Last week, I lived in a 4-star hotel in the Spanish countryside, ate three multi-course meals per day (with wine), and made 30+ new friends. Oh, and it was all free.
How did I get so incredibly lucky? I applied for a one-week “internship” with Vaughan Group, through the company where I earned my TESOL certification. My “job?” To chat with Spaniards in English all day long, and participate in rich English language activities with them.
Spanish businesspeople are working very hard to learn English. Very, very hard. But in order to get really good at the language, they need an opportunity to hear it spoken by natives, with all our variety of accents and idioms. So Vaughan, as part of their Master Class, has created VaughanTown programs, a weeklong immersion environment in a hotel where Spaniards listen and speak in English all day long. And Anglos get free food and lodging in exhange for talking from 9am until…umm… let’s say midnight…every day.
Avila is amazing. So is Vaughan.
Our program took place in a beautiful countryside hotel near Barco de Avila, where we were isolated from the Spanish-speaking world around us. Vaughan Group treated all the volunteers to tapas on Friday night in Madrid so we could get to know each other, and on Saturday morning we all climbed on the bus. Each Anglo (some American, some British, for a full range of accents) had to sit with a Spaniard so we could start our one-on-one conversations during the 3-hour bus ride.
The Spaniards looked terrified. I couldn’t blame them. I’ve had to interact with Spanish speakers for months, and it was incredibly hard. Luckily, their English was better than my Spanish.
When we arrived at the hotel, we checked into our rooms. It was a treat for me, as a newly single traveller on a very tight budget, to have a break from paying for things for a week. My room was delightful. A view of the mountains and horses, a comfy bed, and jacuzzi tub. It’s a rare treat for me to have a bathtub: A jacuzzi tub of my very own for the whole week was a slice of heaven!
The meals were ample and delicious. Buffet breakfast, two-course lunch and dinners with wine, dessert and coffee. So much more than I would ever have asked for.
Our days started with a pre-arranged 8:15 wakeup call (thank you, Vaughan!) and 9am breakfast. Our meals were always in groups of four, two Anglos and two Spaniards, with the Anglos sitting across from each other. They wanted the Spaniards to get to hear the way we REALLY talk, when we’re not speaking slowly and simply for them. We talk so fast, and most of our vocabulary is slang and idioms. The poor Spaniards were often lost during meals.
After breakfast, we would meet one-on-one with the Spaniards for hourlong sessions, to talk about anything and everything. It was fascinating, meeting with people of all ages and backgrounds and hearing about their lives. We sometimes went for walks to the river together, or got a cup of coffee or a beer.
The one-on-ones were broken up by a few group activities. Once in a while we had to go to our rooms and talk on the phone, acting out business scenarios to give the Spaniards phone practice. The Spaniards also had to prepare presentations in English, so that gave us all something to talk about.
Lunch was at 2pm, and after lunch we went to our rooms for a siesta until 5pm. That’s when I’d climb into my tub and play Nora Jones on my Kindle (or write articles that were due). We talked again from 5pm–8pm, then we’d get together for a show. Our MC, Alba, would grab us in small groups and teach us silly skits to perform. The shows added to the English experience, helped us all bond, and really broke up the day.
Wow, English sucks.
The first thing I learned, doing these one-on-ones, is that English is a really difficult language to learn. Not just because we don’t spell anything the way it sounds, or because most of our words are irregular in some way, either. Our verb tenses are incredibly complicated. Did you ever realize that, when you’re speaking about a thing that happened in the past, you have to choose your verb tense based on whether it happened once or many times, whether it started a long time ago or recently, whether it ended a long time ago, recently, is still continuing, will stop soon, or will go on indefinitely?
Using the verb “dance” in the past tense, I can say all of these things:
I have danced.
I had danced.
I used to dance.
I was dancing.
I had been dancing.
I have been dancing.
hoo boy, it’s complicated!
During every one-on-one session, we were assigned to talk about a “phrasal verb.” That’s where we take a verb and add another word (often a preposition) to create a completely new verb that you can’t possibly make any sense of from a literal translation of the words involved.
You know what “to put” means, right? Imagine explaining the following to someone:
Put away. Put on. Put off. Put up. Put down. Put out. Put together.
We have hundreds of these phrasal verbs in English. Much of what we say makes no sense at all if you translate the words literally.
We also talked about idioms, like “wolf in sheep’s clothing” or “barking up the wrong tree.”
Yeah, English sucks.
What I learned about Spanish culture
Spaniards are open, warm, smiling, friendly folks. They drink a lot of wine, starting at lunchtime, and they never seem to sleep. Seriously, the Spaniards would often party until 4am, 5am, even 7am and then show up for breakfast at 9. So did some of the Brits and Americans.
It’s normal here to eat lunch at 2pm and dinner at 9 or 10. It’s also normal for young folks to take a nap after dinner (Disco nap!) and go out around midnight on weekends. They start work at 9am, usually. I’m not sure when they sleep.
I learned that it’s typical for young people to live at home until they are 25 or 30 (especially since the economic downturn, as jobs are scarce). It’s unusual for a Spaniard to go away to University, they usually live at home while going to school. They genuinely like their parents and siblings and have strong family lives, so this is how they like it. Marriage and children happen in your 30s here. It’s also normal to date someone for 5-6 months before considering them your boyfriend or girlfriend. Long-term partnerships without marriage are also common. Gay marriage has been legal here for years.
There is a very strong sense of community. When Spaniards asked me about American life, I felt like I could only tell them about my own, and said “everyone is different’ a lot. But they had no problem making blanket statements like “We like sports, futball, padelball, biking, skiiing,” or “We are generally curious about foreigners and happy to help if you ask anyone on the street.” (This was proven true when some of us Americans had to ask a Spaniard on the street in Madrid if she knew where a nearby restaurant was. She didn’t know, but she pulled out her cel phone and GPS’d it for us!)
Even those Spaniards who had moved hours away from their families went home to visit every other weekend or so. There is a lot of love and joy in their lives. They value family, friends, connections, and laughter very much. Truly lovable people.
I made a lot of new friends, and a few I feel very close to. The days were long (and I didn’t even stay up to party late!), and it was exhausting to find things to talk about all day, to be social all day long with people you don’t know well, and to listen so intently to people who weren’t native English speakers. And I was doing it all in my own language — I can’t imagine how tiring it must have been for the Spaniards. It took a lot of patience, and at times tempers grew short. But over the space of a week, I could see the Spaniards’ comprehension and confidence increasing, and I really felt like what I was doing was useful for them.
It was an amazing experience, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.