Not Just an Assistant

Whenever people ask me why I’m in Spain, I always say “I’m an English teacher but the real reason is to learn Spanish.” Teaching English was a logical way for me to do that. A way to find legal work in a foreign country and get to stay for a while. I was hoping I would really love teaching and therefore maybe finally have a more clear idea of what I want to do when I grow up. The reality is that my life as a Language Assistant is probably not an accurate representation of what life would be like as a full time teacher.

Because my job requires very little preparation on my part and is essentially stress-free, I haven’t thought much about whether or not I like it. I tend to show up, do what I’m asked, and go home. But something happened today that has changed this for me. Being in front of a class full of little humans, I often find myself wondering a lot about who they will become. I wonder how their lives outside of school are: do they play sports, who are their friends? And for some of them, I wonder if they live in loving, safe homes – not because I prefer these individuals over others, but because sometimes it’s clear that something is not okay. I thought these thoughts were just regular old curiosity, but today I was told that one of my students is not coming back to school due to issues at home. My heart immediately sank. I am so sad that I won’t see him again. The thing is, I had a suspicion this boy had a bad home life. He always showed up late, often fell asleep in class, and seemed to have some delays in learning. The general level of English among the students in his class is low, but he always impressed me whenever I asked him a question. He had some of the highest comprehension and speaking abilities that I have seen in comparison to his peers. I was always so pleasantly surprised by him.

I started thinking about what my job was like one year ago today. November is the height of the busy season as a Study Abroad Advisor as the students are in a mad dash to get their visas before the winter holidays and their upcoming departure. This time last year I was sending and receiving hundreds of emails a day, mostly pertaining to immigration issues and whether or not a student was going to be able to share a dorm room with their best friend in Barcelona. It never felt meaningful, probably because I never met any of the 600 or so people I was responsible for working with. This made me realize that the job I have today is really important to me. I’m not just an assistant who comes in, says some words in a language that not many of the students understand, and leaves. I’m a person working face to face with real people. I’m an adult in their lives, and maybe I can be a positive influence in a life that doesn’t have one at home. And I really care about these kids. When I think about my original intent for this year abroad, I realize that it doesn’t matter whether I do this for one year or for 40. Today I found meaning in my work, and that is immensely important to me.

Learning the Lingo

I have to be honest. Speaking Spanish has been a lot more challenging than I imagined it would be. I am no where near fluent and wasn’t expecting to magically become so overnight. However, I thought my language level coming into this was sufficient to hold conversations. On some days it is. But a curious thing has been happening. Every couple of days I have a day where it’s as if I’ve never heard a word of Spanish before. I can’t comprehend what people are saying to me (not even the gist!) and when I try to speak, my brain freezes and words just don’t come. It’s really bizarre. Friends have shared their experiences with days such as this. It’s reassuring to know that I’m not alone in this weird phenomenon.

It seems to happen most on days when I’m feeling stressed or particularly tired. Which makes sense if you think about it. Fun fact: I find neuroscience fascinating! So I decided to brush the cobwebs off some info that I learned in college and did a little research on the language process in the brain. Comprehending and reproducing a new language requires a lot of concentration of multiple lobes of your brain. You have to process the input (what’s being said to you) which happens in the temporal lobe, and produce an output (what you say) which happens in the frontal lobe. This activates your working memory to recall the words you understand and work on reproducing an answer from the store of words up there. Don’t forget to conjugate the verbs! Finally you have produced an answer….hopefully. And this is an extremely basic explanation. There is SO much more going on depending on the difficulty of what was said, the subject, if new words were introduced, and so on. It really is a workout for your brain to process language – and it all happens in an instant.


Impromptu lesson from a friend on “spelling with accents” and my little book of new words and phrases I learn.

Add to all that your new surroundings, background noise, stress, homesickness, and a cold, and you have a recipe for confusion. I’ve been surprised to realize that not as many people in Madrid speak English as well as people I’ve encountered in other major cities in Europe. I prefer it this way actually because it forces me to learn. But on a day when your brain just really won’t budge, it’s so demotivating to be unable to communicate. I feel as if I will never be able to improve (of course this isn’t true, but that’s how low it feels). I’ve also found it really difficult to get to know my colleagues. I eat lunch with many of them at school and they are so patient in helping me learn, but on the days I “can’t” speak Spanish, it’s impossible to communicate with them. If you know me, you know that I’m not a shy or reserved person. But because I can’t effectively communicate complicated ideas quite yet, the only thing my colleagues really know about me is where I’m from and how much it snows there. Talking about the weather must be a universal human characteristic.

This has made me think a lot about how amazing an individual’s native language is. It comes with the utmost ease that we barely need to spend any time agonizing over communicating. There’s another thing I no longer take for granted (see The Grocery Blues). I can’t describe the feeling of elation I have when I do successfully communicate with someone in Spanish. Whether it’s 2 sentences or a 2 hour conversation, it’s an enormously happy experience.