I never expected to find myself straddling a Portuguese man and screaming ‘Take me now’ in front of an audience of 50 people, but that’s exactly what happened when I volunteered with Pueblo Inglés – an English language programme that takes place at a selection of remote and very scenic locations throughout Spain. I’d ‘volunteered’ (or at least agreed reluctantly) to act in one of the programme’s plays – and I use the word ‘act’ loosely. It turned out to be one of many strange but hilarious moments in the most emotional, uplifting, enjoyable, exhausting and unique week of my life.
Pueblo Ingles is aimed predominantly at Spanish business people who need to be able to communicate effectively in English, although it attracts some self-funded individuals too. They are joined by volunteers from English-speaking countries all over the world, which broadens the spectrum of authentic accents and unusual sayings for the Spaniards to get their heads around. Some volunteers are drawn to the programme by the prospect of a ‘free holiday’ – transport from Madrid to the centre, accommodation and meals are paid for – but the real benefits of the programme are the lasting friendships, the bizarre memories and the knowledge you’re able to pick up about Spanish traditions from speaking to the programme’s participants. It’s an arrangement that truly enriches the lives of everyone involved.
Before you arrive in Madrid, Pueblo Ingles’ most important rule is driven home repeatedly by the programme’s organisers. No Spanish allowed. It is difficult for some bilingual volunteers to accept that they won’t be able to use their Spanish skills to help explain the complexities of the English language. It is harder still for the Spaniards to avoid using their native tongue – especially when calling home to their family and friends – but the aim is that they are speaking, thinking and, for some, even dreaming, in English by the end of the week. On top of that, who knew you could learn the names of 50 people in a couple of days – a significant accomplishment even if you can’t always remember who told you what!
Each programme is led by an experienced programme director and a master of ceremonies. In my case, these were Allan and Jez, and I can’t imagine two people more suited to their roles. Allan, a part-Ukrainian, part-Scouse ex-marine, worked meticulously to put together daily schedules of 1-2-1 and group conversation sessions, conference calls, telephone chats, theatre productions, presentations and group activities. Meanwhile, Jez used his theatre expertise to inspire and entertain us all. Every explanation of a task was interwoven with quick-witted humour and, sometimes, even a magic trick, and his willingness to make an utter fool of himself for the sake of a few laughs was infectious. Days after meeting, members of our cohort had dressed in drag, donned an inflatable Halloween costume, exorcised evil spirits, performed a rendition of Waltzing Matilda (complete with sheep costume), re-enacted a visit to the urinal and thrown some questionable moves on the ‘dance floor’.
From Human Bingo to Spanglish in Three Days
From the moment we arrived, it was clear that we were in for an interesting time. A quick ‘ice-breaking’ game of human bingo revealed that one member of the group used to live next door to Elvis Presley, another was a circus acrobat who’d performed in the closing ceremony of the Olympics and three were trained aeroplane pilots. Despite the huge diversity in ages, nationalities and backgrounds, we all formed strong friendships because of our shared experience. We likened it to taking part in a Big Brother-styled social experiment. Being thrown together as a random mix of individuals in unfamiliar surroundings and asked to converse, present and partake in group activities accelerated the bond-forming process. People really opened up, shared their deepest secrets and discussed taboo topics without feeling the need to walk on eggshells.
Incidentally, ‘Walk on eggshells’ is an idiom. Most English people of my generation are, like me, worryingly naive about parts of speech like verbs, nouns and conjunctions, and idioms are no exception. This is an area where the Spaniards could teach us a thing or two. Once Jez had explained that an idiom was a phrase like ‘Once in a blue moon’, which referred to something entirely different from its literal meaning, we were asked to explain one to each of our Spaniards during the 1-2-1 sessions. It’s much more difficult than you might think and really gets you thinking about why we say the things we do. To add confusion, there were often disagreements between the Anglos from different countries. For example, I overheard an American lady explaining innocently that when you like something it ‘turns you on’ or you ‘get off on it’. That may be true, but if you apply that to your breakfast cereal in England, you might find that people give you odd looks and start to keep their distance. Worse still, as time went on, we Anglos started to inadvertently mimic the mistakes the Spaniards were making – an infliction we called ‘Spanglish’. This was in addition to the slowed speech and exaggerated hand gestures that we hoped would help portray what we were trying to say. I wondered whether I’d be able to convert back to normal speech when I got home to England.
What impressed me more than anything was the sense of humour of the Spaniards. Even in a foreign language they were quick-witted. Each Spaniard is asked to give two presentations on a topic of their choice and it was heart warming to see a noticeable improvement in their confidence and ability to speak English. Those who had struggled gave such engaging talks the second time around that many of the audience were brought to tears. And while the course may be intended to improve the confidence of its Spanish participants, I’m sure we all came away having faced up to a few insecurities. Getting involved with acting and public speaking in an environment where no one is there to judge you makes it an exciting and enjoyable experience. Likewise, speaking with a broad spectrum of strangers of different ages, nationalities and personalities can be daunting. This means that the volunteers come away from Pueblo Ingles with a sense of personal accomplishment as well as the knowledge that their contribution made a very clear difference.
Friends for Life
By the end of the week, our faces ached from laughter, our throats burned and we were all exhausted, but not one of us would have missed the opportunity to take part if given the chance to go back and repeat it. We had learned things about other countries that you can’t pick up in a guidebook, indulged in vast quantities of delicious food (and a little too much tequila) and felt united as a group of individuals who had shared many magical moments – moments that no outsider would ever fully comprehend, unless of course, they signed up for Pueblo Ingles themselves. Every cohort will have its own memorable highlights but I have no doubt that each set of experiences is as hugely positive and life-enhancing as the next.
Years on, many of us are still in contact with each other. I’ve visited one volunteer in Christchurch as I travelled through New Zealand and it’s because of another that my blog has as many readers as it does today. I’m sure the people from my group won’t mind me sharing some of their comments anonymously. They really do say it all:
‘The week we shared is often replayed in my mind. I loved what we had together and still enjoy looking at the pictures.’
‘The next year will have a difficult task in trying to be better than this because the week we spent together is almost impossible to overcome, for me the best moment of 2011.’
‘Pueblo Ingles was a most wonderful experience for me. I loved every minute of it.’
‘I would like to tell you all that my experience in La Alberca was wonderful and one of the best experiences I have ever had.’
‘I don’t think I will be able to explain the experience to family and friends – only we can understand the experience. It was an experience of a lifetime.’
‘Missing all of you. Was a fantastic week, full of great experiences. Before to go Pueblo Ingles I never could imagine how gorgeous it is. To know people like you makes me more rich in all of senses.’
‘Just to say I’ll never forget the week we spent together, at first a little hard for me but now I know that language is no barrier to meet wonderful people. This experience will be unforgettable for me.’
‘What can I possibly say? I feel so blessed to have had you all in my life. Our time in La Alberca was absolutely incredible and unbelievably emotional. I have learned a lot from this experience and each of you has contributed in a different way.’
‘Being at La Alberca with you for a week sharing so much things, happy and sad things that life brings us, was one of the most impressive and emotional experience lately.’
‘It is hard to be so far away from people who came to mean so very much to me. Thank you for the laughter and intimacy of that memorable week together.’
‘I never thought I will miss so much that week we spent together in PI, and I start missing you even on Friday when we are still there.’
‘It was one of my wonderful experiences in many years (for my English and for me) and I´m sure that it would never be the same without all of you.’
‘I knew I was going to have fun, but I never imagined that I would enjoy as much as I’ve done.’
‘We cannot put in to words the emotions we feel and the love for all of you. I don’t think anyone can understand our feelings except ALL of you that were there last week. Thank you for one of the most wonderful experiences of our lives.’
‘I haven’t been able to express my feelings to all my friends from Pueblo Ingles. Thank all of you for one of the most amazing weeks of my life. Knowing you has made my life better.’