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Posts tagged ‘Madrid’


You never know until you try…

More years ago than I care to remember, I did a degree in Hispanic Studies at the University of Nottingham. I loved the course, but there was one part of it that filled me with terror from the very first day.

The Year Abroad.

This is a pretty standard element of a modern languages degree – you spend your third year living abroad, either working or studying, and that’s when you really learn the language.

I had the choice of going to Spain or Latin America, and being the cautious soul I am, opted to stay close to home (a decision I still occasionally regret). So in September 2002, my friend and I nervously boarded a plane for Madrid.

The first challenge when we arrived was to find somewhere to live; we’d booked a room in a hostel for the first few days, but after that we were on our own. And so we got on the phones.

Now just to be clear, I’ve never been a massive fan of talking on the phone in English; the thought of calling people in another language was genuinely terrifying. But given a choice between that and being homeless, I had to pull myself together and get on with it.

Initially, my friend and I were looking for accommodation together, but when it became clear we weren’t going to find anything, we split up. So suddenly there I was, in a strange city, going off to view apartments on my own, in another language.

Lost in Madrid

Definitely not lost in Madrid…

Eventually I found a slightly shabby room in a shared flat… only for my friend to announce the following day that her new landlady knew someone with a much nicer room – which was also cheaper. Feeling slightly anxious, I went to talk to my own landladies (two elderly sisters who lived in the flat downstairs) and successfully negotiated the return of my deposit and first month’s rent. In Spanish.

Once the living arrangements were settled, the next challenge was going to university. We’d been enrolled at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, and had to pass exams in a certain number of modules to pass the year and continue to the final year of our course. So before I knew it, I was taking classes entirely in Spanish for the first time in my life – and then, a few months later, preparing for two-hour exams, all of which, to my surprise, I passed.

Looking back on my year abroad now, I sometimes can’t quite believe I really did some of these things. I even managed to get my hair cut once, although it didn’t go all that well – let’s face it, I have enough trouble describing what I want done to my hair here in London. And I spent the year living with a very lovely lady who didn’t speak a word of English. (It was always very entertaining when my family – who don’t speak any Spanish – came to visit.)

Learning a language can open up some amazing opportunities, and sometimes you just have to take a chance, however nervewracking the situation. You never know, you might surprise yourself with the things you can achieve. And even if it goes a bit wrong, a bad haircut will grow out eventually.




10 reasons to visit… Spain

We hope that you enjoyed our first couple of posts from the series ’10 reasons to visit…’ Here’s our latest post, about a magical, warm, sunny place named Spain. We tried to get the opinion of locals or people who’ve lived there so that we can give authentic reasons why Spain is a wonderful country that should be on your ‘to go’ list.

1. Barcelona

We’re going to make this city a standalone reason because it is simply magic. From a walk on the seashore at La Barceloneta, to pubs and terraces along La Rambla, to shopping, to walking in the narrow streets filled with beautiful old buildings that have hanging flowers on their balcony, this is a city where anyone can find happiness. Don’t forget to visit Gaudí’s great work: La Sagrada Familia, El Capricho, Casa Calvet, Park Güell, Casa Milà and Casa Batlló.

Sagrada Familia Barcelona

The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, Barcelona

2. Fiestas

‘Fiesta’ means ‘celebration’ or ‘carnival’ and the Spanish people have a lot of them because, well, they like to party. One worth mentioning is the Las Fallas Festival in Valencia, one of the biggest national festivals in Spain, which takes place every March. Huge papier maché figures are burnt during the course of the week; there are also many fireworks and plenty of partying. La Tomatina is another well-known festival – basically it’s a huge tomato fight and it takes place on the last Wednesday of August at Buñol near Valencia. And the annual celebration of Carnival in Santa Cruz de Tenerife is second only to the ‘Carnival’ in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on the world party stage.

3. Delicious drinks and free snacks

Nothing more to say here! We recommend sangria, and a lot of it. Well, if you must know what’s in it: wine, chopped fruit, a sweetener, and a small amount of added brandy. But what’s even better is that most bars will also give you a small snack or tapa to go with your drink: olives, peanuts, crisps or ‘pipas’ (seeds in their shells) are common, as are small pieces of bread topped with jamón or cheese.

4. Spanish cuisine

Oh, yes, the food. The most popular dishes are ‘tapas’ and ‘paella’, which is basically white rice, green vegetables, meat (rabbit, chicken, duck), beans and seasoning. Tapas is actually a wide variety of appetisers – cold (such as manchego cheese, gazpacho and cured jamón) or hot (such as chopitos, which are battered, fried cuttlefish, patatas bravas and chorizo). In the cities along the coast they serve the best seafood and fish.


5. The weather

In most areas of Spain there are 300 days of sunshine yearly.  The sunny days and sandy beaches, along with palm trees and, in some areas, parrots flying around freely, make Spain a paradise for tourists. I visited Barcelona in March and there were people on the beach already, so don’t pack too many jumpers…

6. Ibiza

Ibiza is an island off the eastern coast of Spain, which has become famous for its nightlife and the electronic music that originated on the island. Its summer club scene attracts many tourists in the summer, though it is said that the island’s government and the Spanish Tourist Office have controversially been working to promote more family-oriented tourism on the island.

7. Tarifa

Tarifa is the most southern point of  Spain and off its coast is the Strait of Gibraltar, which is 14.3 km/8.9 miles of ocean at the strait’s narrowest point – this means that from here you can see Africa. The view is amazing; if you go to southern Spain this is a location you shouldn’t miss.

8. The people

Spanish people are pretty laid back – they enjoy their free time as well as lunch breaks, and you can often see them savouring their coffee on terraces and lounges. You can’t really blame them, with all the sunshine and holiday vibe. If you actually need to get something done, this relaxed attitude can be a bit frustrating, but it certainly makes a change from the frantic pace of life at home.

9. Architecture and sights

We’ve already mentioned some of the iconic buildings you can see in Barcelona, like the famous Sagrada Familia, but there’s a lot more to see in Spain. Islamic influences spread most of the way across Spain between 711 and 1492, and you can see this all the way up to Zaragoza in the north, where the central Muslim-influenced Basilica contrasts with the other Roman influences in the city. The Mezquita (mosque) in Cordoba is absolutely worth a visit, as is the Alhambra in Granada; both are really breathtaking inside and out. There are also some amazing palaces to visit, such as the Palacio Real in Madrid, and the monasterio de El Escorial, a little way outside Madrid.

El Palacio Real (Royal Palace), Madrid

El Palacio Real (Royal Palace), Madrid

10. Practise your Spanish

Of course! Spanish is generally considered one of the easier languages in which to pick up the basics, and people there really appreciate you trying out a couple of phrases. If you head to Madrid or Barcelona, you can probably make yourself understood in English, but in many other places, people don’t really speak much English, so no-one will laugh at you if you try out asking a few directions or ordering tapas in Spanish.

Please share your own favourite things about this great country – we know there are a lot more than ten reasons to visit!

Ioana and Alex



Rising Demand for English as a Foreign Language Reveals Spain’s Biggest Educational Bugbears

Today we welcome back guest blogger Eve Pearce, with an interesting article about the demand for language learning in Spain, and its implications for the future.

It is rather ironic that while numbers of Brits studying a foreign language to A-level have dropped dramatically over the past few years, nearby Spain – officially out of one of the deepest recessions in its history but still struggling in terms of its high rate of unemployment – is undergoing a veritable boom in foreign language study, with the English language taking pole position, since some 78 per cent of all job offers demand this language from successful candidates.

Spanish flagThe Spanish crisis, which has rocked the nation since its commencement in 2008, has also led to a greater demand for German and French language learning, since many Spaniards are considering migrating to these countries given the bleak economic forecast. In many private nurseries and schools, the study of Chinese is all the rage as well, since parents see this language as the difference that could make or break their child’s job application in the future. This level of competition is only logical, since the forecasted unemployment rate for 2014 stands at 26.4 per cent of the population. Vice-President of the European Commission and commissioner of Economic and Monetary Affairs, Olli Rehn, recently declared that although the unemployment rate in Spain has stabilised, it continues to be “unacceptably elevated”. The situation, he claimed, was similarly bleak in Italy.

Interestingly, despite the general consensus as to the value of learning foreign languages, the Mayor of Madrid, Ana Botella’s recent address to the Olympic Committee during Madrid’s bid to host the 2020 Olympics was deemed by many to be representative of the current failure of the public educational system to meet the demand for spoken English at an acceptable and truly functional level. In many ways, this is owing to the small number of hours dedicated to English in the public system curriculum, as well as the heavy focus on textbook-style teaching (which leans heavily on grammatical exercises) rather than on fluency and bilingualism/multi-lingualism. As a result, while most students are able to successfully complete intermediate-level exercises (involving the use of the simple past tense and conditionals, for instance), they are far less comfortable when asked to speak in public or to conduct business by phone. Meanwhile, those who are able to afford it are relying more on private classes with tutors, who are able to offer students conversational practise, one of the most sorely lacking activities in many schools and academies. Many adults (who are also flocking to EFL academies or completing online courses) frequently lament not having adequately learned English at the optimal point of their lives (i.e. in their early childhood) and now, more than ever, dreams of moving to greener pastures are being put on the back burner owing to this glaring failure in the system.

What, then, is the solution for this crisis-struck nation, at least in so far as language learning is concerned? There are a number of measures educators and those governing alike need to adopt, some of which may be:

An increase in the hours dedicated to English

If students are to gain the confidence they need to speak fluently in a variety of both social and professional settings, schools should consider not only elevating the number of hours dedicated to learning English, but also, perhaps, taking a leaf out of the book of many costly British and bilingual (Spanish-English) schools, where core subjects such as mathematics and science, are also taught in English. It is of great utility for students to be confident when counting in English and to learn to solve practical problems they can encounter in daily life in a second language (e.g. dividing into fractions, comparing items by weight, adding and subtracting, etc).

Learning other subjects in English also wrests from the necessity of contracting separate ‘conversation’ classes, since students grow accustomed to expressing their thoughts in English in a more effortless manner. During his time in office, ex-Spanish President, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero acknowledged that the flawed system of education in English was an “evident problem“, and vowed to implement new strategies into his government’s education plan. In Madrid, one in every three public schools offer between 30 and 50 per cent of their classes in English or another foreign language. The aim is to raise this figure to one in every three schools by 2015. Interestingly, neither Zapatero nor current President, Mariano Rajoy, speak English.

Students learning English

Government-funded EFL classes for mature-aged students 

Greater access to classes run by fully qualified EFL teachers will not only help unemployed adults hone their language skills, they will also promote spoken English within the home setting, which is bound to benefit children in both a direct and an indirect manner.

The provision and adoption of useful materials in class 

As spoken and listening skills are the biggest stumbling blocks for most students, the encouragement of learning through audio-visual material (films, songs etc.) should be encouraged, to increase levels of comprehension.

Specialised teacher training

Although the number of bilingual schools has increased in recent years, the number of truly bilingual teachers is currently insufficient to meet the demand. Therefore, an investment should be made in encouraging teachers to complete courses in English-speaking countries, which ensures that they will obtain the sufficient level of fluency required to elicit the same from their students.

The solution to the Spanish crisis may lie in the distant future, yet there seems little reason to wait so long for the adoption of new methodologies when it comes to learning foreign languages at school. Recent budget cuts to the Department of Education, however, have seen the country take a turn for the worse in so far as public schools teachers’ salaries and University costs are concerned, leading us to wonder if the government is willing to back the admitted need for improved language learning, with the necessary funding. Investment in education is always wise, but it is no less than crucial in times of crisis.

Eve Pearce



Liz’s Language Mission

Recently I set myself a mid-year resolution.  I graduated in Hispanic Studies back in 2004, but haven’t really spoken Spanish since, and when recently a colleague needed me to talk to someone on the phone, I struggled to keep the conversation going.  Thinking back to some of the experiences I had during my year living in Madrid (finding somewhere to live, doing exams, celebrating holidays with my non-English speaking landlady and her family), I can’t quite believe how much things have changed.  So my mission is to get back to speaking Spanish regularly and (hopefully) fluently, with help from a variety of sources – movies, books, chatting to native speakers and anything else that occurs to me along the way.  Hopefully at some point I’ll be able to fit in a visit to Spain where I can practise a bit more intensively, but until then I’ll have to make do with the resources at my disposal here in the UK, and will keep you updated with my progress!  Once in a while I might post in Spanish just to show off 😉

If you have any suggestions or ideas to help me with my Spanish mission, please post a comment below.  Thanks!