Location Chile

What does a language assistant do in a Chilean University

There are about seven students in the class and they’re chatting away, in Spanish, about something to do with a motorbike that I can’t quite follow. I’ve just arrived. The teacher will be late. The teachers are always late.

This class are learning how to tell me their name, their age and their telephone number. For some of the students, this is ridiculously easy, for others, it’s a major challenge. I have a choice – I could sit and wait for the teacher to arrive or I could speak.

I ask them what they’re talking about

It takes five minutes of back and forth, with almost the whole class participating as no individual has enough vocabulary, but I learn that our resident knight in shining armour, sat in the centre of the front row, helped a guy to safety after he’d fallen off his motorbike and fractured his leg.

Not bad for a class whose spent the last month learning, “Where are you from?”

Classes here are small and attendance is poor

The focus is on enabling the students to speak, rather than read or write. All examinations for English are oral ones. My focus, therefore, is entirely on conversation practice.

The first goal is to make learning English less of an ordeal

Fear might be a good teacher of instinctual response, but to speak a foreign language requires a higher part of the brain. You have to want to own the language. Otherwise, how will you work through the anxiety, embarrassment and humiliation of constantly getting in a muddle?

I pity the students. If my French classes at school had been taught with such a focus on speech, I would have hated it. Speaking a foreign language can be a horrible experience. One of the big appeals of physics is that it’s quietly learnt. Books, paper, pens. But in Foreign languages, your main tool is your voice. Everyone else hears your terrible pronunciation and when you forget a word, everyone else knows.

Yet, from a rational perspective, nobody cares much about you. Most other people in the class are too absorbed in their insecurities to care about yours. But this is a big leap of faith to take.

Therefore I see the first job of the language assistant to be confidence-boosting

Note this isn’t about self-esteem. I’m not talking about gold stars and congratulations for every utterance. I’m talking about presenting a challenge and guiding the students in achieving it.

Like the conversation about the motorbike

When I first told the students to explain what they were talking about, they deemed it impossible. Understandable when you’re in English 1 repeating ‘My name is…’. With time, they started clarifying the facts. There was one person involved, a man. He fell. On the road. Leg. Broken, no, little broken. Fractured. By the time the teacher arrived, we’d got to a whole anecdote.

The second role of the language assistant is to speak

You might laugh, but the English these students predominantly hear is their teacher, and most of the teachers speak with a noticeable Chilean accent. I had one teacher who last year accentuated his Spanish accent when he spoke English to his class to try and help them understand. I’m not convinced that this is a good solution. It’s a bit of a short cut and short cuts don’t always pay off. However, I am sure that it helps to hear many different accents.

I do speak differently when I’m teaching

My word choice is limited. The flow is slower, and I include a lot more t’s and h’s. It takes a conscious effort to speak like this and sometimes when I’m tired, I slur my words, apologise and start again in better English.

The third task is to correct

This is much harder than is sometimes presumed. When you’re listening to English as a foreign language as part of a conversation, what you focus on is the parts that make sense and your brain attempts to fill in the gaps to create understanding. When you’re listening as a teacher, what you need to note is the mistakes. Some mistakes are obvious. Others seem invisible.

You get used to hearing the language in foreign accents and adapt to the poor pronunciation. Some grammatical mistakes don’t disrupt the meaning of the sentence and are therefore harder to spot. Sometimes there are so many mistakes, you don’t know how to classify and sort through them.

It’s much harder to hear the mistakes when you are part of the conversation

Sometimes, therefore, all I do it sit in front of two people who are talking and make notes. This can be disquieting for the students I’m listening to, but does allow me to hear what’s going on. Since we do lots of roleplays, there are plenty of opportunities for me to attend to the oddities of their foreign English.

I’m finding that the teachers are faster at noting and classifying the errors

Probably because it is how they do their examinations. They’re practised at it because they’re used to teaching the same course, over and over. They know what they’re listening for. They’re comparing the mistakes to the mistakes of other students and the curriculum. Meanwhile, I’m comparing the mistakes to my idea of standard English.

Sometimes though, I ignore the rules of English

I let my adaptive ears process vs that sound like bs and the bs that sound like vs. Instead of fussing, I just let the students speak the stuff that’s on their minds. Sometimes this means conversations about motorbike accidents. Other times they ask sweet questions, like do I miss my family?  Although what they seem to want to know is nothing more complex than have I tried the local speciality, a hot-dog?

A day in the easy life of a language assistant

Monday happens as expected. Other than I turn up for my yoga class and nobody is there. The door is locked. I wonder if perhaps I’m the one missing something important, or if I’m the only one who’s noticed that the clocks have changed. I walk away none the wiser.

I walk home, listening to a podcast

It’s part of my plan to be less ignorant of the world. I’m taking in history and philosophy. Continuing my Cuban education by listening to a podcast on the Bay of Pigs. Widening my philosophical knowledge with an In Our Time podcast on Authenticity – in which the opinions of Jean-Paul Sarte and Simone De Beauvoir are discussed and I think, oh I know those names, I have just read about them in a book by a chap with the unlikely name of Mason Curry on the Daily Rituals of creative people. I do love it when my knowledge comes together like that. Snap. Connection made.

Like that wondrous moment when I realised that Catherine of Aragon was the daughter of Isabel and Ferdinand and history took a whole new form in my brain. Snap. Connection made. Love it.

I go to class, but I’m not teaching

Instead, I find today I am in the unexpected role of making up numbers. The students do their exams (oral) in pairs, but this class has an odd number of students. I’m brought in to fill the gap.

Student: Hi.
Me: Hi.
Student: How are you doing?
Me: Fine, thanks. And you? How are you doing?
Student: Fine, thanks. What is your name?
Me: My name is Catherine. And you? What is your name?
Student: My name is Claudio. How old are you?
Me: I am 28 years old. And you? How old are you?

Level one English is hard

Every time I open my mouth to speak, I want to say something different. I want to ask “How’s things going?” Or say I’m “not doing too bad considering this horrid cold”.

Eventually, after exchanging the required number of questions, we get to the end.

Student: It’s late. I have to go. Bye.
Me: Bye. Nice to meet you.
Student: Nice to meet you too.

I feel a swell of relief to successfully get to the end.

After a quick check with the teacher that she will be there for the next class, I leave

The check is worthwhile as I discover that on Friday afternoon classes are cancelled due to something to do with the unions. I am not surprised. Tuesday classes are cancelled due to ‘una fonda’ (a barbeque/party). Nobody it seems wants to teach this week and the students claim to have spent the weekend resting in preparation for next week which is party week. The celebration of Chile’s independence (or not quite… but you get the idea).

I call my sister from a bench in the courtyard of the university

We have a good long chat. She explains the discrepancy between two pictures of the same cheesecake I received over the weekend. The first, from my mother, looked stunning. The second was a puddle. Truthfully, (verdaderamente: such a beautiful word but impossible to say), the cheesecake stood for ten seconds before collapsing. My mother sent me the perfect picture, but my sister’s shot gave a more honest story. At the end of the call, the Midget heads to bed and I go to my next class. Time difference.

The next class goes smoothly

I like the teacher’s desire to enable the students to form phrases of their own, rather than just learn to parrot a set speech. He’s enthusiastic and the student’s laugh at his jokes. They like him, this much is obvious. But they look like goldfish when they have to speak. I continue to ponder how one should teach English or any language. I have no idea how I’m learning Spanish. It’s just happening. But how do I learn to teach language to someone else when it seems to be just happening to me.

After, I drink terrible coffee and eat a hot-dog whilst listening to a story about a snake. This is Chile. The sun has set. I wander home, past more hot-dog stalls decorated with fairy lights. Another day is done.

Too tired to think (travel realities)

[Written shortly after moving to Chile.]

Moving to a new country is not easy. All the things you take for granted just don’t happen as you expect. Life becomes a smattering of minor thrills and slogs of perseverance in a swamp of exhaustion.

As you can probably tell from this post, my brain flits all over the place trying to get every box ticked.

If I spoke Spanish with any fluency, I imagine it would be a slight bit easier

I can speak and read Spanish, but like a child, I’m missing much vocabulary and so all my sentences come with gaps that my brain has to fill. My brain churns and churns. When I read in English, my brain slows down and relaxes. In Spanish, reading is work.

I don’t worry about communication. The problem with half-speaking the language is just one of exhaustion. But I have enough to be able to communicate. My struggles are, for the most part, compensated by Chilean friendliness. The Officina de Extranjeros in Murcia could learn a lot from the PDI in La Serena. The latter know how to smile.

In this swamp of exhaustion one of the simple things you might take for granted is food

Here, eating is a challenge. Not because I have a problem consuming Chilean food or a specific diet, but because the supermarket is some distance away and I have no car. This means everything I want I need to carry, or I need to take a taxi.

I’m going to be moving again in a few weeks and so there’s no point doing some big shop. I’d have to work out how to transport everything all over again. As a result, my diet has been simplified and is going to involve eating of the same few ingredients that I have to hand over and over. It’s not inventive, but it keeps me alive.

Don’t let me begin on the absence of a decent sharp knife for cutting anything.

When I moved to Spain, I put off buying a wide variety of spices until a day where I was cooking for someone else and decided that they were necessary. Once I’d done so, I regretted having waited so long. So this time I’ve decided to buy spices now, at the beginning.

I also need to buy other essentials, like powder for the washing machine.

The Internet is a further challenge

My Latvian phone doesn’t appear to be happy with a Chilean SIM. My temporary apartment, provided by the university, doesn’t have WIFI unless you go and sit downstairs in the entrance hall with the guard. The website for looking for more permanent accommodation doesn’t like to be accessed from my English SIM as it doesn’t like my British IP address.

But amid all this, there are high moments

Like the daily sunsets that I watch from my balcony.

And although the language here is a challenge, it’s also a delight. Every Spanish conversation still gives me a thrill, because I find myself proud to have spoken at all. It doesn’t have to be much either, conversation with a chap in the waiting room of the police station or a few lines back and forth with a curious waitress who wonders where I’m from. It’s all precious in part because it is so difficult.

Then there was the moment I saw my first hummingbird, going from flower to flower, nowhere special, an overgrown bush at the side of the main road. I stood and stared in wonder.

Jetlag or whatever

This isn’t Yorkshire. The Pacific Ocean.
August 2019.

It’s five am and I guess I should be in bed, sleeping

Between the intercontinental flight and the bright light outside my bedroom, my body has become confused. Other than the building lights and the street lamps, it’s dark. The birds seem as confused as me as there is a lot of tweeting that I can hear from my bedroom. If I hadn’t heard the tweeting birds, I would have stayed in bed. I got up and had a cup of tea, dehydration is a perfect excuse for not staying in bed any longer.

They drink Celong tea here

Wandering up and down the supermarket aisles, I searched for coffee. It took me a while to find as there is a tiny selection, unless you are a fan of instant of which there’s plenty, meanwhile, I came across the tea aisle. Row after row of shelves stacked deep with boxes and bags, brand after brand, of Celong tea. Beside which, there was a small selection of Twinnings fruit and herbal teas, in tiny boxes that presumably contain only five teabags each, and a decent selection of options for Argentinian Mate, a drink DeepThought tells me is made from the leaves of a plant in the holly family.

I bought a bag of Celong tea leaves and I’m doing my best to develop a love for it by consuming a mug full every few hours. It’s no Lapsang, but it will suffice. I also bought a bag of ground coffee.

My mad plan is to go for a run as soon as it begins to get light

If you’re reading this, it’s because I actually went for a run rather than chickening out. The route I’m planning on taking is easy. I’m going to head straight down the coastline. I saw people taking this route yesterday when I was sitting on the balcony watching the sunset. Because I can sit on my balcony and watch the sunset across the Pacific Ocean. Isn’t that madness? I’m like an odd, off-season tourist in my temporary accommodation. It’s not clear how many people are in the apartment block, other than the doorman, but the answer is not many. There are a few cars parked in the carpark, but most of the spaces are empty.

Talking of madness, we do have dogs

And by we, I think I mean the entire city. The dog situation is one that I’m going to have to learn about further. There are many dogs about, which when you first look, you imagine must be strays, but most look like healthy, friendly strays. They are abandoned. The cars drive slow, I think because of the dogs, which wander around in silence and chase the tractors on the beach. Their coats have a healthy shine associated more with house pets than street animals, and yet, like cats in England, they wander free.

My body remains perplexed, but it will adjust

It’s winter here. A time of coats and jackets, but walking home from the supermarket with my tea, also for taking off my jumper and feeling the sun’s heat on my arms. I’m told there is a drought – is there ever not a drought when you live on the edge of a desert? As the rain didn’t visit for nine months, and then, when it did come, was little more than a mist. More rain is hoped for.

A quarter of the way around the world

It’s quite the distance to Chile from here.
Penistone Hill, West Yorkshire, July 2017.

Very soon I am going to fly a quarter of the way around the world to Chile, where, for the next year I shall be teaching English. I am, if we are being mild with our words, overwhelmed. It’s not going to Chile that’s overwhelming. Nor is it the idea of teaching. Culture shock I’m sure is awaiting me at passport control but I’ve taught English before and this isn’t my first time living abroad. No, what’s got me overwhelmed this time is the haste with which I’ve been living this last two months.

It’s the travel up and down the country and the suddenness at which things seem to happen. Then, add to this, seeing people I haven’t seen in a long while and trying ever so hard to make those moments count, maybe too hard sometimes. How inevitable it is that my brain feels like mashed potato.

I was going to spend this week being calm, writing, reading and painting. That didn’t quite work out because with less than 48 hours of notice I had an appointment in London on the seventh floor of the Chilean Embassy. The lift was broken. They play Classic FM in the lobby where you wait for your documents to be processed. A couple of Americans were also waiting for their documents. At one point, the young man sat upright in his chair with a suddenness that made the rest of the room turn.

The Chilean Embassy.
London, July 2019

“Is that… Is that our national anthem?” he asked.

The woman beside him frowned and shook her head.

I thought no, that’s the music to Indiana Jones.

I walked away with an inky thumb, a visa and a selection of important-looking documents. I crossed the road and lay down on the green grass of St James’ Park with my packed lunch.

There was a black swan with tiny cygnets in the water, which seems a bit late to me, but I’m no swan breeding expert. I thought back to the pheasant who visits us at home, sadly she’s lost all her babies, and to the cygnets that we used to count every time we walked around the lake near the house where I once used to live when I was smaller and more naïve. It’s these wandering, winding thoughts that I feel have been absent from my mind recently. Perhaps I’ve been focused on what needs to get done and lacking in time spent staring, watching the world around me flutter by.

I guess I’m stressed, but saying I’m stressed feels like an excuse. I keep hearing myself implore that I’m tired. I am tired but whenever I hear the words escape my mouth, I find myself thinking back to the predictable conversation in the office kitchen, back in that distant past when I had a desk job.

How are you?

Tired. Yourself?

The same.

I’m not that sort of tired. I’m not tired of my day to day, nor the people in my life. I’m not lacking enthusiasm. No. I guess it’s more like my fans are overheating. Is there a word for that?

Time for a transition: Mistakes I’m about to make

Cliché for you: It’s all about the journey not the destination. But on a road trip, it’s undeniably true.
European Road Trip, The Italian Alps, Summer 2018.

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 optimistic.

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?

  1. Fear
  2. Lack of energy management
  3. Absence of triggers

There are many fears that influence how we structure our lives

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 attention to

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 belief.

The mixture of adrenaline and anxiety comes together and… boom!

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 my routine

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 values.

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 a cost.

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?

  1. Where I let fear dictate
  2. Where I don’t manage my energy
  3. And where I don’t compensate for an absence of triggers

Which means I’ve got some planning to do.

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