Since the Covid-19 pandemic hit Spain in March, I haven’t gone anywhere overnight. Being forced to stay in one place for months on end was hard for me, as it has undoubtedly been for many other people. I love to travel and look for opportunities to go somewhere and do something. So when my Canadian neighbor and writer friend Darlene Foster told me about a program called Estacion Inglesa, I was intrigued. This Murcia, Spain-based company helps professionals improve their English through a six-day immersion program that includes one-to-one 50 minute meetings between Spaniards and native English-speakers. Spaniards pay for this program, while English speakers volunteer in exchange for six days free hotel accommodation and six days of free meals.
Once Darlene explained how the program works, I was ready to give it a try. I moved quickly to sign up as a volunteer and three weeks later, she and I were on our way to Madrid to meet up with other participants in the immersion experience. Our six day event was located near Parque Montfrague in the western province of Extremadura. It was a two-hour and 45 minute company-supplied bus ride from the Atocha train station in Madrid.
Since I had never done a program like this before, I didn’t know what to expect. But in every way, I was pleased that I had decided to take part in the 70 hour course. I made some Spanish friends, I learned more about Spanish history, politics and culture. We even took a day trip to Trujillo, a small Spanish town with charming narrow streets, a main plaza and a castle on the hill.
Since the course was taken place during the pandemic, we always had to wear our masks, unless we were eating or drinking. We also sat at least one meter apart during meals and activities. Here is a photo of 18 of us in Trujillo during our day trip. Originally, there were 20 people in the program, 10 Spaniards and 10 native English speakers. Unfortunately, a married Spanish couple had to go home early because of the death of a close family friend.
Spanish members of the group all had professional jobs, such as geneticist, doctor, several sales managers, radiologist, ethics teacher, food technician, among others. During this pandemic, Estacion Inglesa mainly took volunteers who live in Spain. Several of us were current or former teachers, although other professions were represented as well.
There were a variety of activities planned to help the Spaniards improve their English, including group projects such a doing a photo novel together, debating controversial topics, having a pretend board meeting and participating in mock phone calls. The meat of the program was definitely the one-to-one meetings though. There were many laminated handouts you could use to keep these conversations going. These included ones with English idioms, such as “I smell a rat” or “saved by the bell,” with English phrases, such as give up or get through, let down and look down on, dialogues such as one about renting a car and others covering dozens of topics such as current events, art, education, politics, life in the US and much more. We were busy from morning to night. We only had two hours of unscheduled time each day, from 3 to 5 pm. I usually used this time to take a siesta but I also swam in the hotel’s pool one afternoon.
Of course meal times were relaxing and enjoyable. Lunches and dinners were a variety of three- course meals where you got to pick your starters, main dishes and desserts. The food was outstanding. There was beef, pork, a variety of fish, chicken, pasta, salads, soups, vegetables, rice, potatoes, etc. Wine, beer, water and non-alcoholic drinks were also provided.
The program started on a Sunday afternoon and ended on a Friday afternoon. When we finished the 70 hour immersion program, the native English speakers all got certificates of program completion from the company, accompanied by lots of applause from the Spanish participants.
Of course getting free accommodation, delicious free meals and an official certificate at the end is all fine and dandy. But what was really priceless was getting to know some very fine Spanish people and feel good that we helped them achieve their objectives to improve their English. And we did it all despite the pandemic! Fortunately, Spain had instituted a mandatory face mask requirement for everyone in both indoor and outdoor settings. So this helped us feel safe.
Certain moments during the one-to-ones were funny too, such as when one Spanish man told me he has trouble pronouncing the work success and it keeps coming out like suck sex which he doesn’t want to say at all. Another Spanish man shared that coger means to take in Spanish but you never want to say this in Mexico, where he travels for work, because it means something sexual that couples do together. Also, certain words don’t translate from English to Spanish very well. For example, when you tell someone your house is three blocks from the train station, they may not know what a block is since most cities aren’t laid out in a grid fashion so the word doesn’t make sense. That’s a good time to draw pictures to explain terms.
When Spaniards weren’t sure how to pronounce certain words in English, such as anesthetist, I would draw slash marks between syllables to help them sound it out correctly. I also discovered that English and Americans pronounce this word differently so you need to be careful to explain differences in pronunciation of certain words. One of the Spanish men, a sales manager for the huge international company Danone, asked us what is the difference between shade and shadow so native English speakers had a lively discussion about that among ourselves. One of the women, a radiologist in Valencia, said she wanted to know how to say she was tired of talking about covid-19. I explained that “I am fed up” or “I have heard enough about this,” were good expressions for that. Indeed, It was moments just like these that made the week so very special.
If you are interested in learning more, why don’t you check out the Estacion Inglesa site at https://www.estacioninglesa.es/index.php? It includes a page in English where you get more information and even sign up to volunteer for the program yourself.