I once read that the human brain can remember 1.75 languages. Whether this is a fact or a complete fabrication, it is true that I can feel English words slipping away from my memory as my Spanish vocabulary expands! This is unfortunate, and untimely, because as a newly qualified English teacher, students expect me to know more words than the Oxford English Dictionary.
At home, our daily dialogue has started to involve filling in each other’s blanks when simple words are lost. This week alone we recovered: ‘disqualified’, ‘trespass’, and ‘spatula’. Not very promising.
More often than not, you don’t move to Spain to better your career prospects, at least not in the short term. Instead we were lured by the change of lifestyle, and of course, the sun!
So, teaching English is a perfect plan B for someone like me, who is not yet bilingual and will take a bit of time to find work here. And it would seem it is not an uncommon step to take, with everyone from college graduates to the semi-retired trying their hand at this at some point. As with any job, there are pros and cons. One of the down sides is that I don’t get a chance to practise Spanish in the workplace, automatically hindering my progress. Yet, on the contrary, when learning the depths (I mean the basics) of the English language, learning Spanish becomes easier too.
Native English speakers often don’t learn grammar at school, and I was ashamed not to “know” my own language whilst dedicating time and effort to learning the ins and outs of another. So, before I taught anyone, I had to teach myself. “English Grammar in Use” became my bible and I carried my well-thumbed copy with me wherever I went. It wasn’t a chore to learn, nor did I see it as extra work, because not only could I now confidently teach a class on the future simple tense but when the time came to tackle the “futuro simple” in Español, I was raring to go!
(Note: The grammatical differences between these two languages are stark, however, it was progress simply to know the terminology considering I had to remind myself what a verb was just weeks before)!
But before signing my first contract (teaching adults in the workplace), one language school asked me to clarify that I was a native English speaker. Confused, I confirmed that I was. They said they just had to “warn” me that if the students couldn’t understand my Scottish accent, then they would have to “reconsider” my position, but not to take it personally.
I didn’t. I was quietly confident that I sounded “neutral” enough on the broad and undulating scale of Scottish accents to be understood. (Mine may have diluted since moving here…but yours would too if your job was at stake)!
Each student has their own reason for “needing” English, and most want to improve. At times, they are frustrated with their own efforts, aware of the mistakes they are making. But I was encouraging – I could only aspire to be able to communicate this much in another language. I sympathised with the lower level students (the equivalents of me), but my sympathies quickly turned towards my own Spanish teacher who must have dreaded our hour of broken conversation each week! But we all have to start somewhere…
Not all students are eager and willing though. After all, who wants to give up time in their valuable (albeit, generous) lunch-break to revise pronouns, prepositions, and pronunciation.
But aside from the boring stuff, there was always time for a bit of chat.
I learned more about Spain, its people, and their customs from these students in my first few months of teaching than from any internet search, TV show, or guidebook. Luckily for me, they liked to talk about themselves and their lives and I invited it, being the curious (read: nosey) person that I am.
I decided it was worth the low pay to learn someone’s madre’s tortilla de patatas recipe, or to understand the importance of the chiringuito on holiday to the beach or to discover where the best olive oil is produced.
I was struck by the passion people had for their own regions of the country (particularly the fiercely defensive Southerners) and I began to recognise regional identities – picking up on differences in accents and even personality traits between Sevillanos and Madrileños, for example.
And there is no way I could have navigated Navidad and all its associated traditions had it not been for these guys talking me through the endless festivities for weeks in advance!
But when they weren’t talking about the best cuts of jamón or complaining about the government, I heard plenty about their personal lives too – the good, the bad and the ugly. I began to wonder if it is easier to share your problems in another language. There is a certain vulnerability about a student, whether you are learning languages or dance or anything in between, you expose a lot of yourself trying to communicate.
I wouldn’t have half of the knowledge or understanding had it not been for these students openly and honestly sharing their stories, feeding me facts or expressing their (often direct) opinions.
And I needn’t have worried about my native tongue! It warmed my heart to know that they LOVED Scotland (all credit to ‘Outlander’), and I revelled in sharing my passion for my own country with them.
So, as long as I can continue to keep my accent under control, I will go on to teach more interesting (and super-chic) Spaniards who in turn, will teach me more invaluable lessons for life here (and hopefully let me into their style secrets too)!