The Spanish Challenge: Giving Up English for Lent

One of my major reasons for moving to Ecuador was to learn Spanish properly. I’ve tried learning languages before, and it’s never gone too well, despite my best efforts to the contrary.

Years of primary school French resulted solely in a haphazardly memorised version of Frere Jaques; Italian GCSE threw me at the last hurdle with a sudden realisation I’d forgotten everything that I’d learned, ever, about grammar; and sharing a flat with fellow Brits in Florence for two months did virtually nothing to improve on my failing Italian skills.

In fact, the only time I felt like I was properly starting to absorb a language was last year, in India, when I spent six weeks in Chandigarh as the only Westerner amongst a group of Indians. Even though I’d never really tried to learn Hindi, I found myself starting to understand a surprising amount of people’s conversations, and it even reached the stage where I started dreaming of becoming some sort of language learning prodigy – maybe even a linguist by osmosis?!

So, on the back of that positive discovery, and knowing that I wanted to attack South America as my next big travelling adventure, I figured that my Spanish skills would be guaranteed to improve in a Spanish speaking country. Especially if I stayed put for a while.

Learn Spanish, lose English

Of course, that kind of skill doesn’t just appear overnight. I knew that if I wanted to learn Spanish properly, I was going to have to work at it – and part of the privilege that comes with immersion in a host country’s language is the expectation that you’ll actually make an effort to learn, and not just let the opportunities pass you by.

In simple terms, you get out of it what you put in.

So it seemed logical to attempt to stop speaking English as much as I possibly could. A great idea, right? The thing is, when you’ve moved to a new country with a group of people from the same country as you, it’s hard to stop speaking in your native tongue. And when I posed the idea of us giving up English for Lent, around the breakfast table in Quito one morning, I was royally shot down. Nobody appreciated the idea – and, if I’m honest, I didn’t really see it happening either.

It’s taken me until my move to Cuenca to really understand what an opportunity I have here. What I hadn’t considered was that teaching English to Ecuadorians is less about knowing how to teach, and more about being able to communicate – in whatever language necessary.

So if my students understand more Spanish than English then the decision is ultimately made for me: I have to improve my Spanish. More by necessity than by anything else.

The schedule of a volunteering teacher

My daily life here in Cuenca is busy, exhausting and fulfilling. The two placements I work at are worlds apart in some respects, but are strangely also rather similar. Both involve the need to control a room of people younger than myself; both require a certain level of Spanish to manage this feat. And, most importantly, both are proving more educational for me than I think I am for them. Even if that wasn’t the initial intention…

Every morning, I walk to Collegio Miguel Merchan, a high school about ten minutes from my host family’s apartment building. I spend about four hours repeating words very slowly and then writing various things on a whiteboard in front of bemused teenagers in concrete rooms, awaiting an alarm bell that sounds like an air raid siren, which rings out every forty minutes exactly.

I teach the same lesson at least three times to different classes; as soon as I get the hang of how to structure one lesson, it’s time to start a different subject. But with each new subject comes a little bit more awareness of how to approach it. While I’m still nervous and sometimes stumble on my words, I’m getting a growing sense of how a lesson should feel, and my pace of working is already improving.

A sudden education

In just one week, I’ve already learnt that the teaching skills I thought I possessed are redundant. The initial speed I tried to teach at has been halved, then halved again. My voice has grown in volume and the pronunciation of my every word has grown so refined that it would make Dame Maggie Smith happy.

I’m not great at discipline, though. Because my Spanish isn’t up to scratch, I can’t communicate thorough explanations to my students – and I can’t understand if they’re mocking me. Which is slightly annoying.

The children I teach at Miguel Merchan vary widely from class to class. Some are pleasantly calm, while some are so quiet that it’s nigh on impossible to elicit any kind of response; some are happy to engage in participation, while some are so keen that it backfires into excessive volume and makes the classroom impossible to control.

And then there are the problem students, like Pablo, who sits at the back with one headphone in his ear, dripping confidence and whispered sarcasm at 15 years old, standing up and walking around in direct opposition to my attempt at keeping order. And I know that shouting at him is pointless, and will only exacerbate matters, but it’s really tricky trying to hold my tongue in check.

A bit of English enthusiasm

It helps having a great faculty to work with, though. Miguel Merchan is a public school, with around eight hundred students and fifty three teachers; only five of the latter make up the English department. Five women with varying levels of English, all of whom are overwhelmingly eager to learn anything I can teach them from my native language background.

I think it’s because they know it’s complete luck that they even have volunteers working with them – Ryan, a volunteer who’s already spent six months working in Cuenca, was the one who decided the school needed help with teaching English. Not satisfied with his initial placements, he essentially wandered in and asked if they’d let him teach; six months down the line and his name is uttered like that of a god. Clearly there’s a dire need for proactive and enthusiastic teachers in Ecuador.

After a heady morning, it’s back to my host family’s apartment for a group lunch, a quick chat and a change of clothes, before a bus ride to Perpetuo Soccoro and a room filled with babies. This daycare centre run by Catholic nuns is for children who come from single parent families; I spend the afternoons looking after anywhere between four and ten of them, depending on how many parents are working on any given day.

Playing with babies

These little things, only about a year old, can barely speak, but my hands are still full; Justin always tries to feed me his food and clambers into my lap, Samantha starts to cry if she’s not being held when someone else is, and Joseni totters off so swiftly that it’s an involuntary game of hide and seek trying to locate her. Kevin, on the other hand, stays so silent that I’m expecting him to do something monumentous in the near future…

Despite being one of the cutest ones, Brittany is also the perpetrator of some of the worst nappy explosions I’ve ever had the misfortune to witness. And my initial “oh my god I’ve never changed a nappy before” moment was put to rest in my first five minutes at Perpetuo Soccoro. In the last week I’ve changed these babies and wiped their bottoms too many times to count. Still doesn’t make it any less gross, though.

Once nappies are changed, it’s time for new clothes, too – outfits that their parents have supplied, pre packed in their changing bags. It’s somewhat eye opening to see the same outfits emerging day after day. Next comes a wash of the face with a wet wipe, followed by a hair wash with a spray bottle of water normally reserved for spraying plants. This is often the only wash they have each day; when I realised this, my cleaning techniques grew a great deal more rigorous.

Cleaning done, there’s normally some kind of crying outburst which has to be dealt with. I’ve quickly learned that, while working with teenagers is tricky; working with babies is, possibly, even more so.

Because it’s really difficult to disentangle yourself from the flailing arms of a crying one year old who just wants a hug, because the stern faced young Ecuadorian woman who runs the show (well, the room, anyway) says that this little thing needs to practice walking. All I want to do is pick her up and whisper in her ear (who cares if it’s in English? I can’t be comforting in Spanish!) – but I know there’s a protocol to be followed. One which I’ve not got to grips with yet, but I’m learning.

Developing a learning method

This daily routine constantly pushes home to me how much Spanish I don’t actually know. There’s a growing stockpile of unknown words and phrases in my head; things that I discover I cannot say that I simultaneously have to learn in order to make my days more manageable.

Because how can I wander around my classroom with authority and check on group work if I can’t remember how to say, “I want to listen to you speaking”? And how do I comfort a crying baby when the phrase for “why are you crying?” isn’t on the tip of my tongue?

So I’ve begun another routine element to my days, that fits neatly into the ten minute walk to and from school in the mornings and the ten minutes to and from my bus stop in the afternoons. It gives me forty minutes to read out loud from my little book of scribbled Spanish notes, attempting to make my brain create images and word association – “knees, rubilla, oh dear – and why does that link make sense? Because I might get arthritic knees?…”

And it’s gone a step further, as my obsessive mentality was always destined to take it. This little notebook is always in my bag; if there’s a phrase I suddenly think of that I can’t translate to Spanish, whoever I’m with is forced to help me out. I’m pretty sure my friends are getting tired of my constant language questioning, but I honestly don’t care.

Can it be? Is my Spanish actually improving?!

The more of a challenge this language is – the more puzzling and fascinating it becomes – the more likely I am to want to try and succeed at it. Because I can feel the skill of speaking Spanish getting tantalisingly close; like when I realise I’ve understood whole sentences from strangers at the bus stop, or when I talk to fellow teachers and don’t need to think too much about the words I’m saying.

It’s a far cry from those boring GCSE lessons I dealt with a decade ago. This time around, I can understand the benefits of speaking another language. So even though teaching is exhausting, and changing nappies is a bit disgusting, it’s a challenge I’m willing to face, because the prize is invaluable.

What’s even stranger about all this, though, is my growing realisation that even if I don’t come away from my time in Ecuador speaking fluent Spanish, I’ll still feel like I’ve accomplished something wonderful.

Because if this last week has shown me anything, it’s an indication that I’m going to end up with a lot more in terms of rewards than mere fluency.

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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20 Responses to The Spanish Challenge: Giving Up English for Lent

  1. Cat of Sunshine and Siestas March 17, 2013 at 2:43 pm #

    I never expected teaching English to be fun, let alone fulfilling. It’s definitely helped me improve my Spanish by trying to understand why my students make the mistakes they make. That, and the Spanish boyfriend helped! Suerte, guapa!

  2. Runaway Jane March 17, 2013 at 3:53 pm #

    I love this article Flora! It makes me want to teach English in South America! ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Ceri March 17, 2013 at 6:41 pm #

    This is such a fabulous post, hun. Really.

    I really admire what you’re doing. This is exactly what I want to do when I return to LatAm. And I want my Spanish to improve too. I didn’t give it the dedication that you’re giving yours at the moment. After a day of teaching adults (where the school rules forbid any Spanish translations in class), I was too exhausted to carry on with any Spanish practice and definitely didn’t put the effort in that I could have.

    I do love that you’re learning Ecuadorian Spanish though. ๐Ÿ˜€ Such a nice change.

  4. Kay March 18, 2013 at 1:21 am #

    This is a really wonderful way to improve your Spanish, and it definitely seems like both a rewarding and challenging experience! I admire your determination a lot!

  5. Ryan March 18, 2013 at 5:45 pm #

    Wow, Flora, way to throw yourself in. THis sounds like an excellent way to learn and I really need to work on my own discipline when it comes to learning languages. Dying to learn French and Creole, and I really need to just lock down and learn it.

    On the flip side, I want to teach English in Asia and I think it’s awesome what you are doing. Love to find out how you got into it!

  6. Arianwen March 20, 2013 at 2:33 pm #

    This sounds like an incredible experience. I’d love to teach or volunteer again, and Ecuador has been my favourite country in the world so far. It sounds like you are getting on pretty well with the Spanish. I feel like mine’s slipping away now I’ve left South America but I’m still doing the odd lesson here and there.

    • Flora March 28, 2013 at 1:24 pm #

      Aww I’m so glad Ecuador’s been one of your favourites! Makes me feel like I made the right decision in choosing to base myself here for so long ๐Ÿ™‚ The Spanish is probably so much better when you’re being forced to use it – already I notice I don’t speak it enough around my host family because their English is so good, but luckily at school it’s the opposite situation! I’m sure your skills will stay in your head though – a little rusty, maybe, but when you need them they’ll be there ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Steve aka Backpackersteve March 21, 2013 at 1:40 am #

    Hey Flora,

    I’m now down here in Latin America since more than 4 months and it took me almost 3 months to feel more or less comfortable in speaking spanish. Since I started to push myself more out of the comfort zone by hanging out with locals who barely speak english it started to improve.

    Right now I’m hitchhiking through Argentina and Chile, entertaining local drivers for hours with my non-perfect spanish. It’s so much fun and I really enjoy the travel much more. Nevertheless I’m planing to improve my skills with an additional course in a few weeks.

    All the efforts are worth it!

  8. Emily April 1, 2013 at 8:29 pm #

    My sweet hubby and I have been living in Mexico for most of the past 3 years, and it has been a real struggle to improve our Spanish.

    We live on a sailboat here, and all of our friends are Americans and Canadians living on sailboats and sailing the coast too. Not only is our community all English-speaking, but our Mexican hosts, everywhere we go, speak better English than we do Spanish. So the default language is always English.

    The one time I found my Spanish really improved was when I befriended the Mexican captain of a fishing boat two slips down from our boat. His English was terrible, and he thought I showed some promise with my Spanish, so he refused to speak English with me.

    He was extremely patient and repeated himself endlessly, and my Spanish slowly improved.

    But I would think being a teacher to Spanish-speaking students would be an awesome opportunity to learn to speak in Spanish… good luck with it!!!

  9. Mark Lewis July 11, 2013 at 5:37 am #

    I am in my 30’s so I’m no teenager going through a stage.

    . . I really think my parents are ignorant and lack social skills amongst many other issues.
    If they weren’t my parents, I would certainly not be friends with them. They weren’t very good parents to me when I was a
    child, nor are they now. . . Is it ok that I don’t really care to have a relationship with them? They don’t seem to care to have
    one with me so what’s the big deal?. . When I tell others this, they seem to think I’m crazy and that I have an obligation to keep them in my life, just
    because they happen to be my parents. . . Do you think that maintaining a relationship with parents
    that were not good to you and that you have nothing in common with
    is something that society has taught us to do,
    or do you think it’s something that most people genuinly feel the need to do. Nature vs. nurture?.

  10. Jessica Festa July 22, 2016 at 8:34 pm #

    What a fascinating idea, I was grabbed by the title of this article immediately. My roommate and best friend is originally from Paraguay. She moved to South Carolina when she was three. She, therefore, is blessed with being perfectly fluent in both languages. At home, we often will converse solely in Spanish so as to have a (not so secret) secret language of our own ๐Ÿ™‚ What a lovely language it is!

    • Flora July 24, 2016 at 3:44 pm #

      Aww that’s such a lovely thing to be able to do with your best friend, Jessica! None of my closest friends speak Spanish unfortunately, but they do speak some other languages – maybe I should expand my language challenge repertoire?!

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