The theory proves itself right, time after time after time.
Like-minded people, practising languages together.
So why does it work so well? Obviously nobody can get on with everybody. But there seems to be one thing that makes intercambio work – and it’s as much about the people who aren’t there, as the people who are there.
Think about it a moment. On the surface it’s about practising the languages, us practising our Spanish and them practising English, German, French or whatever. Straightforward. But there’s more to it than that. It means going somewhere where there will be …. well …. FOREIGNERS! It’s kind of a fundamental part of it! So (and here’s the good bit …) intercambio rather rules out the sort of people who – to put it bluntly – don’t like foreigners. And this suits me just fine. The ones that are in the UK, complaining about multi-culturalism while phoning for a curry, signing petitions to close the borders while booking their holiday in the sun, voting Ukip while browsing overseas property sites and underpaying their Polish plumber. And the ones that are here in Spain, living in “guiri-ghettos”, complaining that nobody in their doctors’ surgery speaks English, searching for the best English breakfast along the coast, calling Spanish workers lazy or crooks on “expat” internet forums (yes, I’m afraid they do!). The great thing is, they tend not to join intercambio groups.
What we DO get at intercambio groups is people with open minds. People from all nations, who actively want to meet people from other countries, other cultures, other religions or none, and with other languages. People who have gone out of their way to put themselves in a position where they might be the only person who speaks their particular language, or has their particular background or frame of reference.
Every time our big intercambio group has a day out (a lunch, a mountain walk, a gallery visit, or a weekend in the Alpujarras) newer members ask “How come everyone’s so nice?” The answer is that once you take out the “biffers” and the “kippers” (Britain First and UKIP members), you are left with people from across the political spectrum who share open minds and a desire to knock down the barriers that language, culture, and national differences can put in the way of normal productive human relationships.
And sharing food is a great way of bonding. So the Spanish style of big shared platters in the middle, conversations flowing, the occasional fork extended to spear a green pepper or a chunk of meat, is ideal. That’s why Rafa’s immersion weeks do seem rather to revolve around food!
With another exam booked, and the long summer break with no classes, heading off on another Spanish language immersion week was the perfect way to keep on top of those pesky subjunctives and all the new vocabulary. The Córdoba week organised by Rafa at Experiencia Vivees had been simply fabulous (written up in “Of Acorns, Olives, and Old Andaluz” and in “Immersion not Drowning”), his website was full of tempting offers and I signed up for the Granada week.
It’s supposed to be about language, culture, scenery, people, experiences ….. But it does always seem to be about the food! With three teachers and five students, the group immediately felt like we were on holiday with our mates. The teachers are all native speakers (a mixture of South American and Spanish) and professional teachers, giving us a flavour of different accents and vocabulary. The students come from everywhere – Russia, Holland, the Philippines, Switzerland, the US etc. Rafa always puts together a really special programme of visits – and in Granada we also had our on-the-ground expert, Beatriz, who gives Spanish lessons by Skype. Her local knowledge and insider tips made it an unforgettable week. Every meal was in a really special place, that as a normal visitor we would never have found.
The aim of going on the immersion week was to consolidate some grammar before the DELE exam in November. With such small groups, the teachers can help each student with their own learning aims. For some, getting through sentences and being able to communicate is the most important, without worrying about every mistake. Others want corrections, and want to practise certain grammatical constructions. The week works, whatever your objective is – and on top of that is a brilliant holiday. Apart from getting to know corners of Granada I never knew existed, I got the practice and the confidence I needed to start the new term at the Escuela Oficial de Idiomas, and to do the DELE B2 exam.
Rafa’s week, chatting with people from the far east, Russia and Peru using our shared common language of Spanish, clarified why learning this language is so important. It breaks down barriers, it offers communication, it minimises differences and enables us to learn about each other’s countries and cultures. Always interesting people. Hands across the water. Open minds.
Whether it’s an immersion week, a language Meetup event, Spanish classes where most learners are not British, or just an intercambio group in a bar, we’re doing more than simply improving our Spanish to make chatting to our neighbours easier. We’re also opening up channels of communication with people from every nation, all using Spanish to join us together and bridge our differences. And just at this moment, with everything that’s going on in the world, surely anything that increases communication and cross-cultural understanding, has to be a good thing, ¿no?
© Tamara Essex 2015 http://www.twocampos.com
In 2016 Experiencia Vivees will run the Córdoba immersion week in April and October, the Málaga week in June and September, and the Granada week in May and September. A new Seville week is planned but no dates are announced as yet. www.experienciavivees.com
Beatriz Mora is a teacher of Spanish via Skype www.bmspanish.com