I’m a university student studying languages, currently on my year abroad, and I’m interning at Oxford House in Barcelona to try and improve my Spanish. This is the first time I’ve lived abroad for any stretch of time, and it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster already, even though I’ve only been here for a week. But I can honestly say that the experience so far of living in a city like Barcelona has been challenging at times, but absolutely incredible.
I’m interning at a language school, but I don’t know anything about teaching; I definitely see myself as a student, not a teacher. But I’m going to use my rather limited six-week intern wisdom to say that language learning, and just using language, is totally different in a classroom as opposed to in the world of work, or everyday life. I was in a university room reading Spanish poetry and now I’m trying to ask for a bag at the supermarket, and I can hardly remember how to say what my name is. I’m not saying my classroom Spanish was perfect (far, far from it), but surely, it was better than this?
But it doesn’t matter how much literature you read (or how often you slyly reach for the English version), it doesn’t compare to talking to real people at a real pace. And not even necessarily because you can’t understand, but because you can’t respond, which can be extremely frustrating. And then pretty often, of course, you just can’t understand.
But then it’s truly incredible at the same time. Because when you can do it, it’s so rewarding. I genuinely think it’s a little bit addictive; that sense of satisfaction when you use a word you heard someone say the other day, and when shop assistants have a conversation with you in a touristy area and don’t switch to English. And as time goes on, and you learn more and more, these mini successes are more and more frequent.
So I suppose I want to emphasise the importance of language students speaking to native speakers in a natural environment. Being taught things like grammar and vocabulary in a classroom is of course very important, but is totally different. And then while a conversation class with a native speaker is obviously extremely valuable, even that isn’t the same. While I’ve been here I’ve seen one teacher take her English class out onto the streets of Barcelona to give directions to tourists, and I thought that was a brilliant idea. Knocking away that fear of speaking to real people, straight away giving the students a boost in confidence and showing them real proof that they can speak English. Apparently they were terrified when she first told them what they were going to do, but when I arrived to take some photos for them, they’d been going for a while and seemed to be having a fantastic time. And in a way this is kind of what it’s been like, at least for me, moving to Barcelona for a few weeks; initially I was very nervous, but as time has gone on I’ve been getting more and more comfortable, as well as learning little idiomatic nuances all over the place.
So it’s also been revolutionary for my language. I had studied Spanish for quite a while but was initially totally thrown off by actual Spain. I don’t know if it’s about confidence, fluency or even plain shyness, but honestly, I think it’s inevitable. Everyone has that little linguistic hurdle to jump over, moving from the theory of the classroom to real life. It’s a totally different way of learning, and however scary it is at first, it’s so rewarding, because while the challenges seem a lot more real, so do the successes.
So then if you want to learn or develop your Spanish, why not do it in Spain in the first place? Combine the classroom textbook work and the real life fumbling for words at the checkout work in one fell swoop, all while discovering life in a new and beautiful city. And if you want to learn to teach English, why not do it abroad? In fact, why not learn to teach English and be a language student at the same time? Get a real sense of what it could be like for your future students. Because what works for you might work for them (that talking to tourists trick will certainly stick in my memory).
If you’re thinking of doing a TEFL course abroad, go for it. If you want to study some Spanish while living in Spain, maybe even while doing a TEFL course, definitely go for it. Yes, you can study locally if you want, but if you have the option of going abroad, I’d definitely say to do it. Because, at least as far as my six-week intern wisdom stretches, there’s nothing like it.
This blog post has been written by Rachel Jones who is currently completing an internship at Oxford TEFL in Barcelona. She’s originally from London and is studying for a degree in German and Spanish.