“Adrift between two dialects”: Teaching English in Madrid -The Toast

Skip to the article, or search this site

Home: The Toast

“Do you have any specific suggestions for improvement for Elena? Anything that would help you learn more in class?”

“I think that she has to feel a little bit more confident.”

As I pressed the button on the door of the green fence and waited to be buzzed into my new secondary school, I felt close to losing both my resolve and my breakfast. Once inside the blocky brick building, I approached the identically dressed women at the front desk and stammered my way through a question, to which they responded by leading me to the English department. There, an English teacher ushered me into an empty classroom decorated with British travel and university posters. As I watched a storm of teenagers pour through the door, chattering in a Spanish slang I barely understood over the sound of chairs scraping against the floor, I fervently wished to be back in the familiar cradle of my own country and my old university, from which I had graduated only months before.

The teacher explained that this class was 3A—tercero de la ESO (ninth grade), bilingual section. Seeing my wide-eyed stare, he allowed me to sit at his corner desk and observe while he bantered with the students, asking them about their vacations and joking about the amount of homework they would be assigned that year. Switching to English, he asked them to tell me how many children he had. “Zero,” they chorused. He asked, “But how many children do I have?” “Twenty-six,” they replied, and I smiled in spite of my nerves, faintly hoping that everything would turn out well.

The next day, I stood in front of these twenty-six new faces and clutched my notebook to me with clammy palms, frantically looking down at my scribbled notes just in case I forgot that I had a twin brother named Alejandro, that I was from California, or that I had danced ballet all my life. Over the next week, I repeated my introduction to the other groups I would be working with that year, eventually trusting myself to remember my age and my favorite TV show without written prompts. I even began joking about the fútbol team I would ally myself with—should it be Real Madrid or Atlético de Madrid? (The response from fans of both sides was vociferous.)

Months earlier, when I first learned that I had been accepted to the program that paid me to live and teach in Madrid, I double- and triple-checked the email, then ran up and down my dorm hallways knocking on doors until I found someone to celebrate with me. It was the perfect job, I thought at the time; it would give me an opportunity to teach, to see more of the world, to immerse myself in a different culture. Most of all, it would allow me to escape the comfortable, constricting places where I had grown up (first the suburbs, then a university known for its “bubble”) and begin a new life overseas.

At the same time, I perceived the job as representative of the seemingly insurmountable gap between my dream profession—teaching, whether in high school or university—and my personality—shy and quiet. In college I was the kind of person who struggled to contribute even once in each discussion section. As excited as I was to move to Madrid and teach, I foresaw the imminent clash between my dream and my reality, and feared I could not be an educator. Even as I graduated from college, flew to Spain, and began to settle into my new life in Madrid, these pessimistic premonitions continued unabated.

But with every day that passed, my fear of complete failure retreated a bit further into the shadows. One of the first signs of progress came when I confidently led my youngest students on a PowerPoint tour of San Francisco, the city nearest my hometown, teaching them direction words along the way. “Teacher, how far is it to go to Hollywood?” one of them asked. “Do you pass all your time in the beach?” asked another. Another sign of progress came when I led some of the older students through discussions about the definition of plagiarism and its potential consequences.

Now, with a full academic year of teaching behind me, I no longer feel my stomach drop when I walk into a classroom and see dozens of heads turning to face me. Students’ questions no longer fill me with fear. Nevertheless, I sometimes use myself as an example when humorously describing what not to do while speaking in public. “You should stand firmly and confidently,” I told the students after class presentations. “Maybe you’ve noticed that I sometimes cross my legs and sway back and forth while I’m speaking?” They all nodded and laughed. “Well, don’t do that. Don’t imitate me!”

“Try to explain the things that we don’t understand better with other words.”

When I began to teach classes on parliamentary procedure, on refugee children, on the weather in the United States, or even on the past tense (a deceptively difficult topic), a battalion of hidden obstacles suddenly surfaced. How to teach when, depending on the level of the specific class, some or many of the basic words are completely unknown to my students? How to teach when, day after day (particularly in less advanced classes) the response to “What does that mean?” or “Do you know the definition?” is a bewildered glance around the room and a whispered “¿Qué dice? No la entiendo”?

In recent months, I have frequently resorted to synonyms: “The Renaissance started, began, originated in Italy.” “She was involved in, a part of political turmoil, struggles, problems.” I have developed the habit of thinking far ahead as I speak: what expression am I about to use that the kids are not going to understand? How can I manipulate my sentence to avoid that expression, even if that makes my words sound artificially stilted? Sometimes, now, when I speak to Spanish friends in English or even to American friends, I find myself doing the same thing: using ten words when I could have used three, once a cardinal sin but now a necessity.

Even when I don’t consciously try to clarify or simplify my language, the influence of the Spanish I hear at school and speak at home is transforming my speech. I spent Semana Santa (spring break) in England with a university friend, hiking amid a gloomy landscape. When the sun finally showed its face after hours of rain, I stutter-yelled: “C-IT-TH-CAME OUT THE SUN!” My friend’s bewildered look mirrored my own. Similarly, I know from years of experience that I cannot, in Spanish, use the false cognate “introducir” in the Spanish phrase meaning “I introduced myself to her,” but when did I forget that it’s almost as strange to use the cognate “present” in “I presented myself to her” in English?

Speaking to American friends, I find Spanish words constantly on the tip of my tongue. I stammer and ask my friends if English words that I use are correct, and more and more frequently, they are not. I carry Spain with me through my language. I have also become keenly aware of the differences that exist within the confines of only one language—the differences between the Colombian Spanish that my immigrant parents taught me and the Spanish that people speak in Spain. Words I never before doubted, like esfero, caneca, cobija, have all been swept into confusion. When preparing for a weekend trip with my Spanish and Italian housemates, I found them sitting on a bedroom floor and casually asked them if they were almost done empacando their morrales. They stared up at me in confusion, and I stared back, just as confused, before stammering something about how empacar meant “to pack” and morral the same as mochila, and we were able to proceed.

After almost a year in Spain, sometimes I still don’t know if I’m saying something the Spanish way, the Colombian way, or just incorrectly. My Colombian relatives tease me about my guays, my vales, and my occasionally lisped gracias, while my Spanish friends laugh at my chéveres and my inability (and disinclination) to use vosotros. I am adrift between two dialects, living in two Spanish languages at once.

This year I have learned a great deal about the diversity of words and the way that certain words in one language or dialect can evoke more than their translations. There is no good equivalent for chimbo in Spain’s Spanish. There is similarly no good word for “creepy” in either type of Spanish, at least according to the native speakers I have asked. And how can I describe the feeling of being “flabbergasted” in Spanish?

But there’s no word for sobremesa in English — the time, even hours, spent chatting around a lunch or dinner table long after food has been eaten. Pesado, with a first definition of literally heavy, is an extremely apt way to describe an annoying or obnoxious person. I find myself salting my speech with the two languages according to taste. “Qué pesar! I would have liked to see that show!” I recently told a friend who speaks no Spanish. “Han entrevistado a varias personas que dicen que Donald Trump is the answer to our problemas [horrified emoticon],” I texted a Spanish friend. Spanglish has become a way of life for me.

“I think she has done it so good. And I am very happy with her, she is so good.”

Living in Madrid can be difficult at times. I am often bewildered navigating the brand-new world of adulthood, all in a different language and a different culture. Even routine tasks, like sending a letter, can seem infinitely more complicated than they were in college: On my commute back to my apartment, I have to remember to take a specific metro station exit and head towards a little estanco that sells tobacco and stamps. To avoid confusion, I have to remember that stamps in Spain translate to sellos, not estampillas. Often the place does not have international stamps, in which case I have to wait until another day or find another place. Then I have to buy an envelope, but the papelería on my walk home is closed for its midday break during my commute hours, except on Fridays…

Joining Spanish friend groups can also present a significant challenge; one night I went to a concert with a friend and some of his friends, and — due to the noise, the slang, and the subject matter — spent the whole evening silent and at least two sentences behind the others. Most difficult of all, her eI am cut off from my family and most of my friends by both distance and time. Far too often, my five o’clock alarm rings, compelling me to drag myself out of bed, shuffle down a long, dark hallway to the living room, close the door to avoid disturbing my sleeping housemates, and sign into Skype. Despite the effort on both sides, my loved ones’ lives mostly develop while I’m asleep, as mine does while they sleep, and these relationships have been marked by games of catch-up: “Oh! Didn’t I tell you?” “Have I already told you…”

I stammer and ask my friends if English words that I use are correct, and more and more frequently, they are not. I have also become keenly aware of the differences that exist within the confines of only one language—the differences between the Colombian Spanish that my immigrant parents taught me and the Spanish that people speak in Spain.

But my kids, especially those 3A students I met on my first day, provide me with daily incentive to stay in Spain. I recently taught a class on The Canterbury Tales. Perched on the corner of my teacher’s desk, gesticulating for emphasis, I talked about the change in language from the Old English of Beowulf to Middle English, and showed them a list of English word pairs that have similar meanings, one word rooted in Anglo-Saxon and the other in French. The students were endlessly excited to read the pairs. “Ghost and phantom,” one of them read. “Ohhh, like fantasma!” I showed them an image I had created to visually explain the concept of a “frame narrative,” then gave a dramatic summary of the Wife of Bath’s Tale, which I had chosen partly to connect the lesson to their previous classes on King Arthur legends, and partly to connect it to the gender inequality lessons I had taught them in Model United Nations. I was surprised to see that the students remained uncharacteristically quiet while I told my story—I didn’t have to call out any of their names or ask them to concentrate.

At the end, I asked them to vote on the choice they thought the man in the story made about his wife’s beauty. “Who thinks he chose for her to be beautiful and not necessarily good?” All the students but one raised their hands. One of the girls had a particularly infuriated expression on her face, as if she were prepared to condemn the man and patriarchal culture in the bargain (something she had done before, and frequently). “And who thinks he chose for her to be ugly and good?” One boy raised his hand, prompting laughter among the students. I told them it was a trick question — that the man allowed his wife to make her own choice, which caused murmurs of amusement and surprise at something they considered very progressive for its time. It was only on my bus ride home that I realized every one of the students had actively participated in the lesson, despite the fact that they’d had just ten minutes of school remaining before the beginning of a three-day weekend.

Another time I had my kids write sonnets as their homework, a very difficult assignment in a foreign language with different poetic rules. I showed them iambic rhythm, which doesn’t exist in Spanish poetry, by thumping my hand on my chest like a heartbeat. During the work time that followed, I saw student after student thumping their chests as they read my sample sonnets aloud, trying to understand the way the rhythm worked. A week later, I received, among others, numerous sonnets accurately describing teenage angst, one fancifully detailing the life of a madrileña bee who begins traveling to Paris but falls in love with flowers in the north of Spain along the way, and one witty sonnet about not feeling inspired to write a sonnet. Their rhyming, rhythm, and syllable counts were all just a little bit off, but their creativity and efforts were not.

Even more touching has been their sweetness toward and interest in me. When I make some small mistake in class and pause to acknowledge it, I know which students to look at to see them smiling at me as if they’re laughing with me, not at me.

One of my students was recently in the running for a prize, a chance to be one of ten madrileño kids awarded with an all-expenses-paid trip to New York City to participate in a Model UN conference. On the day the decisions were supposed to be released, I had one foot on the bus home and had resigned myself to waiting one more day to hear, when I suddenly heard “ELENA! ELEEEENA!!” and saw the girl and two of her friends sprinting down the street past other confused students. They yelled at me to wait, and I willingly missed the bus, talking to them for twenty minutes about that magical American city, the attractive teen actors the chosen girl hoped to see there, the allure of going to an actual American Starbucks, and Model UN itself.

The Friday after the chosen delegates from class 3A finished their Model UN conferences with students from all over Madrid, I was observing a PE class in the gym when two of the quietest girls came running in, red-faced and panting. “We couldn’t find you anywhere!” one of them said. “Come with us!” In the corridor next to the library, I found the two co-teachers who had helped me teach Model UN at the school. The kids lined us up, asked us to close our eyes, and put something in our hands. They gave the three of us candy bouquets; they gave me a desk ornament with pictures of all of us from the conferences, and a tiny mini-me doll based on one of my outfits that I had never worn to school. “We found it on Facebook,” they said. “Don’t worry, we only looked for long enough to find that photo!” Laughter and besos all around.

“Elena, I learned so much with her, I think she should have to been here the next year. Sometimes is really hard, but is a very good teacher.”

When I asked if I could distribute mid-year evaluation forms to my kids, to be filled out anonymously, the teacher I asked just laughed and said, “Are you brave enough? They can be very blunt!”

And they were. I learned how boring a few of them found my classes, and how much difficulty some of them had understanding my English. The majority of the responses, though, were unexpectedly thoughtful. Some were even effusive. When I first read the comment above suggesting that I “should have to been here the next year,” I had no intention of staying. In my life plan, my year in Spain could only ever be a year. But later, when I announced to my family and friends that I would be staying at my school in Madrid for another year, I think the only person I truly surprised was myself. On my last day with them this year, I asked my kids to fill out another anonymous survey.

“She makes literature much funnier than it actually is.”

“The best thing she has is patient to not kill us.”

With comments and kids like this, how could I stay away?

Elena Ayala-Hurtado recently finished her year in Spain on a Fulbright grant. She is a graduate of Stanford University, and will hopefully be a PhD student elsewhere a year from now. She has just moved back to Madrid to teach for one more year.

Add a comment

Skip to the top of the page, search this site, or read the article again