the decision that my destiny lied ins Spain.”

Had you ever taught before? 

best memory at EAFIT

“Technically, I had taught one or two classes when I completed my practicum after earning my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification. Other than that, I was wildly inexperienced and clueless.”

If not, what were you doing before you decided on moving abroad?  

“I had known for the latter part of my teens and my twenties that I wanted to go somewhere special like Spain to teach English. My best friend’s parents had mentioned it to me in passing when I was in college around the time I was 18 or 19. They explained that I could go practically anywhere in the world to do so and get paid for it. I felt intrigued, and the idea stuck to my brain ever since.

I knew for a long time that I wanted to try moving abroad. From 18 until 28, and until I finally accomplished The Dream, I worked in everything from pizza to retail to social services. It finally dawned on me when I turned 26 or 27 that I was going to be 30 soon and that I somehow had to make it all happen. Hello, extra credit card debt! It’s hard to save up for something that feels like an unattainable goal. That being said, before I left, I did manage to save up a little bit for expenses. Now, I fortunately have everything paid off. It was a good investment.”

What did you think teaching abroad would be like? Where are you teaching? 

“I had very vague ideas about everything. I have to admit that I didn’t actually do a lot of research about Spain. In college, I wrote practically all of my essays and papers about Argentina. I had this very broad, ideal notion that moving abroad would be very dreamy and poetic and that all the men would act and look like young Antonio Banderas, which I think I mentioned in another one of my articles.

When one of my friends suggested that I save up, take a vacation, and go to Spain first to see how I liked it, I felt flabbergasted. I mean, how could I obviously not fall in love with Spain? It was, like, in Europe?!?! All I could imagine was the running with the bulls (which I am now ironically staunchly against), afternoon siestas, lots of walking (which wasn’t far off base haha!), and street-side cafes with terraces and outdoor seating.”

How did you prepare for your teaching abroad job? What steps did you take? 

“I prepared by getting my TEFL a couple of years ahead of time. When actually packing my suitcases, I brought some things from home to show the students (like a yearbook and US dollars). I think planning a bit more would have been a good thing. Nonetheless, the whole venture was so overwhelming and exciting, that I basically just winged everything.”

teaching abroad

What are your perceptions of Madrid?

“My perceptions have evolved somewhat over time. I’m in quarantine now because of the Coronavirus. Something that gave me a sense of pride and belonging happened when people started clapping and cheering outside their windows and doors as a sign of respect and support for healthcare workers every night at 8:00pm. The solidarity is amazing and I have a new-found respect for this city.

Aside from that, Madrid is fast-paced. They are not as generous with their tapas and tap water as other cities such as Granada. The air often has a lot of contamination. It is a multicultural metropolis with an amazing history, jaw-dropping architecture, and a lot to do. Rent is high, but groceries are cheap. There are bad people here, like in any place, but I also feel very safe and secure here. I’m glad to be here, but I definitely am looking forward to possibly changing regions in exchange for a slower pace of life and new, rich experiences.”

What are your goals while you are abroad? How have they changed over the years?

“In the beginning, I thought that I would spend a year abroad, and that would be that. I would move back to the US, buy a house, and adopt a dog. I still have those illusions, but a year has become nearly four, and I don’t really know what is going to happen next. If Bernie Sanders wins somehow and Medicare-for-all gets passed, I might really move back home.

As it is, I have become accustomed to having my taxes count for something that tangibly affects me in a very positive way. I’m also in love with the easy, cheaper travel and the lifestyle that I lead here. It’s really nice, and I don’t have to worry about the disaster waiting for me around every corner. This is not to say that I don’t love the United States. I do, but for right now, all of this is better for me personally.”

Update: Welp. That idea is out the window (concerning Bernie Sanders). Is there still any hope at all out there for a single-payer healthcare system for the US?

What has been the most difficult since you arrived? 

Amanda Whitten art“I would say that navigating the unspoken, unwritten rules of Spanish society and culture that are a given to anyone actually from here has been the most challenging. Example: If you don’t greet every single person that you come across at the school or if every time you enter or exit a room you don’t give a general Hola/Buenos dias/Hasta luego, you will come across as a cold, rude person. This was a mistake that I made constantly for the first year that I was here and even after I learned. I continued to make this error because it’s hard to change a lifetime of little habits.

Second example: I didn’t know that as a new person, I would have to try to ingratiate myself into the lives of Spaniards. I was accustomed to living within a culture where people make an effort to include the new person, where the responsibility does not lie with them, but the veterans of whatever place that they are new to. My advice to newcomers moving abroad is to bring treats like little croissants or pastries to the break room. Make conversation and put yourself out there! Spanish people are so very friendly, but we have to navigate their norms. We are in their country, after all. 

Life Under Quarantine

Another challenge has been enduring quarantine while in Madrid. It’s a big city so it’s taking us longer than other places to return to a more normal life. If I were at home in Oklahoma, I’d be able to go outside into the woods. A positive from this uncertain time is that it’s given me a chance to reestablish good habits and to start new projects. I’ve been making art projects and investing time in myself.

For example, I finally dusted off my old watercolor paints from college, started painting with them. I made a Facebook album titled “Quarantine Art” that I’ve filled up with paintings. One of my favorites is an elephant that I think perfectly captures the melancholy that I was feeling at the time. It’s simultaneously pretty to look at, if I do say so myself.  In addition to that, I made an album called “Quarantine Rainbows” because I noticed during this long stay-cation that I seem to see a lot of rainbows from the window of my room. It kinda makes me happy to randomly look up and see an unexpected rainbow there. I wanted to share that feeling with other people. Therefore, I’ve included a couple of photos in this blog for you to see, as well.”

What has been the best experience?

“Before the quarantine began, I would have had to choose between scuba diving in Malta or navigating the island of Tenerife solo. But the applause and solidarity that I mentioned above happened in a moment of anxiety, uncertainty, and fear. It may not have just been the best experience that I’ve had in Spain, but perhaps in my entire life. I’ve never felt something so grand — something that was so much bigger than myself — in my life. It encompassed all of the experiences that I’ve had in Spain as well as a few in my life before. Before this, I had never quite felt at home in Madrid or that I fit in quite as well as I’d wanted, but now it really feels like home.”

How do you feel about the culture so far? Do you feel like you have immersed yourself into the culture?

“I speak English almost every day at high school and I live with people who are originally from Ecuador. I would say that I immersed myself most when I was an au pair for a short time in 2017, where I learned a lot about Spanish culture and the lifestyle of the mid- to high-rollers. It would be very beneficial for my Spanish speaking skills to work for a while as a waitress or at a supermarket, but I have to admit that I am afraid to do that.

I’m afraid of making customers or coworkers upset by fumbling my Spanish or not understanding them correctly. I already worked in customer service in the US, and it was horrible!!! I can’t imagine doing it through my second language. But, I’m getting a little off track. No, I don’t feel like I’ve truly immersed myself. Nonetheless, I’m living the life that I want, and I get to experience a little bit of everything. That’s much more than enough for me.”

Wrap Up of Moving Abroad While Pursuing My Dream

Amanda is waiting to hear if she will continue her role as a language and culture assistant. She has applied for a different location in the Canary Islands as her first choice. The placement letter will inform her as to if her location has been changed or not. If it’s not the region she prefers, she will reject it and try to work with an academy, or perhaps teach online classes — or both. She is anxiously waiting to hear back so that she can plan for her future living abroad in Spain. 

by Leesa Truesdell

 

Using Only the Target Language in a Foreign Language Classroom

by Caroline Hazelton

caroline hazelton teaching ESOLHow did a Southern, non-Hispanic begin her bilingual journey in an English-only rural town? 

Solo español,” replied my Spanish 2 teacher who spoke to us in almost no English right from the beginning.

How have I taught nearly every grade level of Spanish/ESL ever since for seven years?

Only in the language that I am teaching… with some exceptions. I’m here to challenge you both with experience and science for using the target language (the language you are teaching) as much as possible in your classroom. And believe me, you can use it a lot more than you think you can.

Why only the target language?

Learning to listen and speak a language occurs the same way babies learn to talk. They listen to in the language constantly, with images and context to teach them meaning. Then, after hours upon hours of exposure, the babies are ready to speak. As their brain develops, they are able to form more complex phrases, sentences, and ideas as they age. Our second languages are learned in the same way. Our brains absorb grammar through repetition. they absorb meaning through context created by situations and visuals. Finally, they absorb pronunciation through constant exposure and confidence via experience. Because we “acquire” language (that is, to soak it up through the ability to speak and listen, then in our ability to write and read in it), we cannot teach language in the same way that we teach other subjects. We must mimic a caregiver teaching a child to speak.

Enter the language classroom. In the case where the teacher and students both speak the students’ first language, many teachers do not speak in the target language. They do this to get through the lesson faster, to avoid frustrated students, or to build rapport with students. Other times, they simply do not know how to teach in the target language. As a result, you see students who have textbook knowledge of the target language but who are unable to communicate in it.

Remember Phonics?

abc PhonicsWithout appropriate communication in the target language, students haven’t developed an ear for how the language sounds; they haven’t learned enough vocabulary in natural context nor have they developed the confidence to speak the target language. Additionally, students don’t have the opportunity to form an identity in the new language they are trying to learn if they aren’t being exposed to it or being forced to use it — they rely only on their original, or L1, language/identity. Finally, if they don’t see how they are able to communicate in the target language they lose motivation. They feel as if they aren’t learning it. However, a student who is forced to speak the language feels that they are actually learning.

I speak from experience. It started in my high school Spanish 2 classroom where my teacher uttered not a word in English for two hours a day, five days a week. The instructor spoke in an incredibly simple way. He would not answer anyone in English, and only in Spanish. He spoke with gestures, dramatic emotions, and cognates. 

Speaking From Experience

By the end of the semester, I (Caroline) had not only studied Spanish, but could actually speak basic Spanish. I learned more in that semester of high school Spanish alone than I did in any other community college course I took. In those courses, the instructor used a mix of Spanish and English. They missed opportunities to give their students the true ability to communicate in our second language. After moving from my small town to attend a state university to study Spanish and second language acquisition (SLA), I saw more examples both as a Spanish and SLA student of why teachers should use ONLY the target language.

I speak as a teacher. When I speak in the target language at first, I see students of all ages initially very frustrated. I ALWAYS have students who are hesitant to learn the language and resist. However, I insist upon only using the language I am teaching. I have seen their progress. I have seen students score higher on proficiency tests than their level indicated that they would. Ultimately, I have seen my resistors eventually change their ways. 

Success in the Classroom

Every semester, I have ESL (English as a Second Language) students who request to join my class because I insist on using only English. As a university instructor, students have changed or added majors and minors in the language I taught. My students have returned to me bragging about how they asked their counselors to speak to them in their target language. Some of my ESL students took jobs in English. I have taught China’s brightest professionals that they STILL have more to learn because they could only communicate in English and realized that they couldn’t as they wished. Finally, I have had a student upon student thank me at the end of every semester. 

So, How Do You Teach? 

Be your normal teacher self… in the target language. Notably, you are not going to speak like you would speak to native speakers. Aim for a much slower, simpler pace with tons of visual clues to help convey your message.

You first have to speak in the simplest way possible. For example, “We’re all set, so could you please hand in your papers?” becomes “pass the papers.” In the beginning classes, use gestures, gestures, gestures. In intermediate classes, say, “Please pass the papers — we are finished! Thanks!” I suggest sticking to a handful of common requests or words that are most repeated in the target language or in a classroom setting. 

Change Your Expectations

You’ll also have to change your expectations according to the natural stages of language development and to what level of communication each level can reasonably do in the language they are learning. You should try to have low/beginning students listen as much as possible. They should respond non-verbally until they have the confidence and the feel for the sounds of the language to speak. Even then, it will be very similar to a child learning how to speak — first with one-word phrases, then two, etc. From knowledge I’ve gathered from my graduate studies, the development of language is the same for everyone in terms of language stages and whether it’s a first or second language.

Once your students get past the low/beginning stage and into intermediate or high/beginning, they can start to communicate basic needs. The goal now is to increase their confidence in the language. Have students speak in small groups and with yourself as the teacher as much as possible. You should require that all communications with you and their classmates be in the target language with some exceptions so students can make the most of every opportunity. 

Because all teaching is about creating meaning, you need to try to provide as much context for language as possible… visuals, gestures, and culturally authentic material. Creating meaning is important because you want to be teaching at a level slightly higher than the students’ current level. This way they are challenged and can advance forward in an attainable way. 

first language puzzle

So, When Is the First Language Okay?

You never want students to lose their identity. Therefore, I have found that when students (particularly in ESL courses) are speaking about their native countries, idioms, or cultures, the use of their mother tongue is powerful. Plus, some words don’t quite translate the same.

You also have to recognize that speaking a second language requires more brainpower from students. If you want them to do some higher-order thinking that they don’t have the language skills for just yet, you might allow them to use their first language to think through the task, then use the second language once they have the activity mastered. 

Criticisms of Only Teaching in the Target Language

One criticism that gets mentioned of teaching only in the target language is that you don’t want students to miss out on important information — and I agree. For beginning students, you don’t want them to miss out on key information, so I think it’s okay to FIRST say the information in the target language. If, after multiple attempts to clarify their understanding they still don’t understand the concept, it is okay to use their first language. However, just explaining the concept in the first language immediately takes away the opportunity for growth.

I have also seen the usefulness of translation, despite what current language teaching methods (the communicative method) say. When I’m teaching grammar, second-language students often literally translate the grammatical rules of their first language into their second. It can be helpful to compare the differences. I also run into the issue when teaching vocabulary that while it’s better to reply with a synonym or image to stay in the target language, sometimes there is no image or similar word that students know, so a translation can be handy. 

Knowing these situations, my rule with my low/intermediate students is “Only English… except during grammar activities, cultural celebrations, group projects, or if you ask special permission.” 

A Conclusion About Using Only the Target Language in a Foreign Language Classroom

By purposely speaking only in the target language to students, we make language an acquired ability instead of a memorized subject. With careful exceptions, we can also respond to our students in a sensitive way. 

 

Working at a Catholic School in Medellin, Colombia

Catholic School Medellin Colombia

Lamon Chapman graduated from Hamilton College in upstate New York with a degree in Economics. He originally wanted to be an investment banker. However, Lamon decided to move to Los Angeles, California to pursue his musical dreams instead. He enrolled in music classes at the Musicians Institute. Lamon played for a variety of shows and bands while living in Los Angeles. 

He aspired to learn a different language while living in Los Angeles and thought that moving to a different country would help him with his language learning. Lamon decided to move to Ecuador for two months. He traveled from Quito to Guayaquil and everywhere in between. Then, he headed back to LA. 

Lamon decided that he wanted to become more fluent in Spanish and moved to Medellin, Colombia. A close friend of his told him that Medellin was going to be the next up-and-coming place for urban music. Lamon was ready to give his musical talent a new start. However, he also wanted to have another source of income while living in Medellin. After researching, he learned that teaching English abroad could be a good way to make extra income. 

Lamon volunteered at a library assisting immigrants with their English for six months. Prior to that, he had never taught English. After he received great feedback from his peers and students, he realized he was pretty good at it. That’s when he realized he had a skill for teaching others a language and for teaching in general. Soon after, he made his move to Medellin and lived there for five consecutive years, teaching and playing music. His first job while in Colombia was at a Catholic school for six months. 

Meet Lamon Chapman: 

How did you find your job teaching at a Catholic School?

“I found my job through an old high school friend. They were born in Medellin, but completed high school in the states.”

What was the process of getting hired?

“The process was rather involved. I had to pass a reading, speaking, and listening assessment; not to measure my competencies but rather to ensure I didn’t have speaking, hearing, or vision problems. Also, I had to complete a medical exam and a test in Spanish. Funnily enough, I just sat there during the Spanish test and didn’t take it because I didn’t speak or understand Spanish at the time.”

Who made up the population of students that you taught?

Catholic school“The boys that I taught were aged thirteen through fifteen. I taught four classes with an average class size of twenty. 

In Colombia, if you are single and teach at this particular Catholic school, you can only teach the same sex. For, example, I don’t have a wife, so they only allowed me to teach boys. If I had a wife, then I could have taught both girls and boys. The same applies to single women. If they do not have a husband, they can only teach girls.”

What did you like most about teaching these students? The least?

“For me, the blessing of being an educator lies in the opportunity to change someone’s life for the better and develop positive life-long relationships. There was always a sense of pride and achievement when a student would report to me how an activity or classroom experience benefited their life outside of the classroom. Whether it was translating for their parents at the customs office or simply instilling confidence to use the language, it always felt and continues to feel good to hear those stories.

The only thing I would say that I disliked about my job was being monitored constantly by nuns and priests.” 

What did you find to be the most challenging part of teaching at a Catholic school?

“I had a hard time adjusting to Catholic culture. Things like making sure all kids had dressed according to school standards did not come naturally to me initially. I also had a difficult time receiving negative feedback about group activities from the school administrators (nuns and priests). 

Side note: I never interacted directly with the parents… the school had a specific employee assigned to ‘parent relations.’ All the negative feedback came from the nuns that monitored each class and my superior; they didn’t support my decision to facilitate group activities. Additionally, they often reprimanded me for sitting down. They didn’t allow teachers to sit down.”

What are the differences that you saw while teaching at the Catholic school in Envigado, Colombia compared to volunteering at the library in Los Angeles, California?

South Korea classroom“Prior to teaching in Medellin, I volunteered at a library in Los Angeles. I worked with immigrants who had become US citizens and needed to learn English to live and function in Los Angeles. Volunteering gave me a better understanding of what it was like to teach a second language before moving to Medellin, Colombia.

My first teaching position in Envigado, Colombia was at a Catholic school. If I had to compare the two experiences (in general), here is what the main differences were: 

  • Security: Most schools in Colombia have armed security at the entrance. In the US, and at the library in LA, the immigrants did not have security guard protection.
  • Grading: If a student fails a class, the teacher must be prepared to explain why the student failed. They must also give them an opportunity to take a make-up exam and/or additional activities to pass the course. In the USA, if you fail a course… you fail.”

Explain the motivations of the groups of students for learning a second language. Were the motivations the same? How many classes did you teach?

“I taught at a bilingual school… so students were motivated to learn English because it was a requirement. They didn’t necessarily want to and this was the mentality for many kids at the Catholic school. I taught English, geography, world history, and ethics all in English.”

How did you handle classroom management for these classes? Was it regulated by the school because it was a Catholic school?

“I tried to incorporate group activities versus individual assignments into the classroom. I also tried to incorporate the use of technology in the classroom as well. Unfortunately, school officials did NOT widely accept the use of technology. I had to stop doing group assignments and I mostly assigned individual assignments without the use of technology per the request of the school.”

What advice would you give to someone who works with people from other cultural backgrounds?

  • Learn the culture
  • Learn the language
  • Be patient with the adjustment… CULTURE SHOCK is real
  • Accept the differences… don’t fight it or allow it to disrupt your experience
  • Don’t assume that everyone will understand your culture and viewpoints

Are you still living in Medellin, Colombia, and teaching at the Catholic School?  What happens next?

“Yes, I am still living in Medellin. However, I no longer work at the Catholic School. In 2016, I was nominated for a Latin Grammy music award. Since the nomination, I’ve taken my passion for music and talents to another level. This year, four close friends and I formed an entertainment company in Medellin: PRIMEROS 5 ENTERTAINMENT. Follow us at primeroscincoent. We plan and organize entertainment events that are changing the face of entertainment throughout Colombia.” 

At La Presentation College in commune 12 La América, approximately 150 students learn about caring for life on the road.
Photo by Secretaría de Movilidad de Medellín.

Looking Beyond Catholic School

Lamon stayed at the Catholic school for six months even though the odds were against him. His students misbehaved and he couldn’t provide student-centered lessons. Not to mention, nuns constantly corrected his teaching methods and conduct. Later in the school year, Lamon realized he was the first teacher to stay longer than two weeks. The other teachers congratulated him for his success and informed him that he endured the brutal challenge of teaching and disciplining this specific class of fourteen-year-old boys that no one wanted to teach.

Stay tuned for the second part of Lamon’s teaching English as a foreign language journey in Medellin, where he talks about his career of teaching English at a university abroad.

by Leesa Truesdell

The Positives and Negatives of My Valencian Learning Experience

Upon learning that my region spoke a second language, I was looking forward to realizing how much Valencian (valenciano in Spanish and valencià in the native dialect) was utilized in my town. I even did some research on the languages spoken in Spain. In my second week in Ontinyent, I noticed that Valencian was the primary language to communicate in school between the teachers and students. Around town, many of the public announcements for events and gatherings were also in Valencian, without a Spanish translation. Some items that did have a Spanish translation were still referred to by their Valencian term since it was universal to the town. By then, I decided to learn the language by enrolling in weekly classes as a way to integrate myself more.

This year my learning experience is a bit different. I decided not to continue with Valencian in order to explore other goals — some that I hope to be able to reveal soon.  I knew that I would come across the language almost daily at work, around town, or with my roommates.  

Up to this point, I can share some positives and negatives regarding my Valencian learning experience. 

The Positives of My Valencian Learning Experience

Adult Learning Centers

Throughout Spain, there are adult schools that offer classes in art, dance, computer programming, languages, etc. The regional or local government administers these low-cost classes. I found them to be a great resource to introduce myself to the language. The registration fee was low compared to something similar in the States. I paid around 50€. Along with my 20€ textbook, I was enrolled in one year’s worth of classes. 

Sant Carles in Ontinyent, one of the two public language-schools in town
The CPFPA: Sant Carles in Ontinyent, one of the two public language-schools in town. (Credit: CPFPA: Sant Carles Official Website)

History of Studying Spanish

Because I took upper-level courses in Spanish grammar and linguistics in college, it was easier to understand Valencian. Since both are romance languages, there are common traits like conjugation, gender, and sentence structure, just to name a few.

However, the trait that helped me the most is phonology, or how the sounds of the language are produced. The letters sound quite similar in both languages, resulting in Valencian being more ear-friendly than other languages in deciphering words and sentences.  

Immersion

One of the most important aspects of learning a language is immersion, or using it in practice either by communicating or listening to others. It’s very difficult to experience this in university. Student life presents very few chances to practice a foreign language outside of class, let alone in one of the countries where it is primarily spoken.

That is why, although sounding trivial, living in a small town that historically only spoke Valencian was a great benefit. While it shouldn’t be surprising to hear the elderly speak the language, a surprising number of people my age also mostly spoke to each other in it. I really enjoy sitting back and hearing them converse. Furthermore, a lot of the signages and posters around town are in the Valencian language, which always provides additional words and names to research or lookup. 

My worksite provides an opportunity to improve my understanding of the language as well. At school, I can hear the staff members and students chat. I can wander the halls and see the students’ work in a variety of subjects. For example, I’ve seen projects about the parts of the body and book reports, all in Valencian. Sometimes the faculty members receive official documentation or memos that I occasionally read. 

De Dalt a Baix a beginners’ Valenciano textbook
De Dalt a Baix, (From Up to Down, translated to English) a beginners’ Valenciano textbook. Page turned to unit on planning a trip.

The Negatives of My Valencian Learning Experience

Classes

While it’s great to have the opportunity to partake in language classes, it’s another to enjoy it. I enjoyed the enthusiasm of my instructor and other students. However, I had moments I wished there I had more tests or quizzes to keep me studious. I didn’t recall opening my textbook aside from classes. Alongside that, registration was open throughout the year. This meant that we had to review old material if a new student entered the class in February. 

Code-switching

Other bilingual speakers will understand this situation fairly well. If you meet someone who speaks the same language, the language first spoken often becomes the primary one spoken. It is hard to switch to the other. At school, most of my colleagues do me a courtesy by speaking Spanish while others speak to me in Valencian. Even after asking to speak in Valenciano to continue learning, it is hard for some to remember.

Improving Two languages, Working with a Third

One of the most beautiful yet frustrating parts of learning languages is continuing to improve the ones I can speak fluently versus learning more of the ones that are new to me. This is an ever-present problem when it comes to learning Valencian and improving my Spanish. Should I improve the language I will most likely continue speaking for the rest of my life even though I will have other opportunities to learn it back in the states? Or should I continue to learn the language of the culture I have attempted to integrate myself into during the past 12 months, fully aware that opportunities to utilize it will be minimal? Also notable is the fact that everyone speaks Spanish.

Spanish is always available for me to use when I’m feeling lazy or need to speak with someone confidently. An example of the former is in the morning when I have to buy breakfast. I have minimal mental capacity to speak Valenciano to the cashier to even order a tomato patsy. 

Valenciano language calendar themed on nutrition
Valencian language calendar themed on nutrition. On the bottom left-hand corner there are health tips.

 

recipes for typical dishes in the region. This one is for Pumpkin Doughnuts
The backside of the calendar features recipes for typical dishes in the region. This one is for Pumpkin Doughnuts

 

In addition, my job requires me to speak English throughout the day. Others in my position may feel uncomfortable not being able to practice their Spanish in the classroom. However, I placed the restriction on myself for the better of the students. Some students noticed my reluctance to speak Spanish as a teacher. They tried to speak more English with me as a result. I don’t get to practice the other languages, and my working relationship with some of my private students have gotten to the point where speaking in Spanish feels inappropriate. 

Co-Language

At the end of the day, Valencian is not the dominant language of the region. I’ve met people whose parents’ spoke the language but decided against speaking it with their children. There are also towns that I’ve traveled to where Valenciano isn’t spoken at all nor was it historically. This includes the capital city, where government initiatives to raise the literacy of the language have affected the signages and public service announcements. Despite their efforts, it’s rare to hear Valencian spoken at all. The language is reserved for the small villages and towns, which is bittersweet to discover since that is where its charm lies. Nonetheless, it is still sour since it doesn’t extend much further than the small municipalities. 

The Positives and Negatives in My Valencian Learning Experience

Overall, I am quite happy with my level of Valencian. I would have loved to have a B1 certification (an internationally recognized language certification) as I love studying and learning about languages. It’s obtained after taking a test that proves if one has a sufficient level in speaking, reading, writing and listening in the language one wishes to obtain a certification. It can also make it easier to return to Valencia and find work as a translator.

I can still take the exam in the summer. I don’t feel like I have the level to pass either the writing or reading part of the exam, especially because most native speakers warn me the Valencian test is much harder than other languages. This is because the majority of participants take the exam to become teachers, bureaucrats, or government officials. Regardless, I know enough for my everyday life. Whether listening to my colleagues’ talk, reading the different types of pastries at a bakery, or responding in the language if spoken to in Valenciano, I feel confident enough in any way the language presents itself to me.

by Edgar Llivisupa

Going Back to Spain as a Tourist: Hot Chocolate

 

emma schultzEarlier this month, I went back to Madrid, Spain — but just as a tourist this time. I was able to structure my break between semesters of graduate school to spend ten wonderful days there. I was so excited to get back to one of my favorite cities and the first place I called home as an adult. Mostly, I was excited to spend time in my old neighborhood, visit one of my favorite art museums in the world, frequent restaurants and cafes I’d visited often in my time living in Madrid, and see close friends and colleagues.

Museo-Thyssen-Bornemisza

Shopping, Food, and Friends

I prepared myself for shopping in my favorite boutiques and Spanish chain stores, lots of tapas and churros, and afternoons spent catching up with friends. Fortunately, I did all of those things. But what I didn’t prepare for was how it would feel going back to Spain as a tourist to visit a place I had once called home. To be a tourist in a place I hadn’t been before is one thing. To be a tourist somewhere where I lived for years was another.

Madrid-Tourism

I had a bit of a sneak peek of what this would feel like when I went back to Denmark for the first time since studying there for an academic year. It was a wonderful and strange experience to walk the streets I did as a student. However, going back to Madrid where I lived and worked for so long felt even more like a shock. I found myself not wanting to be perceived as “just a tourist.”

I offered up to shop attendants and waiters that I had, in fact, lived in Madrid for three years in the past. Sometimes this made sense in context, but often I volunteered the information with little prompting. Why did I feel the need to prove myself? My Spanish is good, I know the city, and I know the culture. But I still felt a certain pressure to re-prove to people there that I, too, belonged.

Emma Schultz

Forgetting Things That Were Second-Nature

el Roscón de ReyesIn addition to this reaction, I also realized that over time I had forgotten some small things that used to be second-nature, things that had been automatic knowledge for me. One of my first days back in Madrid, I went to a cafe with a friend. We went specifically for a seasonal Christmas cake, el Roscón de Reyes. She ordered coffee with hers, so I decided to get something warm as well.

I’m not a big fan of coffee or tea. So, I decided to let my child-at-heart out to play and ordered hot chocolate. However, I translated literally and didn’t give it a second thought. When the cup of melted chocolate showed up at my table, I remembered that hot chocolate in Spain isn’t the same as the U.S. I knew this very well from living there. In Spain, locals dip churros in the hot chocolate while having it as a winter drink. However, instead of a liquid drink, locals fill the mug with melted chocolate, literally. If I had wanted American-style hot chocolate, I would have needed to order ColaCao, the Spanish equivalent of Nesquik. Fortunately, I didn’t repeat the mistake the rest of the trip. Nonetheless, I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t remembered this detail of custom and translation.

Of course, it didn’t present any real issue for me that I mistranslated what I was trying to order. Fortunately, none of my mistakes while visiting Madrid created big problems for me. It was more of an internal reflection process for me. I realized that I didn’t remember how to do everything I had once done out of habit.

Going Back to Spain as a Tourist

What I realized from my hot chocolate gaff and a couple of others was that we forget over time. We forget how to live in the places we’ve been when they are very different from one another (and maybe even if they aren’t). The day-to-day starts to slip away. We forget some of the cultural or linguistic knowledge we attained when living in that place. And that was difficult for me to come face to face with going back to Spain as a tourist this past month. But I realized something else, too: whatever we forget we can remember. It’s not as if I hadn’t ever learned those things. Even being back in Madrid for ten days helped me remember some of what I hadn’t realized I’d forgotten. And that gives me hope about staying in touch with the places I’ve left, because the ability to reconnect is definitely there.

Going-Back-to-Spain-as-a-Tourist

by Emma Schultz

Christmas in Madrid, Spain

 

Christmas tree Plaza Mayor in Madrid, Spain
Christmas tree at Plaza Mayor in Madrid.

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that Christmas has always been not only one of my favorite holidays, but also one of the most memorable holidays we celebrate in the States. People string lights, hang stockings, and set presents under ornamented Christmas trees, of course. But the overall environment of the season is, depending on where you are, so much more than that.

It can be brisk winter air, the scent of cookies and pies baking, candles on the dining room table with the lights dimmed, all while A Charlie Brown Christmas plays on the TV. Maybe it’s unfinished Monopoly games, ice skating on a frozen lake, Christmas markets, and hot chocolate. Maybe there are traditions like opening one present on Christmas Eve. Perhaps you grew up with the advent calendar and little chocolates counting down the days to Christmas. Almost every child leaves cookies and milk for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. Listening for reindeer hooves on your roof are memories that countless people share. Maybe there are family traditions that don’t exactly fit the stereotype, like naughty Secret Santa gifts or taking a new family photo with Santa at the mall every year even when you and your siblings are in your 20’s. 

But have you ever thought about how other countries celebrate the Christmas holiday? Have you ever wondered about both the differences, and the similarities? The Christmas season is a big deal here in Spain, just like in the United States. In fact, given that Spain obviously doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas begins just after Halloween and lasts until early January! 

Christmas Traditions Abroad

For many in Madrid, the official holiday season begins on December 22nd. It goes all the way to January 6th, a Christian celebration known as Epiphany. Thanks to globalization and popular culture, Spain celebrates several of the same traditions as in the States. Take Christmas lights, for example.

There are, however, some key differences. For example, December 22nd is El Sorteo Extraordinario de Navidad, also called El Gordo de Navidad. This is one of the most popular loterías, or lotteries, in all of Spain. There are five large or important prizes, including a monetary prize of 400 million euros, and then several additional smaller prizes, such as cash prizes of €1000. 

christmas spain iluminadas valence-Christmas in Madrid Spain

Many families have adopted the tradition of putting up Christmas trees. Nativity scenes, called belén, are highly popular in this traditionally Catholic country. A huge Madrid Christmas Market called El Mercado de Navidad takes over Plaza Mayor, perhaps most easily translated as their main square. It’s a tradition that, in the event that you accidentally break a figurine from your belén, you pick up the replacement from this market. 

Santa Claus and Christmas Day in Spain

There are also many places in Spain which have adopted the story of Santa Claus, also known as Papa Noel. Other places in Spain have their own versions of jolly Ol’ St. Nick. For example, the Basque Country has the legend of Olentzero, a man who comes down from the mountains on Christmas Eve to deliver presents to good children.  

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day themselves find themselves as fairly relaxed occasions. Children rise at the crack of dawn to open their presents. Families and friends dine together, sing carols, and exchange gifts. Given that the country is a peninsula, seafood is a popular Christmas food all around Spain, even in areas that aren’t coastal. These can include things like gambas a la plancha, a shrimp, or some type of seafood soup. Fish like lubina (bass) or dorada (gilt-head bream) are also very common Christmas meals. A bigger second course like cordero (lamb). Other typical foods include embutidos, or dried, cured ham. Another popular Christmas or seasonal food is called turrón, which is a sort of nougat-meets-fudge-type sweet made with honey, sugar, egg white, and typically some kind of nuts like peanuts or almonds. 

The Twelve Days of Epiphany

christmas parade madrid

Another important and diverse element of Madrid’s Christmas celebration follows Christmas Day itself. It carries over into the New Year and is known as the twelve days of Epiphany. Epiphany ends on January 6th. This holiday showcases and celebrates three Christmas characters that North America’s Christmas holiday tales mostly skim over: the Three Wise Men, also known as the Three Kings, or in Spain, Los Tres Reyes Magos — the Three Magician Kings!

The Celebration of Epiphany

As the story goes, these three kings — Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar — came bearing gifts after Jesus’ birth. And while these three kings get just a little bit of airtime in Christmas sermons at church or as figures in nativity scenes, Spain has gone the extra mile and given them a full parade, called a cabalgata, on January 5th. There are several cabalgatas across all of Spain in major cities and bigger towns. Madrid’s cabalgata alone typically draws over 100,000 people. The cabalgata, like any other parade, features extravagant floats, candy-throwers, and in Madrid, a children’s choir. People even bring umbrellas to shield themselves from all the sweets thrown into the crowd. 

Similar to Santa Claus, the Three Kings bring presents to children on January 6th, the end of Epiphany. Some churches celebrate it as the day of Jesus’s baptism. And just as children and families hang stockings and set out cookies and milk for Santa, Spanish children will sometimes leave shoes outside their doors or under the trees for the Three Kings to fill with smaller gifts in addition to the larger ones left under the tree. They also leave out, in place of milk, cookies, and carrots, biscuits and water for the Three Kings’ camels! And on the morning of Epiphany, Spaniards typically eat a breakfast of a special treat called el roscón de reyes, which is a circular and decorative pastry. 

madrid spain parade

Christmas Controversy

In recent years, the Three Kings have also been the subject of a bit of controversy. Given that the kings were traditionally played by Spanish councillors, the country has a history of using black-face during this festival, both for the black king Balthazar and also for his gift-bearing page boys. With a less explicit history of racism in the country, many Spaniards, particularly traditionalists and those of the older generation, still don’t fully understand why this is seen by other countries or cultures as problematic. However, in recent years, some areas in Spain have hired black actors to play the part instead. 

Celebrating Christmas in another country is a wonderful time to experience other traditions first-hand. For your next Spanish holiday, check out Madrid during Christmas. The holiday is one of the biggest celebrations of the year, and the cabalgata is one celebration you wouldn’t want to miss. Not to mention, the Madrid’s weather in December and January is milder than other places, so you can enjoy the festivities without a ton of snow or bitter cold. 

madrid spain

 

Languages Spoken in Spain: Learning Valenciano

edgar llivisupa profile photoUpon reading my placement letter from the Valencian Community, I noticed it was odd. I assumed I was reading a Spanish-written letter. However, there were dashes within words, a notable lack of the letter “ñ,” a reverse accent mark I’d never come across (`), and words that appeared to be misspelled by a letter or two.

After some research, I learned that my assigned region utilized a co-official language, valenciano, alongside Spanish. What I originally envisioned as an opportunity to improve my first language by living in a country where it was primarily spoken now also presented a second opportunity to experience one of the most challenging yet redeeming aspects of living abroad: learning the local language.

History of Languages Spoken in Spain

At the time, I was completely unaware of the linguistic diversity in the country. Obviously, the average Spaniard knows that a few other languages are commonly spoken in Spain. Like many, I knew that the region of Catalonia speaks Catalan a significant amount. However, I came to discover that there are other regions that similarly promote the use of their traditional language.

For those unaware, Spain isn’t homogenous when it comes to culture. There are different foods, traditions, festivals, and languages across the country. This stems from medieval history. The Iberian Peninsula once composed itself of distinct kingdoms that utilized languages derived from Vulgar Latin. Townsfolk of the time spoke Vulgar Latin, the non-standardized version of Latin spoken during the medieval era.

Ultimately, Spanish became the most prestigious, widely spoken, and heavily associated with the country. It originated from the Kingdom of Castile, which is where the alternative term for the language, Castilian, derives from. Originally located in central Spain, it grew during the Reconquista, a period where Catholic rulers attempted to rid the peninsula of Moorish rule. During this time, Alfonso X (The Wise) began favoring one language over others. Spanish became the language of higher education, science, law, and more rather than Latin.

Bilingual marketing posters in Ontinyent, Spain
Bilingual marketing posters in Ontinyent, Spain.

Spain Unifies

Centuries later, the crown would unite with the neighboring Crown of Aragon through the marriage of Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon, unifying most of Spain under one dynasty. The pair would later finance Columbus’ voyage to the New World. Succeeding journeys eventually enabled the spreading of Spanish throughout the world. In the peninsula, other languages met a similar fate to Latin, and private conversations are the only place to find such languages.

Bilingual regions make efforts to revitalize historical languages. The regime of General Franco restricted the use of other languages with nationalist policies. Other languages were further limited to private use. Book burnings and a ban on foreign names limited the use of other languages. As the country transitioned to a democracy, the newly-created autonomous communities received the freedom to express their cultural heritage.

The Co-Official Languages of Spain

While every community has Spanish as an official language, six more utilize another in their educational systems, in an official capacity in different levels of government, or in everyday speech. In the Basque Country and parts of Navarra, the Basque language has co-official status. In Galicia, it’s Galician, which some consider being the cousin of Portuguese due to their similar phonology and morphology. Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, and the Valencia Community all use Catalan. However, some prefer to refer to their variety of Catalan as balear or valenciano, to differentiate the dialects.

Thousands speak the other unofficial languages found in Spain. Some find themselves classified under the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. These include Aragonese, Asturian-Leonese, and Gascon.

This means that things like traffic signs, supermarket displays, public service announcements, and public school instruction, present both languages. Bilingual regions expect service workers to understand and speak both languages fluently. In addition, public television airs in the local language, with programming varying from movies, cooking shows, news programs, and live music.

Bilingual sign in Ontinyent, Valencia showing a supermarket’s operating hours and day
Here is a bilingual sign in Ontinyent, Valencia showing a supermarket’s operating hours and day.

What is Valenciano?

A return to medieval history is required to understand the origins of valenciano. Two entities ruled the eastern side of the Iberian Peninsula: the Kingdom of Aragon and the County of Barcelona. They eventually unified under the name the Crown of Aragon around the early 12th century after the marriage of Petronilla of Aragon and Raymond Berenguer IV of Barcelona. In line with other kingdoms, expansion was a goal and as a Catholic crown, they also joined in Reconquista efforts.

In the 13th century, King James I of Aragon conquered territories south of its location, including Valencia and the Balearic Islands. He incorporated them into the Crown of Aragon. While northerners settled the acquired territories, Catalan became more common. Over time, the Catalan dialect spoken in these regions evolved and differentiated itself from standardized Catalan. That is why today the terms catalán, valenciano, and balear can be problematic. To some, each can be their own language, all part of a family, or simply different dialects. All three stem from a strong cultural identity or reluctance to use a term associated with another region.

The Difference Between Valenciano and Catalán?

Bilingual sign in Ontinyent, Valencia listing different ATM signs
Here is another example of a bilingual sign in Ontinyent, Valencia listing different ATM signs.

While both Valencian and Catalan have distinct academies that regulate and promote the use of the language, the Acadèmia Valenciana de la Llengua defines valenciano as another term for catalán. For what it’s worth, the Real Academia Española, the Spanish-language regulating body, describes valenciano as “the variety of Catalan spoken in the former Kingdom of Valencia and is commonly felt as its proper language.”

The differences between valenciano and catalán include vocabulary, conjugations, and pronunciation. They are minor enough that speakers can understand each other, and language teachers can work in either region.

Compared to Spanish, valenciano has two more vowels: (à) (è), the letter (ç), and the letters “ny” replace the iconic Spanish letter, “ñ.” There are more orthographic differences, but as a Romance derived language, they share a lot of similarities including conjugations for person, tense and number, gender, etc. 

It’s been very exciting learning about valenciano and how it became the co-official language of the area where I teach. It’s fascinating to see the long-lasting effects that history has had on the language.

Deciding to Learn the Language

I discovered all this information weeks before relocating to Spain as I felt curious to see the extent of other languages spoken in Spain in my assigned area. Upon arriving at my worksite I realized citizens spoke valenciano as much as Spanish. This encouraged me to learn the language.

Learning as a Teaching Assistant in Ontinyent, Spain

edgar llivisupa profile photoEdgar Llivisupa is a native New Yorker completing a dual degree in Business Journalism and Spanish Literature and Language. His goals while teaching abroad are to improve his Spanish, test his capabilities as a teacher, and to travel. 

Edgar has been living in Ontinyent, Spain for one school year. Ontinyent is located in eastern Spain near Valencia. He is a teaching assistant at a primary school and will be returning to the same school this September. He enjoys learning Valencian and interacting with the locals. 

Edgar is looking forward to returning for another year. He wants to continue his progress with his students and dive deeper into the Spanish culture and lifestyle.

Meet Edgar 

Why did you choose to come to Spain and Europe? 

“There were many motivations for me to live abroad. Firstly, it had been rare in my life for me to venture outside New York. In fact, I had traveled out of the tri-state area only a handful of times, so I was itching to leave. Secondly, after failing a calculus course I switched my major to Spanish and started taking more intensive coursework. During a literature class, the professor flagged up  the North American Language and Culture Assistants Program. As an American, there was already an innate curiosity to visit Europe. As a descendant of Hispanics, I was also inquisitive about Spanish culture and how much it influenced Latin America. Thirdly, I had a brother living in Madrid. This put me at ease after reading online testimonials from other participants in the program.”

Why did you choose to teach abroad? 

“While I had considered studying abroad in the past, the costs made it seem out of reach. I was never the type to look for grants or scholarships to aid my studies. Alongside that, I would have to pick courses that would grant me credits at my college. Instead, this program gave me the opportunity to work abroad, which made me more comfortable rather than going abroad as a student. I hadn’t considered teaching before, but regardless, I have approached my tasks and responsibilities with an open mind and strived to do my best.”

Have you ever taught before? If not, what were you doing before you decided to move abroad?  

“I’ve never taught before. Rather, I was working very close to home at a pharmacy. It had nothing to do with what I was majoring in, but I wanted some work experience and a reference for the future just in case. Earning my own money felt rewarding as it lessened my dependence on my parents and when I decided to participate in the program, it meant I could start saving for my year abroad.”

What did you think teaching abroad would be like? Where are you teaching? 

“I am an English teaching assistant at a primary school in Ontinyent, Spain, located in the Valencian Community.

I had a feeling that teaching abroad would be extremely difficult as I had no previous experience. And I had been put off it as a career by what my public school teachers had to say about it.

I also had no idea what my students’ proficiency level would be so thank God for the chance to do some homework on them on the Internet. The school’s online blog gave me a great insight into the faculty, the students, and what the school looked like. There were documents on the English classes, their textbooks and other learning materials. I was also heartened to see that the school had recently embarked on a cultural exchange with public schools in Africa. So my arrival wasn’t going to be jarring as they had already opened their hearts and minds to another culture.”

What expectations did you have before you came here?

“I had no expectations coming to Ontinyent. That isn’t to say that I wasn’t looking forward to it. Knowing I had finally made it out of New York meant I was aware that I would have a good time regardless of where I wound up.”

cityscape ontinyent spain

What were your perceptions of Ontinyent during your first year?

“Again, I had the Internet to thank for discovering that it wasn’t amongst the most isolated towns in the region (looking at you there, Bocairent). I saw there was a decently-sized shopping mall with chains like Zara and GAME (an equivalent of GameStop), as well as a movie theater. All of the major Spanish banks were there. And most important of all, there was a train station to Valencia. 

By the end of the first year, I had learned that family is highly valued in Ontinyent. At least once a week, regardless of work or social schedules, the family, from grandparents to grandchildren, will share a meal together.”

What were some of the accomplishments of your first year?

“Moving and living abroad is a big accomplishment in itself with all the changes it has brought  me. I had never lived away from home or on my own before. Suddenly in my own flat, there was no one to clean up, cook, or pay the bills. Those responsibilities all fell on me.

Ontinyent newspaper

Many people had warned me that the town isn’t ideal for young people with few nightlife options or places to hang out. Instead I just traveled to the major cities before returning to the calm of Ontinyent. It was a great balance for me.”

What do you want to achieve for your second year? 

“As much as I strive to plan my life (after all, I first heard of this program three years ago), I have no idea where it is going. This year, I am going to lay foundations  in case I decide to relocate to Ontinyent for good. This includes continuing to study the local language, Valencian, which is a dialect of Catalan. 

I want to attend Spanish language courses. While I know enough to be considered a native speaker, I still lack confidence. So it would help to be more proficient and understand the basic facets of the language. 

Also, while I can assume I did a decent enough job to warrant a warm and lovely “see you soon!” party at my school, I do feel that there is a lot I can improve on. Since I’m returning to the same center, I don’t have to spend the first few months meeting the faculty and students or familiarizing myself with the town. Like I told some of my co-workers, I come back ready to work!”

What advice would you give to other participants about your first year? What are some of the things they must do and some things they must absolutely not do? 

“The most important thing to realize about this program is that it is going to take a while to adjust to living in Spain if you’re not in a major city. You’re not going to easily find foreign cuisine or people who want to, or can, speak English. By the time I acclimatized to living abroad, which for me was around the New Year, I was already at the halfway point of my tenure. Keep that in mind if it takes you longer to adjust to a new surrounding.

Another piece of advice I have, and this is more personal, regards technology. Yes, it makes us all connected but while it is great to talk to loved ones back home, attempt to disconnect once in a while. Enjoy your newfound independence in a different setting.”

How do you feel about your integration into the culture so far? How did you prepare before you arrived? 

“Before my arrival, I explored the town’s tourism website and looked at the traditional dishes, holidays, and festivals celebrated throughout the year. Being in a small town helped me integrate easier than a tenure in Madrid or Barcelona. There aren’t fast-food chains to satisfy my American tastebuds. The stores in Ontinyent close around 8pm. And my town is also multi-generational.

Now that it’s a year later, I can say it was a great change for me. I am happy to be away from New York. Ontinyent was the perfect size for me. Living in big cities can cause anxiety if you don’t have a big weekend planned or spend too much time at home. Choices are limited in a small town. Most weekends entail a simple football match or drinks at someone’s apartment. I appreciated simple living. When I went on trips during vacation or long-weekend excursions, I had a greater drive to explore and enjoy my time away.

Culture Shock Made Easy

Since I am of Hispanic descent, there wasn’t much of a culture shock. The passion for football extended to my family, so I ended up attending a match at every stadium of the eight La Liga teams based in Madrid and Valencia. I was even able to attend the trophy ceremony for Valencia CF’s triumph in the Copa del Rey, the Spanish domestic cup competition.

The lack of a language barrier also made it seamless to fit in. I didn’t have much of an opportunity to stand out as a foreigner. However, with my co-workers and their family and friends, it was always fun to let them introduce themselves in English. I would always follow in Spanish and leave them astonished. It meant I was able to meet everyone in a more personable fashion. They would ask me about my life in New York and how I was adapting. Meanwhile, I would ask them about their life in a small town.

teaching abroad

Looking Forward to a Future in Ontinyent

Alongside that, learning Valencian has helped a lot. Understanding a conversation between two native speakers, saying that I was taking classes, or just switching from Spanish to Valencian continually impressed people. They couldn’t believe a New Yorker was not only interested in their language but was making a serious effort to be proficient in it even as they considered it “useless for my future in the country.” Even today, weeks removed from Ontinyent, I still think in Valencian.   

I had an enjoyable year in Ontinyent, and I’ve met some of the most generous and accommodating people. Because I have traveled around so much, I’ve seen more of Spain in one year than most people I know who’ve had the opportunity to visit in all their years of living in Spain. While I have a hard time measuring how well I’ve integrated into my new town, it has been enough that a few months away is difficult for me. I am eagerly looking forward to my second year.”

An Expat Living and Working Abroad in Ontinyent, Spain

Edgar shares details about his first year abroad living and working in Ontinyent, Spain. He provides guidance for first-year teachers who are just arriving. Expat life is not easy. It can take longer than one expects. After having lived in the Ontinyent area for a year, Edgar feels as if he has made friends at work and started to better understand the language. He is trying his best to learn and understand Valencian and they appreciate his willingness to do so. It takes time. Sometimes expats live abroad for years and still don’t feel a sense of full familiarity within their new home. Edgar plans to try his best in his second year to understand the culture better by perfecting Valencian.

We look forward to hearing more about Edgar’s second year in Ontinyent. Stay tuned for his second update in the late fall. 

by Leesa Truesdell