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The Perks of being a Language Assistant in Spain

2016/2017 Posted by Jessica W.

Every morning, on the bus to school, I am eased into the day with a glorious sunrise. The madrileño sun is seemingly as laidback as the Spanish people, reluctant to make an appearance until 8.30 am. Watching it out the window really is pathetic fallacy at its finest; as I admire the harmony of a pastel-streaked sky, I arrive to a work placement that I love.

My colleagues are great, the students are motivated and there are free buffet lunches. What’s not to like about being an English Language Assistant in Spain?

language assistant
Here is the mugshot from my first day (incongruently taken outside the science labs).

Colegio Orvalle, in the suburbs of Madrid, is an all-girls private school which caters for children from 1-18 years old. I must say, it took a while to get used to sitting on a school bus surrounded by infants. These tiny little uniformed people clamber onto the bus every day with their quilted coats and homework folders. Occasionally, they cry for their mums, but it really is a remarkably infrequent occurrence. One toddler refuses to settle unless I detach and reattach the head of her Elsa figurine repeatedly and sing Let It Go intermittently; depending on whether she does or does not have a head at any given moment. Other than that, their professionalism puts me to shame.

Although I enjoy this short spell with the kindergarten contingent in the mornings, I teach primarily secondary level students.

Effectively, my role is to offer the students an informal setting where they can chat in preparation for their speaking exams. As they are older and have a globally high level of English, I get a day full of honest and – usually – quality conversation. Of course, they still make errors. Here are my top 3 favourite mistakes:

1. Boring vs. Bored

This distinction has proven to be difficult for Spanish students; as the Spanish language uses the same word for both (“aburrido”). So what I hear on a regular basis is: “I do not like Art because I am very boring.” 

Oh dear, well that’s not a great defining personal quality.

2. Jam vs. Ham

If we apply the rules of Spanish pronunciation to English, there is no difference between “jam” and “ham”. Both sound like “ham” (but preceded by an unpleasant guttural sound). As a result, these two classic accompaniments to bread cause a lot of confusion for Spanish children; and more so me, when I’m trying to fill their sandwiches correctly.

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Word-search example

3. Ok, so a secondary level student didn’t make this mistake; but it was so wonderful that I have included it anyway. The objective of this activity was to find the body parts in the word-search. The student was supposed to circle “ears” but got a bit confused and circled “arse”. At least she found another body part…

There is one Golden Rule when I’m with the students: don’t let them know that I speak Spanish. My colleagues are very insistent that I keep all communication in English, because as soon as they know my secret – that I understand their native language – they will start taking shortcuts. I understand the theory behind this; although an unfortunate side-effect of this practice is that the students think I am extremely ignorant and unintelligent. They pester me frequently, “Say something in Spanish! Say something in Spanish!” and I have to simply say “I can’t.” They look at me with a mixture of confusion, disgust, and disappointment on their faces as they process the fact that I have lived in Spain for two months and cannot muster a single sentence. But I trust that my projected idiocy is all for their benefit.

All in all, I spend most of my day laughing. I do mock exams with them, yes, but we always make sure to take a couple of minutes at the end of each class to discuss peanut M&Ms or deliberate over which of the two birthday parties they should go to on Saturday night. In the years to come, when I am drowning in scrawls of blue biro, assessment charts and disorganized stacks of vocabulary books; I know I will look back enviously on the unique privileges I had as a language assistant:

Language assistant
With some of my students in Orvalle

Essentially I get the human connection without the tiresome preparation. I get the conversation without the aggravation. Moreover, I can take the time to get to know the girls behind the pieces of work, on a closer, more personal level. Instead of seeing them as a string of English essay phrases, or a grammar test spattered with mistakes, I see them at their essence; teenage girls conflicted with passions and ambitions and exasperations.

I may not know all their names; as it’s basically a lucky dip between María, Ana, Marta, Belén, Blanca, Lucía, Carmen, Sofía or Teresa. However, I know what drives them, inspires them and tires them. One student is in the process of publishing a book at the age of 13. Another, an avid songwriter, is willing to bare her soul to me via email as she asks me to listen to some of her samples. Then there’s the girl who, when we get to the friendship question, asks politely, “can we skip this one?”

I finish at 3 pm each day having always learnt something new from these girls or having been challenged by something they have said. They are so ordinary in their worldly preoccupations and stresses but so extraordinary in the individuality that lies behind all that. Most afternoons after class, I go for a run; not because I enjoy running, but because being out in the Spanish countryside, with a soft sunset over the mountains and the Madrid skyline as a backdrop, gives me a chance to clear my head and appreciate where I am and what I’m doing. And there really are worse ways to end a teaching day.

30 July, 2019

1 responses on "The Perks of being a Language Assistant in Spain"

  1. “ I know what drives them, inspires them and tires them.” I love that you have gotten to know your students on such a profound level. This was a great story to read and nice to see the perspectives from someone in a completely different school environment from mine.

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