From Spanish learner to volunteer Spanish teacher

I don’t remember when my love for languages first started, but I do remember the various exchange students my family hosted over the years, and I certainly remember when I myself spent a year as an exchange student in Argentina. During that period, I lived with two host families, attended two different high schools, and became absorbed in the country, its people and its culture. After that year in Argentina, I pretty much considered myself bilingual, although looking back I realise how much I still had to learn. My next adventure brought me to Spain, teaching English in multinational corporations, and of course, drastically improving my Spanish to the point where now I really am bilingual!

I arrived in Edinburgh in August 2014 as a Masters student in Developmental Linguistics. The course is fantastic, but I found that I really missed teaching. So when I heard about the Volunteer Language Assistant program in the City of Edinburgh schools, I jumped at the chance to teach Spanish to young people.

The program is all about encouraging the use of another language and opening children’s eyes through an appreciation of different languages and cultures. And of course, it’s also a great way for schools to start implementing the 1+2 languages approach – a Scottish Government initiative which will require schools to introduce a second language in primary 1, and a third language by primary 5.

City of Edinburgh Council, along with Bilingualism Matters and Edinburgh University’s student volunteering team (EUSA volunteering), were looking to recruit around 30 French and Spanish speaking assistants to be placed in schools all around Edinburgh. As part of the selection process (you’ll be pleased to know that they don’t just take anyone!), we were interviewed in either French or Spanish about our experiences of language learning and living in other countries, and what we would bring to the classrooms we were placed in. Once recruited, we attended training sessions with City of Edinburgh Council, EUSA Volunteering, and Bilingualism Matters about the 1+2 program in general, the Edinburgh Volunteer Language program specifically, and we also explored some ideas about teaching young language learners.

And so, one blustery February morning I set off for Ratho primary and began leading Spanish-language activities for children aged 9 – 11 years. Little did I know beforehand, but it turns out that Ratho Primary are a leading example of good practice in primary language teaching! The children I work with have already been learning French since early primary, and are surrounded by extremely supportive staff – I even have other teachers sit in on my Spanish classes so that they can learn along with the students!

Although they have had French for a while, Spanish is new to my class, and it’s true that at the start, they sometimes mixed up French and Spanish words. But this is to be expected and it’s already happening much less, as the children get used to having not one but two modern languages! I have been amazed at how attentive they are in the classroom and at their interest in learning about a new language and culture.

Before the Easter holidays, we had already been over the basic greetings, numbers, colors and lots of activities linked to cultural events happening in Spain, Uruguay and other Spanish speaking countries. Even though I am only there a few hours a week, it’s already clear how much they have learnt. It’s also great that their parents are able to see that too – the school recently put on a parents’ evening all about languages, to allow the children to show off their skills using the sort of games and activities they would use in their sessions with me.

In a typical lesson I might start off by introducing a Spanish festival such as Las Fallas in Valencia and answering questions about Spanish culture. Then we might learn some new vocabulary, and practice exchanging information with each other (for example, walking around and asking if your classmates like to dance or not). We might finish with a game such as number bingo, or even tiddlywinks to practice colour!

The important thing is to keep it fun and simple, so that the teachers can use these activities again throughout the week. One of the best things about the 1+2 approach is that it tries to normalize language learning, so that saying the register in French, or doing some counting in Spanish become normal parts of the school routine. I’m really pleased that I’ve been able to help with the children’s learning, and also help the teachers feel more confident teaching Spanish when I am not around!

Find out more about languages at Ratho Primary school on their website Languages at Ratho Primary