My Spanish students were always very opinionated. They seized up at the awkward exam questions but with other topics – the test their Latin teacher gave them, feminism and bull fighting – they were fluid and non-hesitant speakers. Bull fighting, they despised: a cruel sport for machismo old men who ought to wake up to the modern age, morality and manners.
Even in Hemingway’s day, the custom of bull fighting was often considered barbaric. He seemed to predict the slow decline and even to accept the change, with reluctance. His book, which I’ve read and found fascinating, is however not barbaric. It’s odd. Between the dense facts and the strings of poetic description, the nostalgia and the adulation, are tangents on writing and society, parenthood and death. It’s not a book that pretends, but it is odd.
I suppose, from a modern point of view, that is, a Christian point of view, the whole bullfight is indefensible; there is clearly much cruelty, there is always danger, either sought or unlooked for, and there is always death, and I should not try to defend it now, only to tell honestly the things I have found true about it.
Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon
My problem with Hemingway is that the first book I ever read by him wasn’t a novel. It wasn’t the Old Man and the Sea which is supposedly admirable piece of literature, but I found a little tedious (perhaps I’m just too young still to get it). It wasn’t For Whom the Bell Tolls, which has in it all that macho, yet defeatist, fighting in it. It was A Moveable Feast, which, published after Hemingway’s suicide, is a memoir of those years in Paris where Hemingway screwed up his first marriage and knew it.
And it’s the self-awareness that I kind of find myself admiring. It’s the self-awareness which I found myself compelled by in A Moveable Feast, and which the glimpses of throughout Death in the Afternoon compelled me to keep turning the page, even if I lost track of which matador was which. More than anything, though, the book was a reminder to be careful. We jump to conclusions so quickly and on so little evidence. We are fast to speak, fast to criticize, fast to cast out moral judgements, yet remain so unaware of what we’re talking about.
It’s easy to attack the visible cruelty, it seems so much more acute. But much harder is recognizing and attacking the silent and invisible cruelty that hides unseen. How many of our own enjoyments result in harm to others, whether they be people working in inhumane factory settings, through the land that’s damaged in the hunt from raw materials or the dumping of waste. How many animals live and die for us in our current lifestyles, how many are affected by our impact on the environment, and how many of them live good lives?
My Spanish students were children, eager to be heard, eager to have the right opinion. Their passion, their beliefs, their insistence that the world must become a better place was heart-warming. In many ways they were much better at expressing themselves than older generations who might wait to check their audience is on their side before opening their mouths. They had lots to say; they had much to learn.
A little under two years ago, I received an email confirming that from the following October, I would be teaching in a school in Spain. I had worked in Spain before this. I taught English at an immersion camp one summer. Spanish was forbidden. A few years after that I worked as an au-pair in the Catalonian region, a place where the children’s first language was Catalan, not Spanish, and where I was supposed to talk English. I learnt a pathetic smattering of Catalan words and the Spanish phrase ‘café con leche’.
On receiving my job offer for Spain, I went off to Italy for the best part of the following two months and so it wasn’t until the very end of July that I began contemplating that I was going to need to speak Spanish.
As a language teacher, I am fascinated by how we learn languages, or more precisely, how we fail to learn them. Although I was instructed in French for five years at school, and obtained an A grade, with maybe 300 hours of class time, I have remarkably little ability to communicate in French. This is not a unique situation.
I asked the adult students in a physics class here, in Chile, how long they had been learning English, for some the answer was ten-years.
“Perfect, we can talk in English.”
They shook their heads. Whilst they have sat through class after class, they haven’t obtained any skill with using the language. Put on the spot they couldn’t create a sentence. Their cheeks pinkened.
In the school in Murcia, Spain, students in the top classes who have been forced through the intense bilingual Spanish system can express themselves. They are capable of sharing their disgust at the idea that British schools have gender segregation for physical education in English, for example. Once they let go of their inhibitions start to rant about their Latin teacher, unfair exams and each other. The top classes. Teenagers who often go to school in the morning and private classes in the evenings.
Some students are different. I ask for their name and they roll their eyes. A few minutes later they’re interviewing me about British politics, tearing apart my taste in music or asking me about how to travel the world. These students are different. I ask them how they learnt English, and they shrug. With a bored expression they seem to ponder a moment, they had classes at school, yes, but so did everyone else in the room. Then it comes out. Either, they play video games – often online video games against native English speakers – or they are obsessive about music or they watch a lot of television in English. Whichever it is, they absorbed words in context and then actively sought out clarification.
I am not a musical person and I don’t watch a lot of television or play many video games. But I don’t need to, because I have the language in context all around me, every day, and I am forced to actively seek out clarification because, otherwise, I cannot make clear to Loreto when I’m going to be free for her to drop off her fresh-from-the-farm eggs so that I can make pancakes.
Although I teach them, I don’t believe that English classes work particularly well. It’s basic maths. The teacher can listen to only one student at a time. This means that the majority of the students’ mistakes pass by without immediate correction, by which point the urgency of learning the point has drifted away. Or, the students fail to make enough mistakes. If students were listening to each other speak, and learning from each other then maybe it would work.
But even then, by the time Thursday’s class comes around, Monday morning’s vocabulary has been almost entirely lost. Teachers correct the same pronunciation, inject ‘do’ into the same questions and rehearse the same few phrases over and over again.
When I was learning my times-tables we used to practice them every day at school, quickly, a five-minute bout of scary anyone-might-get-asked firing of six times eight, seven times two…
The students memorise what they have to for the exam. Then a week later then put it aside and start the next chapter with contains new vocabulary for them to rehearse for a few weeks and then not use again until the following term. They might be able to spell their first name, but they cannot recite the alphabet.
I think one of the reasons why so many students fail to learn is that they don’t start with a clear goal. For those who are driven by music, video games or film, I don’t think they start with a grand goal of speaking a foreign language. They start by wanting to know what they’re singing. Or they want to beat the bad guy in the game. They want to win. They have something specific that they want to understand.
I would say that not-coincidentally, several of my Spanish teenagers understood elements of Japanese or Korean. Nobody taught them as such, but they’ve filled their time watching and listening to videos. Where they have been curious, their brains have naturally put in the effort to learn.
So what was my goal when I first started learning Spanish? Something more specific than simply survive.
In August 2018 I walked into a bookshop in Leeds, went upstairs to the foreign languages section and looked at the selection of books available in Spanish. I pulled out Gabriel García Márquez’ El coronel no tiene quien le escriba.
When Rapunzel came to visit the other week, I greeted her off the train in Spanish. She doesn’t speak Spanish, so she replied in French and we flicked through the three languages as if it were a game we were playing.
As we settled back into English – it’s our only common language – the chap following us up into the station gave us both a very perplexed look. Our British accents, neither local to the area, didn’t fit with the flurry of foreign words we’d been giggling through.
But language can be a lot of fun
Yesterday, for example, I looked up Chilean Spanish.
“I’ve spent the last few months learning the Spanish future, to discover they don’t use it in Chile,” I messaged Rapunzel.
“No me gusta,” she replied in Spanish.
We played with language for a few lines, discussing an article that’s relevant to Rapunzel printed in a Spanish newspaper. Then I asked her the question that was on my mind.
“Do you do subjunctives?”
“Je ne pense pas que ce soit necessaire.”
If you want to get a Spaniard to roll their eyes, you ask about the subjunctive
They seem to think that it’s obvious where it ought to be used. And that there’s nothing strange with the present subjunctive having two forms with identical meaning. As far as I can tell, the only purpose of this is to add poetical value of the word within its sentence.
The Spaniards are much fonder of using the subjunctive than us English speakers
Although I’ve never met anyone who’s persuaded me why. I mean, I understand that we do have such a form in English. Chances are, you use it without knowing. It’s a bit like how you know to use a noun and a verb before you learn the labels ‘noun’ and ‘verb’. But how does anyone know where to use it? It’s a mystery.
Our English subjunctive feels quite posh
And because it’s not so obvious and I didn’t know it, here it is:
In the present
It is necessary we be on time tomorrow.
I recommend he leave now.
In the past
If he were here.
If I were you.
I’m not convinced that I use the present subjunctive in my speech
Unless I was caricaturing someone posh. If anyone catches me doing so, can you please point it out to me? I’m curious to know.
Whereas I’m certain that I do use the past subjunctive
It’s simpler to identify than the present subjunctive because it always involves the word ‘were’. In the first- and third-person ‘were’ replaces ‘was’.
If I were you…
If you were nicer…
If he were here…
If we were happy…
If you all were intelligent…
If they were mad…
Here again, it gets complicated by my dialect
In Yorkshire, you may say ‘when I were there yesterday’ meaning ‘when I was there yesterday’. And in the town where I went to school, it’s also common to replace ‘were’ with ‘was’ as in ‘we was eating chocolate’. In standard English, this would be ‘we were eating chocolate’.
Thus, if someone were to say ‘If I was you’, I’m not sure I’d notice that they were in the indicative mood, not the subjunctive. Would you? Or am I blinded by my non-standard English?
Did you notice the ‘if someone were’ in the previous sentence is the past subjunctive?
This doesn’t help me understand how to use the subjunctive in Spanish
And Rapunzel is right. On an everyday basis, it is not necessary. You can get by alright without it. Even if the locals might despair of your ignorance.
But so much of language is not necessary, it doesn’t mean it’s not wondrous. Plus, the idea of conjugating a word for its poetic flavour makes me smile.
There was a signal, so I sent a message announcing my arrival at the bus station in Murcia, in Spanish, a language I knew some words of but had never spoken.
“Yo soy aqui”
I intended to say, “I am here”. Translated it does mean “I am here” but, as any Spanish speaker knows, it should have been “Yo estoy aqui.” As it’s the verb estar (to be) nor the verb ser (to be) in such situations.
In ‘Spanish time’ my host arrived and waved me to her car
She spoke some broken phrases of English. More than I spoke of Spanish but that first day, neither of us could construct a sentence.
If you have since met the Casera, the rolling English you heard was not what I experienced that first day. You heard her speaking after months of living with a native English speaker in her apartment.
Therefore, we couldn’t say much, yet we somehow conversed for the next twenty minutes.
This was a swift education. When it comes to conversation, the most important thing is to have faith.
Very soon, I’m going to meet a Chilean man at a Chilean airport
I will have to open my mouth and speak.
Butterflies swarm in my stomach to think of it. We have two common languages, so it shouldn’t be a problem. From his writing, I assume he speaks beautiful English since his style of composition made me smile with some admiration. I speak Spanish, more or less.
He speaks Chilean Spanish; I speak Yorkshire English. Hiding behind the Andes, Chilean Spanish has developed its unique forms. Yorkshire is well, Yorkshire. I’m told my accent is lovely, but at least for the first week, unintelligible.
I speak non-rhotically, which is a pain when it comes to learning Spanish
Rhotic being a technical term meaning I drop my ‘r’. In Spanish this is a problem as every infinitive verb ends in a vowel followed by an ‘r’ and in many forms of British English (non-rhotic English) such ‘r’ sounds are abandoned.
Take the word ‘car’, which I pronounce ‘cah’.
And then apply this to the Spanish ‘hablar’ (to speak) and get ‘hablah’ which more or less is ‘habla’. I.e. he speaks.
You may wonder, ‘what the hell are you on about Catherine?’
Which is understandable. I wouldn’t have known any of this phonetic vocabulary, if I hadn’t spent quite so much of the last year searching to discover what this annoying letter ‘r’ is.
Despite hours trying, I have never been able to trill an r
But even the single r in Spanish is a harder sound than any r in my English. My pronunciation of ‘Gracias’ is wrong, not because I fumble over whether it’s a c or a th sound in the middle, but because my first syllable is fluffily soft.
From the feedback I have surmised from my students, I imagine my Spanish accent would work if you were casting the little sister of a Disney princess. It’s not the sound I was hoping for.
We take speaking for granted
When I speak in Spanish in front of my parents, I expect them to understand. They should understand me. They are my parents. When my mum stares at me as if I am speaking gobbled-gook, I wonder why. It takes me a cognitive churn to understand that she doesn’t get what I’m saying.
When I speak in half-formed mumbled English, they seem to know what I mean. If I mime, they tend to get it. They know me, they know my voice. So, I find it bewildering how when I’m speaking Spanish are there so many blank looks?
But we also take for granted our knowledge of our language
We instinctively know what feels right. Or, to invert that idea, we know what sounds wrong. We feel that someone is speaking our language as a second tongue before we know how they’re mis-forming the grammar or before we can identify where the pronunciation mimics their native language.
My Spanish students stumble at the difference between the ‘b’ and the ‘v’ sounds. A Finnish friend has a wider spoken vocabulary than me but speaks with an odd ‘v’, which gives her foreignness away.
As children, we absorb this language knowledge without realising we’re doing it
Grammar especially. Later, at school, some English teacher tries to explain what a noun, a verb and an adjective are, by which point we’ve been using them for years.
Then we start to study a foreign language. I did French and German at school. At this point, lots more grammar descriptors come into play, like verbal tenses and moods, and we become very confused.
French, German and English might have much in common, but their structure differs.
Learning German was not a success
Despite having had approximately 110 classes in the subject, I can’t say anything useful whatsoever. When I’m in Germany itself, I recognise some words but not much else. I don’t have any innate feeling about German and so, to me, it’s random sound.
When you don’t have any feeling about what is right or wrong in a language, you’re reliant on rules
You use your first language as a basis for the language you’re learning. Then, rather than learning the new language from scratch, you adapt the rules you know to the new language. My Spanish students ‘cook my mother’ because such grammar makes sense in Spanish.
I would say that my job requires some awareness of this grammatical web.
As an English language assistant, they tell you all you need is to be able to speak English
Which sounded like a wonderful way for me to teach and avoid my lack of formal grammar education. The marketing chaps stress how your role is to conduct conversations and focus on speaking skills.
While it’s true that from a feeling we know when a student says something we wouldn’t, it’s insufficient for answering why.
And the best students ask, “Why?”
At first, I figured I must be able to work it out. I’d think of a few examples and the student would nod. A few hours later I would be in the grocery store or cooking dinner and an exception to my supposed rule would pop up.
At which point, I had to hope I remembered which student in which class had asked the question. Then I’d need to admit I’d made a mistake, and then from somewhere work out a satisfactory explanation or the grammar.
After a few such incidences, I took the better line, “I don’t know. Let me check.”
Teaching English is a constant lesson in humility.
The English grammar experts were all around me
They were the teachers, whose English was sometimes odd in its form, but who had learnt grammar first, conversation second. And hence, they knew the rules inside out.
But this is not my only linguistic challenge as a language assistant.
Most native speakers don’t speak standard English
I don’t. When I’m teaching, I try to speak with clarity and standard grammar, but I refuse to adopt my ‘a’ or my ‘u’ into anything but what it is. My ‘r’, as I’ve said, is a hopeless case. I could not fake an accent, even if I wanted to.
It is only through learning grammar though that I can differentiate between my Yorkshire (my idiolect) and Standard English. This is important. I mustn’t trust my feelings. To say ‘I am sat on the sofa’ feels right but it’s not standard. Furthermore, I have no problem with double negatives or double contractions, although I try not to use them.
When a child uses a double negative, which is a common mistake for native Spanish speakers, I smile and tell them they sound like they’re from Yorkshire. I show them their mistake ask them to use Standard English for school. I couldn’t tell them they’re speaking wrong when it’s the same quirk as we have at home in England.
It’s not infrequent that I screw up
And I’ve given classes where I’ve caught myself speaking with non-standard grammar. At this point, I pause the class and wave my arms about a bit.
“You know how here you say ‘estamos’ as ‘etamo’ because it’s your dialect? When I said ‘I am sat on the sofa’ it was because of my dialect. It’s not standard English. Please do not do this in your exams. We should say, ‘I am sitting on the sofa’ as it’s the gerund here.”
But it’s important to recall what is correct varies depending on who you ask
I met one (Australian) English teacher who thought it was abominable to teach children to use contractions in their writing. I bit back the urge to say, ‘You shou’n’t never do what?’.
If a child put some double contractions into a piece of dialogue, I’d give them bonus marks.
I love beautiful language
Books with intricate sentences which wind stylistically in directions you didn’t suppose possible enchant me. Yet, what’s most impressive about language to me is how we can mangle it and still communicate. For eight months the Casera and I lived together. Neither of us fluent in the other’s language, we used whatever language allowed us to communicate. So what if we broke all the grammar rules and pronounced the impossible imperfectly, we conversed.
Mark Twain said, “If I had more time, I would write a
And Blaise Pascal wrote, “Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue
que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.” Which
translates as, “I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have
time to write a short one.”
And various other people at various other times said
something similar. And it’s all bullshit.
It’s an excuse.
What it means is that the writers leapt right in
They felt rushed and therefore didn’t pause to think about
what it was they were going to write before they wrote it. Long-winded writing
(which is something I excel at) comes from poor planning.
I have been studying writing now for a while, and the
biggest factor contributing to long-windedness, without doubt, is in how well I
outline. In this brief article, I will write about my outlining review process,
which does assume I have already created an outline.
Why do I care so much about avoiding bloated articles?
When I was voicing my distress at my article length getting
out of hand someone asked why this was a problem. There are benefits to long
articles, such as in appearing in search results, and many people find putting
together a short article much easier than writing a long one. All this is
irrelevant to me, I want to be able to sit down with the intention of writing
800 words, outline those 800 words, and come out with 800 words.
I want to be able to predict how much I need to write and
how much time that’s going to take and get the prediction right.
So, when I’m outlining, I review my outline against my prediction
The question I first ask is have I chosen the right word
count for the subject matter? If the outline suggests that the article is going
to be too long, which is a frequent occurrence for me, I split the article into
separate outlines there and then. Before I’ve written a sentence.
A quick look through an outline can give a good sense of
whether it’s about to spiral out of control. If the points I’ve outlined are
vague, it’s going to spiral. If I’m too emotional about what I’m writing, it’s
going to spiral. If it’s a topic I lack confidence on, it’s going to spiral.
But how does one stop an article spiralling across too many pages?
The question I ask myself is whether each point marked out
in the outline is going to require more than one paragraph to explain. An ideal
paragraph contains a single idea which you develop within that paragraph. If my
idea will overflow my paragraph, then I need to break that idea down into its
respective points at the outlining stage.
If you’ve got readers on mobile devices, then you might feel compelled to create super short paragraphs
Personally, I love long sentences and long paragraphs
(assuming they are eloquently punctuated). I love beautiful writing. But on my
phone, lengthy blocks of text are more challenging to consume. To keep my
paragraphs short, I break-up some of the longer paragraphs and excessive
sentences during my edit.
You’ll learn from practice how long your paragraphs tend to
be. And from this, you can approximate how many paragraphs you need for your desired
Outlines might feel restrictive – you may instead believe writing should be a free activity
Ideas should pop out at great, fabled moments of
inspiration. Words should fly from your fingertips in a natural progression. I
don’t disagree. This is exactly how I write my diary, it’s how I write when I’m
doing writing-therapy, it’s how I first put story ideas to paper. Some of my
best ideas and phrases come like this. But the gods forbid that I edit these
ideas as they appeared in their raw form on the page. I’d lose days to it. I
have lost days to it. Free-writing is great when you don’t have to then edit.
But what I’m trying to do it learn how to create consistent, strong content
One of the Mother’s phrases that she walloped into my head
is that in life you have a choice between results and excuses. Not having
enough time to write a short letter (i.e. not planning what it is you want to
say) is an excuse.
It’s also inconsiderate to the reader. We’re all under
constant information bombardment as it is. If you have something to say that’s
worth someone else taking their precious time to listen to, presumably it’s
also worth planning.
After all, if we´re being honest, to plan and write a short letter takes a whole lot less time than to write and edit a long one.
In her twenties, the nun in the book
went to an interview for a place at the National College of Domestic Subjects
to study cookery. In front of the panel, she was asked to read a section from
The Times newspaper. Having been born to wealth and educated by her mother to
become a lady, she read with what she describes as a ‘cut-glass accent’.
A chap on the panel whispered, “I
don’t think Sister Agatha will be much good in the East End of London.”
At which point she realised her error
and broke through the ice around them by adding, “Now, me ‘ole Dutch, where we
Smiles appeared throughout the panel,
which decided to accept her. She’d proven she could adapt her tone.
Speaking in an inclusive manner can be
Conversing isn’t always easy,
especially across cultures, across differences in educational opportunity and
across generations. I think those of us who seek out opportunities to converse
across such barriers don’t give ourselves enough credit for what we do.
Just the other week I was reminded how
hard we must work to get the most out of a conversation.
Imagine a very tidy living room and a
I was sitting upright, body lent
forward, alert because I was having coffee with my friend´s mother – a tiny
woman with strong eyes. Such a situation can be a little daunting even if you
speak the same language, but here I was having to converse in Spanish. Spanish.
That language which has me dancing on the edge of my comfort zone on an almost
This time, I was talking about France
I have within me a repertoire of short
stories to which I have learnt, through perseverance and embarrassment, the
relevant vocabulary. Good conversations involve stories or at least interesting
examples the other person can connect to. Stories also fill time and make a
conversation feel fluid.
What’s more, I quite enjoy trampling
over people’s assumptions about me. I enjoy eliciting surprise. You need a bit
of wonder sprinkled in a conversation to keep your audience paying attention.
During this conversation, however, I
was doing nothing artful with my language
The anxiety that strikes me whenever I
must speak to someone new in Spanish had entered my bones, and the cogs in my
brain were overheating. The Spanish grandmother didn’t ask complex questions,
but her Spanish is drenched in dialect, which frustrated our translator and aid
(her son), who desperately wanted me to understand for myself.
I was speaking particularly badly
I was nervous. So out of necessity,
the Spanish grandmother was taking responsibility for the structure of the
conversation. I hate this, but whilst I can structure a conversation in
English, doing the same in Spanish is beyond me.
From the start, she knew I taught
Like many people, she was curious as
to how I’d ended up where I was. I explained how I’d worked in a ‘proper job’
once upon a time. In an office, at a desk, next to a window. And I explained
how I’d watched Spring come from behind the glass pane, summer pass by, and
eventually autumn arrive. Then I told her about France. I told her about
working the land, driving diggers and feeding the sheep.
Now lost between a historic
frustration and a series of memories, I described my nostalgia for that
physical sensation of labour. I tried to avoid romanticising it because hard
physical labour is not romantic. But I did contrast the physical work on the
land to the labours of the mind. And all this in broken sentences with the
verbs conjugated aloud.
The Spanish grandmother frowned
Her eyes communicated her recognition
of my naivety, not in a patronising manner, but in the way that a teacher might
look at a child who just hasn’t quite got it. A maternal look, but not a soft
Her voice, however, when she spoke,
was soft and steady. She said that outside work is both, body and mind.
I felt that she was navigating through
some of her own memories
Even now she works on the land and has
done I believe for much of her life. Her skin is golden, showing a lifetime of
being drenched in sunlight. The previous week she’d been picking flowers. She
knows more about the land than I ever will, but when she spoke, her words were
more like poetry, describing the relationship between the worker and the land
as a form of art.
This was not what I had expected
As I learnt about the woman I was
speaking to, I was reminded of how although she had little formal education,
she possessed immense wisdom, and it gave me an insight into my own child-like
self. In her eyes, I am not much older than a child.
Although, she acknowledged with a
little surprise, I have experienced a lot for one so young.
Her school life had centred around the
Every morning in her school she’d had to start with prayers because her school life had happened under Franco’s Catholic Nationalism. A complete contrast to my upbringing. I declared myself an atheist at the age of 7. The only people who argued the case for religion with me were my father (whose beliefs don’t appear to include an almighty being) and much later, Grand-père (who went to mass every Sunday and brought me back gigantic meringues).
She asked about my religious beliefs
or lack of belief
And I fumbled through my vocabulary,
trying to find the words to describe something I’m not sure I could articulate
in English. All the time she watched me with immense curiosity.
Religion in Spain is a dangerous
topic. Some people talk about religion as a pillar holding up the rest of life,
whilst others have an audible snarl in their throats when they mention the
church. I’m fascinated by these attitudes to religion, but I know I must tread
with care. The girls at school describe my Yorkshire influenced accent as being
cute, and although I’m sometimes conscious of the childish sound of my voice,
sometimes I’m grateful for it.
She listened though, receptive to what
I was saying, and I was grateful.
And then just before she was about to
leave, she motioned to my ebook reader
It lay on the coffee table where I’d
discarded it when she’d arrived. She told me she didn’t read on phones and
suchlike, she reads books printed on paper. A literature lover. Despite all the
differences we might have, we are fellow bibliophiles. My heart felt lighter.
Which brings me back to my
Grandmother’s book about a nun
I started off sceptical. Reading about
a rich young lady who gave up her fiancé and dedicated her life to her God, I
wasn’t sure how well I’d connect. At first, I found her story a little
And then, in her fifties, she decides
that she’s going to travel. She doesn’t have much in the way of cash, because
nuns don’t, and yet, her passion to travel forced her to find a way. And that I
could relate to.
What’s more, when she talked about her
terrible driving, I couldn’t help but think of the habit-wearing nun who nearly
ran me over the other day.
The book was A Nun’s Story by Sister Agatha and Richard Newman.
The environmentalist, Dr John Francis, didn’t speak for 17 years. It wasn’t that he couldn’t, it was that he’d got sick of arguing with everyone. To tackle this, he decided to not speak for one day. That one day proved a bit of a shock. What took him by surprise was how much he learnt about listening. And so, the next day, he didn’t speak either.
This continued for 17 years.
I thought about John Francis the other morning when I woke up unable to speak. A silence they call ‘afónica’ in Spanish. A curse that teachers, who depend on their voices, are susceptible to. It was not that I felt unwell. As far as I could tell, the rest of me was fine.
Yet when I opened my mouth there was no sound
Since my job is to teach conversation this presented a unique challenge. And, like for John Francis, not speaking proved educational.
I discovered that:
I hadn’t been aware of how frequently I’m speaking
The students help each other more when I’m not getting in their way
It’s not hard to give corrections on paper, but effective praise is always difficult
Luckily, my first class was of twelve-year-olds
It’s a good class and the students and I have a nice rapport. They don’t have an expansive vocabulary and grammatically they’re just learning the past tense, yet, due to their less aggressive hormones, they have more freedom of expression than some of the older students.
They’re all different from one another
And I’ve become rather attached to them all. One child responds to every question by exclaiming ‘oh my god’ (in Spanish), before collecting himself and answering the question. They make me laugh.
The morning’s task was a role-play about an ice-cream shop
They take it seriously as it’s preparation for their exam. The work in pairs. One child has some question prompts whilst the other holds an information leaflet. This is partly a reading comprehension exercise, but I focus on their ability to construct questions. Most errors are derived from incorrect word order or missing auxiliary verbs (do/does, am/are/is, can).
Unable to speak, I listened and jotted down corrections in my notebook
The pages filled with scrawl as the children spoke. Unless they stopped and looked at me, unable to continue without a prompt, I didn’t interrupt. I waited until they’d completed the task before sharing my notes.
Normally once they have finished, I go over the questions out loud. The children tend to lean forward in their seats to see the paper and to watch my lips. I trace over the relevant points on the paper with my fingertip. This systematic reading, after correcting for their mistakes, allows the children to hear everything joined together. It’s the point where it’s easiest to identify between those who are genuinely engaged and those who are bored. I read through the role-play at natural pace letting them feel the language in action.
But this was impossible without a voice. Instead, I used the prompts I’d scribbled down to help the children themselves find the correct phrases. Correcting pronunciation took some creativity, but somehow we managed.
Surprisingly, they needed fewer prompts than I’d supposed
Which made me question how much of my speaking is for them and how much it is for me. The truth is, I enjoy speaking. I like telling stories. But what about them? Their eyes light up when I’m telling a story, but their eyes also light up when they’re the ones with the tale to tell.
When they laugh, giggle and share their own eccentric ideas I know they’re enjoying themselves. Part of this confidence comes from my own story-telling – I make the unconventional permissible. But perhaps I’ve not been taking this far enough?
Now, I find myself wondering how can I shift back and forth between them and me in a more balanced fashion?
My second discovery was that I get in the way of them helping each other
Knowing I wasn’t going to leap in, there were a few students who started taking more responsibility for their partner’s learning.
This is something I believe to be valuable but I have been struggling to encourage.
I’ve tried mixing up the pairs of students
I was hoping to find pairs who are willing to challenge each other and push each other a little further. This is more difficult than it sounds. Sometimes the intention is there, the students want to help one another, but they do so in Spanish which isn’t helpful. Other times their kind advice becomes telling. Occasionally it takes a stronger tone and comes across as posturing.But then, there are some stunning partnerships where the peer support is wonderful to see.
And although I’ve thought about all this before, I’ve been rather blind
Because having not spoken for a day, it’s obvious that one of the biggest reasons why one child doesn’t speak up and help their partner, is me.
I’m getting in the way of the children helping one another
As without a voice, I was unable to make instantaneous corrections, they leapt in to explain things to one another. And in English. My inability made them act as if they were me. They momentarily took on my role.
It seems I need to think this over. The children are able to help one another out but often don’t. What is it they lack? Is it a sense of responsibility to their partner? Is it something to do with permission? I know I’m getting in the way here, so what is it that I need to do differently?
On reflection though, I’m proud of them and how they handled themselves.
Which brings me onto my third point, praise.
Regardless of what you do, criticism is easier than constructive praise
Constructive praise is difficult. As the conversations progressed, I took notes of the incorrect grammar, the misused vocabulary or the pronunciation errors. These mistakes stand out to me as if they were painted in vivid colours.
Praise-worthy constructions don’t flash so boldly in my awareness
Since when we’re thinking about praise, we’re thinking about incremental improvement. Especially when it comes to language acquisition. The changes from one week to the next are tiny. And yet, it’s this progress that needs to be praised. It’s the journey of continuous learning, which is so hard to stick at, that deserves commendation.
Ideally, I like to give specific praise
It is more memorable for the student. Sometimes using a phrase on the paper allowed me to do this, but I found that without a voice it was tricky.
General praise can be given through body language
Although… I already tend to smile a lot.
Excessively it has been said. And I guess in the back of my mind I have the image of a ‘cool’ person who doesn’t grin like a mad cat at everyone shouldn’t be. I’m not that person. When I’m happy it’s impossible for me to hide my smile.
Once upon a time, I worked as an au-pair
My own advice to new au-pairs, who would despair at the children they had to somehow care for, was don’t force the children to like you. We all want to be liked, but it’s important that we also respect not everyone is going to like us. When we try to be likeable, we are doing so because we’re driven by fear. We present something fake and are therefore being dishonest.
Trying to get everyone to like you is the surest way to screw-up
Already, working with teenagers I worry that they think I try too hard to make them like me because of my wild grin. Losing my voice made me more conscious of my facial expressions. I didn’t have much else to communicate praise with.
What reassured me though were the questions I’d asked earlier in the week
A teacher hadn’t turned up, so I’d taken the opportunity to ask the students for feedback. They wrote down some thoughts and suggestions.
We don’t like speaking in English but, when we have to speak with [Catherine] we feel so comfortable because she is always smiling.
[Catherine] smiles a lot and I feel safe when I talk with [her] in class.
Maybe all my worry had been for nothing
And when my voice disappeared knowing that my smile had been regarded positively gave me a bit more confidence. Which meant, that on occasion, I went further and beamed with a thumbs up at times to make my point clear.
They are all remarkable individuals.
I remember when I was reading The Ragged Edge of Silence
That’s the book John Francis wrote on his experience of being silent. He describes teaching a discussion class without speaking. It seems so contrary to my own university experience where all my teachers at university did was speak. It lodged in my mind as remarkable. In his TED talk he says:
“Now this was a discussion class and we were having a discussion. I just backed out of that, you know, and I just kind of kept the fists from flying. But what I learned was that sometimes I would make a sign and they said things that I absolutely did not mean, but I should have. And so what came to me is, if you were a teacher and you were teaching, if you weren’t learning you probably weren’t teaching very well.”
Dr John Francis
If you aren’t learning you probably aren’t teaching very well… Leaving space and silence for the students to develop their own voices shouldn’t be remarkable, it should be part of what it means to teach.
Moving onwards, what I can focus on here is:
Varying how much I am contributing to the conversation
Staying quiet and letting the students correct each other
Investigating what is important about praise
And I can smile plenty.
Not being able to speak didn’t prove to be much of a problem
My job is one where speaking is taken for granted. But being ‘afónica’ for the day was a good lesson in the importance of speaking less.
Every now and again I spend a day being a real, proper tourist. In the case of my visit to Granada it was an entire weekend, a good part of which was taken up by the Alhambra.
You have to book tickets well in advance so I was all prepared for a crowded space, filled with hot and bothered tourists talking too loudly. Which meant that I was pleasantly surprised, when, having slogged my way up the hill, I found that the Alhambra wasn’t chocker-block with people, but, actually, especially in the gardens, was peaceful.
It’s not to say there weren’t people, yes I had to queue a while to use the ladies, but the space is so large, there’s just so much of it, that you can find yourself in a peaceful corner. And, if it just so happens you find yourself in a crowd, you just have to wait for them to pass by. They come in waves. As long as you move at a different pace, it’s alright.
My knowledge of Spanish history is… improving. The Romans were here, they built a fort. Muslim Emirs with very long names were here, they built the palaces – hence all the stunning, intricate design work – and Catherine of Aragon’s mum was here. That’s Isabel I, Queen of Castile, husband of Ferdinand. The mother wrote an essay on this royal couple at school. Christopher Columbus was here to get his travel documents signed off. Napoleon tried to destroy it and some poets wrote about it.
When you get tired of history and wander back down into town, there are plenty of tea rooms to quench your thirst.
Sometimes it’s good fun being a tourist. Sometimes you need to really holiday.
Feeling ill this week I took to the sofa and immersed myself in Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. It’s a book that I’ve been meaning to read for a while. One that I see recommended in various places and given praise, but at the same time I was a bit wary. I expected a rather dark book.
Victor Frankl was an Austrian psychotherapist. His personal
experience in a concentration camp during the Second World War forms the
backbone of stories for his psychological theory that is shared in the book. I
read it front cover to back cover in one afternoon. I found it surprisingly
As well as being an autobiographical account of his ordeal in the concentration camps, Victor Frankl’s book dealt with the transitions that framed his imprisonment. He wrote about the initial humiliation and the shock, and then, at the end, he wrote about the vast unease that came following liberation, and how the psychologically, this didn’t happen in an instant.
And transition periods fascinate me. They feel like
something we don’t pay enough attention to. Too often we concentrate on the big
reason for changing and miss the details of the change in the process.
Not quite yet, but soon, I’m moving to far and distant lands
Already I can feel the tension in my body increasing. I say
that, and I haven’t yet got back home to England. I’ve got two steps ahead
planned, multiple transitions, and as much as I love novelty, my body does not.
Before therapy I described this as a change funk. Now I’m a
little more attune with what is going on. I know that my hunger is all or
nothing. I know that my sleep is lots or little. I know that my skin is about
to object in the only way it knows how, and that the chances are that within
the next month I’ll have mouth ulcers.
It they were only spots, I could ignore them
But with stress there’s an emotional side to too. The extremes of my emotions are more likely to raise their heads these next few months as I switch countries and continents.
After all this moving around is not a holiday; holidays come
with less admin. This is a restructuring. It includes everyday things like:
Where and what food I eat.
Where I wash myself.
The bed in which I sleep.
The weather (and season).
And what’s going to happen is that many of my wonderful
habits are going to get shook up. They won’t feel quite so automatic, so habitual.
I’ll find myself swinging off-course, which is not where I want to be. Therefore,
I’m writing this article to get my head around how much effort it’s going to
take to rebuild my routine.
So why am I going to struggle here?
Lack of energy management
Absence of triggers
There are many fears that influence how we structure our
The fear of missing out is one of these, but when we think
about the fear of missing out, I believe we often skip a step. The truth is
that when I’m joyous and focused I don’t have this feeling. If I’ve spent the
day loving what I’m doing I don’t worry that I didn’t happen to go with some
friends to see some film. I’m content.
It’s when I’m not content that the fear of missing out comes
into play. So, if I have this fear arising in me then I know what I do. I need
to look back a bit at what I’m doing with my time, and recognise that there is,
somewhere in the mix, a lack of self-satisfaction. I need to self-soothe. I
need to take time and care for me.
When I first landed in Spain, finding friends was a priority
I felt very much like I needed to pour a huge amount of
effort into my social life immediately, or that I wouldn’t have one. After all
I was going to be living in the country for eight months.
At the time this seemed to make complete sense
When I look back, that’s bullshit. Hindsight is a good teacher. Looking back, I
can see that although those first weeks introduced me to some people I go out
for coffee with, my social life isn’t built around them. The meaningful
conversations and relationships I’ve built came from investments of time I made
much later, at my own natural pace.
The fear of missing out also drives me when I’m back home
Moving back to England, for a few weeks, I know what it is that
I most fear. It’s not having enough time for all the people I love. This
there-is-not-enough-time belief comes from the fact that the number of days is
short. Such a belief instils me with fear and puts me at risk of doing a very
typical Catherine screw-up.
I’m going to try and do too much.
You see, I am still an introvert
Sometimes people who have recently met me find this funny.
What with my broad grin, direct eye contact and enthusiasm for hearing my own Yorkshire
voice I don’t always come across as an introvert. But I recharge alone. People
exhaust me. My energy builds back up when I am quiet, working on my own
projects, writing, reading, tidying my bedroom. It can be frustrating, since I
love being with people so much, but it’s important for me to recognise that
this is how I work.
For me, although my time is short, energy management is more
important than time management.
But you know what I’m going to do the moment I reach far off
lands… I’m going to forget how exhausting new colleagues, new students and new
house-mates are. I’m going to say yes to every invitation to coffee I get.
You see, moving to a new country is all very exciting
Meeting new people kicks out a burst of adrenaline. I
underestimate how much energy gets sapped seeing someone can be. Long-term
friends who you haven’t seen in a while are a perfect example of this.
The excitement builds, I bounce, my speech gets to almost
the same speed as a Spaniard, my mind goes wild as it tries to connect
everything together. It feels like the past, so familiar, yet also new. It’s a
precious sort of conversation.
All this excitement acts as a mask for how tired I am
Unfortunately, even the everyday becomes more exhausting
when you move about.
Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often.
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
But what I’m doing is upsetting my routine
My brain has energy saving routines well engraved into it,
but I’m going to change things up. Eating breakfast takes more energy when you
have to decide what to eat. Shopping for food is more effort when you don’t
know where the pasta isle is. Getting money out from the cash point makes your
mind spin when you’re remembering different codes for different accounts and
paying attention to avoiding currency conversion fees or ATM charges.
Everything I do takes more energy that I presume.
There’s a lesson in quality over quantity that I should pay
I pretend to myself I know it. Most of the time I’m pretty
good at abiding by my belief that it’s not seeing someone a lot that matters.
What’s important to me is having a genuine connection when you do. However,
prolonged absence, or a bout of loneliness, tends to make me question this
The mixture of adrenaline and anxiety comes together and…
So I’m going to fall flat on my face because I’m inadequate
at managing my energy.
But now I want to talk about habit triggers
When you twist your life around and change things up, you
lose some of your routines and habits.
Whilst I sit on my bed each morning and have my breakfast, I
practice my Spanish flashcards. But in England I have breakfast at a table
because we’re all very proper like that in my family.
Lunch time here is about three on a weekday, because I
finish at school at half past two. But lunchtime at home will be after twelve…
where therefore does a siesta fit into my routine? Not at half past three for
sure… And it’s not that I always sleep in my siesta time, but I do tend to take
a moment to relax. Sometimes I write in my diary, paint or read, but I make
sure I’m not rushing into the next activity.
Then there’s exercise. Here, I have combined riding my bike
into my life by making it part of my commute when I’m teaching in town. In
England I tend to run or cycle, but in all honesty the hills of home, after the
flatness of here, are quite intimidating.
Part conscious, part unconscious, these triggers are built into
At home it is inevitable that I will settle back into an old
routine. The triggers of the past are still wired into my brain. I have some
good home-habits and some bad home-habits. Here I wake up at half six. At home
it used to be more like eight.
My wonderful luck means I have a mother who will knock on my
door and say something helpful like “When are we doing yoga?”
Maybe I will have breakfast in the kitchen, but maybe I can
do my flashcards there instead? A siesta at half one, or two is plausible,
especially if it’s collapsing on the sofa with a book (this is how I read so
much). But the environmental triggers aren’t the same.
The harder challenge will be in far and distant lands
I have more space and more options. What form does exercise
take, what does my diet look like, what hours am I working, is lunch eaten at
home or at work? But this itself is part of the challenge, it’s part of the
fun. It’s the time where you get to start over, test out a new structure,
consider what is important and then make your days the evidence of those
There you are.
That’s what’s swirling around in my brain right now
That’s my teaspoon of awareness that I’m stirring into a
whole lot of unknowns. I’m going to react too much to fear, I’m going to
mismanage my energy and I’m going to have things that seemed easy, habitual,
become a whole lot harder.
And reading Victor Frankl’s book has given me something to
think about. Transitions are hard. Change doesn’t come easy and there’s always
But overall, my transition is a beautiful opportunity, a
gift, and something I shouldn’t complain about but should be grateful for.
Where am I going to screw up?
Where I let fear dictate
Where I don’t manage my energy
And where I don’t compensate for an absence of triggers
Which means I’ve got some planning to do.
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Here in my Southern Spanish town, you sometimes have to think ahead. On a Sunday or a festival day normality ceases. When it rains nobody goes out as, due to a lack of adequate drainage, the streets flood. During the working week, many places close mid-afternoon, and places like the post office simply don’t bother reopening until the next day.
Here you can’t depend on a 24 hour supermarket or the bus arriving on time. On festival days (or during rain) the bus may or may not choose to run. Living here means that you have to be prepared in advance.
Planning ahead is also how I manage my own, unpredictable mental health. Since last week ended with a random burst of unsleepable madness, I thought I’d reflect a little on my ‘recovery day’ process to make sure that Monday morning had no choice but to go to plan.
I’m going to briefly cover…
The things I drop from my to-do list
The actions I take to get me back on track
The importance of good transitions
Sometimes the most important is what you don’t do
On Saturday night, before I went to bed, I wrote down a list of all the things I had to accomplish on Sunday. Then I removed everything I deemed unnecessary and could be put off. Writing this article wasn’t important enough to make the list, even though my original plan had it being edited by Sunday. Practicing Spanish was removed from the list too. Anything related to work was scribbled out. Any admin, scratched through.
It wasn’t that I was ruling out practicing Spanish, not at all, if I fancy practicing Spanish then that’s fine. But the thick black line removing it from my list affirmed that it wasn’t the priority for the day.
A rescue day, as I think of it, is not a normal day
On normal days I practice Spanish and I write articles. I stick to my bigger plan of learning goals and creative ambitions. On rescue days I rescue the little part of me that has been neglected and is screaming for attention through my sleep (or lack of sleep) and through all though ugly ways that stress makes itself known.
So what does this mean that I doing?
This morning I followed my morning routine, although much slower than normal. I had my coffee and my cereal. I watched a video about learning watercolour and I did yoga. Later I meditated.
Routine is important to me because when I’m working within a set routine I don’t need to waste energy making decisions.
Then I put my bedsheets in the washing machine and tidied my room. While the washing was whirring away I painted a pine cone and emailed my mother updating her on my life and my yoga practice. Keeping my mother vaguely in the loop is important.
The lady who I live with invited me to eat lunch with her.
In the afternoon I went out for a walk
It’s been raining here, most unexpectedly, and I perhaps lacked some fresh air. More importantly though, I needed to create space for my mind to mull over why it’s so upset. In the evening I went out for a coffee (descafeinado) and chocolate cake with a friend before going early to bed.
Which I guess doesn’t seem all that mad…
In fact it’s not all that different to what I normally would do. The difference comes in the transitions. When I’m picking myself up off the ground it’s rarely the activity that matters.
What matters is how I approach each activity
In one of his books I remember John Kabat Zinn suggesting we take special care to note the attitude we bring to the beginning of a meditation practice and the attitude with which we leave it. I try to apply this wisdom to each of my activities. Of course, it’s only possible for me to do this when I’m willing to slow right down.
I’ll give you an example
I posted my pine cone painting onto Instagram and was about to scroll through the feed, but noticed that I hadn’t consciously decided that this was what I wanted, so I paused, set a timer for ten minutes and then returned to Instagram. When the timer went off I stopped it. My thumb hovered over the feed for a moment while I thought. I knew I wanted to keep reading, but I also knew that I’d decided ten minutes was more than enough time, and so I stopped.
Or another example
At the end of the meditation track I play, the background soft noise continues some time after the meditation itself has ended. Normally I stop it playing and just get on with my day, but today I paid attention to my need to get up and be busy. I decided to wait until the very end and only stand up once I knew exactly what it was I was going to do.
But of course this is not easy
Rescue days might contain fewer tasks, but they are anything but easy. It is much easier to be busy. It’s easier to keep pushing yourself because that’s the muscle that you’ve spent your life strengthening. If you’re anything like me ‘more’ feels more natural than ‘less’.
But to slow down and catch myself, to not march but amble and take note, to set myself up for Monday morning and from there the rest of the week, this all means that I won’t just survive the week ahead but that I have the opportunity to enjoy it.
Living here in Spain the pace of life is slower
You can’t brutishly charge around expecting to have what you want when the rest of the town is busy having their extended lunch break. And you can’t expect that dinner is going to be an option at the moment you feel hungry. You have to learn to slow down to the pace of life around you. And you always have to be prepared for when, maybe, things don’t go your way.
So yes, I did less with my Sunday than I could have
I focused on what matters to my mental health most, and I made sure that I was aware of how I start and end each activity. I want to be the one choosing how I live rather than allowing myself to be led by compulsive desires.
And now I am prepared for Monday morning.
Do you actively change your behaviour to recover from a bad day? Or do you keep pushing on?