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.