Wednesday, 9 November 2016

How do solve a problem like Spanish?

One problem with TEFL is that working in English all day, can make it difficult to improve your own language skills.

After a long day of classes, you might want to unwind by watching TV, reading a book or listening to music. The only Spanish you might use all day is to order a coffee, or to say hello or goodbye. I am not against taking classes, but it can be difficult to fit them into your schedule, when you also teach evenings.

One problem I have found in Spain, is that people refuse to accept that you can speak in their language, and anyway, they want to practice their English. Conversely, some people spend a whole conversation congratulating you on your smattering of words and phrases. Either way, you don't get much chance to practice and improve.

Another curse of teaching language, is that you become a good communicator. You learn to avoid the language that you don't know, and to work your way around it. You find a different route to understanding. This really puts the kai bosch on you increasing range and cutting out errors.

To ensure that I improve my Spanish at least a little, here are some steps I have taken since moving to Pamplona:


Bilingual living

Living with Spanish speakers (native and non native), is one way to ensure you get some conversation. We don't have a strict schedule for speaking English or Spanish, it depends on who feels like speaking what, and when. The important thing is that the topics you cover vary from the usual.

Whilst language exchange events can be useful, you tend to introduce yourself a lot, so getting deeper into a conversation can be more difficult. There are certain topics that I'm sick to the back teeth of discussing:

The monarchy
The difference between England, Great Britain, and the UK
Bad British food
The weather

Please no more!

Hosting travellers and couch surfers can be another way to connect with Spanish speakers. It is not every day you meet Costa Rican cyclists who want to tell you about getting their first tattoo (of their wife's names), but that happened recently!


Escucha a la musica:

While I have opened my music tastes a little, I'll be honest, I don't know a whole lot of songs or artists who sing in Spanish. I listen to the radio in Spanish (Radio 3 is my favourite), but there is a difference between passively understanding the sentiment of lyrics, and really understanding them.

For music groups that people recommend, I make sure to look them up on the website Lyrics Training. Lyrics training is a kind of game where you have to listen and type in the words which appear in sync with the music. It really helps you to understand every line, and after five attempts or so, the song is definitely stuck in your head! If they don't have a song, you can add it quite easily yourself.

Another point on music that I must make is to share my bad experience with a music shop here. Please indulge me some blog space to badmouth Unión Musicál. I realise most readers live outside of Pamplona, but anything logged on the internet to hurt there business is good in my book.

Do not use Unión Musicál UME music shop / no utilize Unión Musicál UME tienda de musica
They give bad service and will trick you / Dan muy mal servicio y se engañarán

If you are genuinely interested in my tale of woe, you can see my review here. Spread the word.


On the sofa

I must admit, that the videos I watch are mostly in English. Spanish TV is mostly news, and reality shows. I have switched on Spanish subtitles on our TV though, which helps to distinguish between the acronyms of the 15 or so political parties.

Some TV shows I have enjoyed are Club de Cuervos (Mexican football comedy), El Principe (Spanish police drama), TUF Latin America (reality fighting show) and Narcos (only half in Spanish and Escobar has a funky Brazilian accent).

TV is OK, but Spanish and Latin American cinema is a much better way to learn Spanish. I've written before about some Latin American films worth watching, and after a few more months here, I will have some more to recommend.


Practice what you preach

Some other ways I have been trying to improve a little include setting aside three hours a week for boring grammar exercises and by reading books I've already read in English. With stories you know, you can focus less on the characters and events, and more on the words!

I have also been contacting one friend per day in Spanish on Facebook. The amount of practice you get from this method tends to depend on how much they like you.

I am trying to arrange another interchange of classes. Conversation and some book style learning. I have done this before, and it can be beneficial if both parties put in the effort. At the very least, it is more time dedicated to the subject, and a weekly reminder for the need to improve. I am not sure if my goal with Spanish is to take an exam, to sound more natural or to reach a certain level, but I think weekly classes will help me figure it out.

To fit in extra work like this, you often have to sacrifice something, and my weekly Juevinxos hangover might have to be it! I am by no means making leaps and bounds with Spanish, but without making time for it I run the risk of being another TEFL hypocrite, preaching about the need to learn language all day, while speaking only one. English.

and now to translate all of this into Spanish . . .

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Adventures from the classroom 27

Best Friend Forever

I have a new BFF, and it's a company car.

Our beautiful 1999 Peugeot 406 sports a 'BFF' number plate and carries me between classes with moderate speed and only minor clutch issues.

I never thought I would be driving again, but Navarra demands it. It's a state that has a lot of medium sized companies outside of the capital, and these business want English. Cue me and my car.

I travel twice a day to different places to teach a class - one company makes plastic coatings, one is a freight and logistics company, and one is an NGO which consults for local businesses.

Companies can often write off the expense of language classes with some clever tax trickery, so there's a huge demand for English and German (VW factory) in the area.

Everyone is a winner right?

Well, kind of. Most companies ask employees to attend before work or during their lunch break, so this means my classes start early or you have to eat later.

Thankfully, companies aren't too focused on archaic Business English books, so classes are tailored to the students' interests and consist of conversation, games and bad jokes. Keeping the clients happy shouldn't be too hard, although getting them to do any homework is going to be a challenge.

View of Pamplona from Cordovilla offices


Face time:

In addition to business and exam preparation classes, I have several one-to-one classes each week. Many adults are happy to pay for more personal focus, allowing more time for feedback, questions and explanations.

90 minutes can sometimes feel like a long time with one student, and without group discussion conversation can run a little dry. However, by taking a keen interest in their lives and bringing a few prompts or activities to class usually solves the problem.

One of the classes is with my landlord, so we can always talk about the broken socket, of pick a new colour for the walls. Another class is conducted over Skype, so we waste a good 15 minutes fixing technical problems and repeating ourselves.

Some people want to be scolded and corrected at every mistake, and some need a lot of coaxing to express themselves in detail and not just utter the bare minimum. Many are working towards Cambridge exams and we only have time for practice questions and strategy.

One thing I try to get across to my students, is that to progress, they have to fit English in to their lifestyles. The four hours of book work you pencil in for Sunday evening, won't happen. Developing daily habits and blocking out short periods make English less daunting and more of a reality. Even if you don't live abroad, seeing real application for the language you are learning is easier than you think - radio, TV, social networks, application, news. You have to just develop those habits.

A typical exam preparation class at the academy


Etymological salubrity

Vocabulary is one of the easiest takeaways for students. If they learn six new words and practice them, they can walk out of class feeling like they got what they paid for.

As language teachers we often have to simplify our language for such long periods that our own vocabulary suffers. I'd like to give a special mention to a colleague Andrew who is so determined to maintain his lexical variety that he told me he wouldn't be going out for a drink as he was at a 'temporarily impecunious juncture within the calendar'.

After asking him what the hell he meant, he clarified that he was broke.

A lot of my students have a B2 level or higher, so they really gobble up idioms and slang phrases that they haven't encountered before. As a native speaker, this is what I can bring to the table. Student books often contain rather dry, scholastic language so using some real life expressions can breathe a bit of fresh air into the class.

The Cambridge exams are almost exclusively a test of your vocabulary and ability to recognise synonyms, so the more we practice using alternatives, the better.

To be honest, vocab outside of texts or listenings isn't something I have focused on before but I am making a real effort this year. I nag my students to display their vocab sheets on the fridge or below the TV - somewhere unavoidable in your eye line. To successfully acquire new words you have to revise, practice and produce them, so copying them and leaving the sheet in a folder won't help. I had another suggestion to add them as a calendar appointment online, giving you an email reminder to look again.

I like to think on my feet, so I scribble words on the board throughout the class explaining as I go. At the end of class, the students copy the list and test each other through one of the following methods:

  • Which word . . . ?
  • Synonyms / Antonyms
  • Translation
  • Example sentences / questions
  • definition
  • Spelling
  • Mime
  • Parts of speech

So the theory goes anyway. I'll keep you updated with the development of my students' lexical prowess.


Warming the cockles

Pamplona is indeed one of the coldest places in Spain, but this is not this kind of heat I speak of. One particular foible of teaching adults rather than kids is that they like to offer the bare minimum and downplay the events in their life.

"How's it going?"
"Fine . . ."
"Have you got any news since the last class?"
"Not really."

"OK. Turn to page 37 please."

You need to 'warmer' activities to put the little grey cells to work and switch the brain to 'active mode'.

The vocab test exercise works well for this, but it can be a bit repetitive so I've come up with a few other ideas.

Recently, I've been using drinking games to get things going - 21, 5s, fuzzy duck (although I have yet to think of a suitable punishment for losing). We also have some card games like Taboo and Card against humanity which work well if you have more time.

One thing I like to do to break the constricted 'grown up' pattern of thought is get them to solve a problem or make a decision.

"Think of 5 creative uses for paper clips"
"Create a rule that the class has to follow today"

and my personal favourite "What do you know about . . ."

The other day I brought a potato to class and made everyone produce 'potato facts'. It really breaks the linear pattern of thought.

"Yes we know it is a potato. Tell me about the appearance, history, growing conditions, origin, importance, and uses for it."

The winner of best spud fact won the potato as a prize (who says I never buy anything for the students?)


The Twain train

Another part of my quest to guide learners towards authentic English is to work through a book during the year.

I chose the Adventures of Tom Sawyer as it has some fairly simple allegorical concepts, some simplistic characters and is available for free online.

I get the students to read two short chapters per week and complete a short task (summary, order the events, review, character sketch, T/F questions etc.) It is easy to see if they've done the homework anyway!

It is going well enough at the moment and provides a good 30 minute break from the coursebook. However, I am starting to realise that I have really set myself the homework of reading it cover to cover too as the teacher needs to know the text inside out.

End of chapter 27.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Passage to Pamplona

In this year of great change I have finally come to stationary in Northern Spain. 

I found Andalucía an inspiring place, but it wasn't not somewhere that I really connected with. I moved to Spain to get back to the 'normality' of city life - socialising, amenities, business, and have finally accomplished my goal of actually being in a city!

I moved here to work in an academy with adults (just when I was getting the hang of teaching ten year olds). So far all is well, classes are small, mostly exam preparation, and the academy is 5 minutes from my front door - although I'm sure working with adults will have its pitfalls too!

I am sharing a flat with Javier - a secondary school teacher from Zaragoza with a love of whiskey, rock music, mullets and Wales for some reason. It's good to live with a Spanish speaker, I hope it gives me the impetus to improve - maybe we'll find a third amigo too.

City of parks - just two minutes from my front door

Pamplona really is the polar opposite of Andalucía. It's the coldest place in Spain and rainy too. It's a city with one foot in Spain, and one foot in the Basque country, I actually flew to France to get here!

The people are tall, with Gallic noses and a penchant for rowing, rugby and cycling. It's a place of business (Basque tax breaks), and a place of study (two big Universities).

It's green and high rise all at once.

And it has just as many weird traditions as anywhere else in Spain, such as Saint's days (next weekend is San Fermín Chiqui - a practice run and mini version of Pamplona's main festival). I have already seen a cardboard bull dance with drums and a brass band second line a la New Orleans.


Pamplona facts:

  • Pamplona is capital of Navarra province, one of the smallest and least know regions of Spain.
  • The St. James way - or Camino de Santiago runs through the centre of the city. This means you see a lot of North Face clad oldies, cycle enthusiasts and pilgrims - all with their Camino de Santiago booklets open, ready to get the Pamplona stamp.

  • Ideas Peregrinos (pilgrim ideas) is an expression which means to be stupid here in Pamplona.
  • Pamplona was a birthplace of the disposable nappy with worldwide brand Pampers naming its product of the site of the invention. Exactly where the baby diapers where designed remains a bone of contention with residents of nearby Logroño claiming the invention. When Proctor & Gamble bought naming rights to Pamplona's Stadium, Logroño began a permanent boycott of their products leading to it being known by the nickname of Huggies.
  • Every Thursday bars in the old town run a promotion where a drink and snack together cost two Euros. Juevintxo (a mixture of the words for Thursday and Snack foods) brings all the punters to the city centre (especially the students) resulting in a pub crawl atmosphere. With all that food getting eaten, it's a lot less drunken though.
Pintxos in Pamplona
  • Patron saint of Pamplona, San Fermín was known as protector of cattle and was dead against Bull Fighting. During the festival given in his honour, city restaurants take any beef dishes off the menu and one bull is saved from the sword and named as king of the city for one day (crown included).
  • Ben Affleck gained inspiration for his Oscar winning screenplay Argo, whilst on holiday in Spain when he took a barge down the river of the same name which flows through Pamplona.
  • Blocks are known as manzanas here and are built as estates with a central space for gardens, sports pitches or seats.
  • Pamplona's premier football team Osasuna are one of five Basque teams now in La Liga. The word means 'health' in Basque, although they currently reside in the sickly position of 18th in the table.
Disclaimer - more than one of these facts may not in fact be factually correct.


Pamplona is a multi layered city in more ways than one.

San Jorge and Rochapea, lie to the north of the river, in the lower part of Pamplona. The city walls and difference in altitude give pretty impressive views when you look to the north, and make it easy to navigate. In fact the city is small enough to walk around, which is quite an achievement for a place that is so green, and has almost 200,000 residents.

Well, that's my introduction to this rather complex city in which I now reside. I'll bring you more titbits (or pintxos) as I receive them.

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