Auxiliares de conversación: My Language and Culture Exchange Experience in Spain


My work as a language assistant in Spain in the past three years gave me the opportunity to share my culture with the language I am most fascinated about. But after three years, three schools, and two regions later, I realized that this program, the Auxiliares de conversación, wasn’t just a sabbatical year for me.

I first heard about the Language Assistant program when I was a fourth year college student at the University of Santo Tomas. Having a prerequisite Spanish course in my degree program, my Spanish professor vaguely told us about a language teaching program in Spain and how it was the perfect program for us, English majors. Few months before graduation, the education advisor of the Embassy of Spain visited our university and gave a talk about the Auxiliares de conversación program. Being the confused humanities major that I was, I thought that maybe this would be a good gap year program for me since I wasn’t sure what to do after college. In 2018, I went through a three-part application. The first part was passing the minimum grade requirement of our college department. The second was getting interviewed by the education advisor. After getting accepted from the interview, the third part, which was the most demanding, was getting a visa to finally fly to Spain.

I got accepted and was assigned to my first school in Toledo, a small city in the region of Castilla-La Mancha. At first, I thought my job was just as simple as conversation practices with children who barely know why I was in their class. As time went by, however, I realized my true roles — language teacher and “cultural ambassador.” In small cities like Toledo, the reception for a foreign teacher like me was as interesting as visiting a new city for the first time. My primary school students were curious to learn more about my culture. This exchange made me feel like I really belong to their language learning environment. 

The Auxiliares de conversación program was created specifically for language exchange, to have that figure of an English native speaker inside the classroom. When the program opened to other English-speaking countries like Canada, Singapore, Sweden, India and the Philippines, however, the role was expanded to introduce the use of the English language in a more culturally inclusive context. As a Filipino language assistant, my role is not limited to teaching grammar and pronunciation lessons, but it also includes giving presentations about Filipino festivities, food and traditions. This experience has become personal when I got the chance to share more about my culture. My supposed gap year has become a semi-career path I want to pursue. I always admit to myself (and to everyone) how I don’t want to pursue a career in education, but living in another country like Spain and experiencing first-hand experience of teaching English as a foreign language made it a considerable path for my confused fresh-grad self.

On Sharing the Same Bilingual Education Experience

Learning a second language is one of the privileges we can get in our early years of education. In our early age, we dedicate most of our time studying and going to school. This is the stage of our lives wherein learning is crucial and fundamental. Hence, it is the best time to amplify the things we can learn not only at school but also outside of it. Learning a second language is probably one of those extended education we can take.

The introduction of bilingual education in Spain in the early 2000s produced over 1.4 million students in a bilingual program by the academic year 2019–2020, according to a report by El Pais. As I relate myself to my students as bilingual learners, I can’t help but compare how I learned to speak two or even three languages when I was a child. I constantly get asked about how I learned to speak English so well when I lived in the Philippines, a multilingual country, my whole life. Spanish teachers from my previous schools would also ask me how the Department of Education in my country made it work in 1974, when they mandated the use of English and Filipino as the mediums of instruction in schools. Questions like these made me realize that the language policies in Spain and in the Philippines have their gaps mainly in its implementation.

English, science, music and arts are some of the subjects taught in English in most of the bilingual schools in Spain. I get to experience teaching grammar lessons, parts of the body, advertising soundtracks and photography easily. But then I always get interrupted mid-class with questions about certain words the students do not know the meaning of. This is when the teacher comes in and directly translates the word in Spanish. It may sound simple, but this is actually the crucial part. Upon learning the Spanish word for a certain concept like “love,” for example, the student would understand better what I’m talking about. Yet, the English word “love” would not automatically be remembered since “amor” comes to the rescue. Experiencing this classroom dynamic for years now got me thinking that subjects like science and music need to be understood first no matter what language is used. I never learned how to name the digestive system in Filipino, but I know how they function in English. This is how I became bilingual.

In a comparative point of view, the language policies we have in the Philippines are completely different to what the bilingual education in Spain has. In the Philippines, Filipino and English are used separately in specific subject areas. I don’t remember my sixth grade teacher translating words in my science class.

Luckily, my limited language knowledge about concepts in sciences came in handy for my work as a language assistant. Spanish teachers turn to me whenever they have doubts about pronouncing complex words in English. They also can’t help but complain about learning these concepts in two languages because they know for sure the students will ask questions about these concepts to the teachers in their native tongue. My “no hablo español” character in the eyes of my students, however, is beneficial on the other side as well. My students are forced to communicate in English with me; they get to practice conversational scenarios right on the spot. Bilingual school students are lucky enough to have an accessible native speaker in the class, and I honestly wish I had that when I was learning English. Sharing the same bilingual background with my students made the whole program easier to grasp for me. At some point, I thought I would be caged in an English native speaker paradigm, but I am far more than just a foreign figure in the class. I continue to understand the struggle of my students every day, for I was once in their chair — someone learning about the world in more than one language.

The Limit of the Language Isn’t Always the Limit of the Culture

From a school in a small village to a big city, my experience as a language assistant included the people I met outside work. Applicants of the Auxiliares de conversación program tend to choose to be assigned to a big city like Madrid; the population of language assistants in Madrid grew exponentially in the past few years. I barely meet someone who’s from an English-speaking country and doesn’t work as a language assistant, and if they do, it’s always a conversation starter. I made friends from people around the world, which I think is one of the best parts of this program. From sharing teaching materials to sharing tapas after work, the Language Assistant program built a strong community of unique people from different parts of the globe. It’s always a surprise to know the passion these people have, for some are far from teaching.

But what does this entail in the future of both the program and the bilingual education of Spain? The Auxiliares de conversación program has become wide open to every English speaker around the world, which opens the discussion of a perceived standard for English language teachers in the bilingual schools in Spain.

Native speakerism, as defined by Adrian Holliday, is an ideology that upholds the idea that the best models and teachers of the English language are the “native speakers.” It is believed that they represent “Western culture” and branded this a “superior” model of teaching the language. Somehow this is closely associated with racial identity, separating the non-native speakers in a different generalization about their linguistic backgrounds. But if we only take English “nativeness” as the main criteria for Auxiliares de conversación applicants, then we are excluding a large deserving number of education majors who are more capable of being a language assistant.

Being the English speaker in the classroom, it wasn’t hard for me to teach and adapt to classroom management because I have a degree in English Language Studies. On the side of being the “cultural ambassador,” my students are always curious to learn about my country, the Philippines, as it is not as famous as the United States or the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, I can’t help but notice the way an inner-circle (per Kachru’s Concentric Circles of English) English speaker who is not an English major perceives this program. They usually struggle with teaching English because for them “it just comes out naturally.” Per my observation, they are not really familiar with terminologies on English syntax because they just grew up with it, and I can’t blame them for this. The program has a bare minimum qualification, but once inside the classroom, the expectations are high. This raises the question of whether this program is competent enough to filter out who deserves to be inside the classroom with the bilingual learners. Would a business major be credible enough to teach English grammar? Maybe. But this is not just the misconception around this program. A fellow Filipino language assistant once told me that she was only assigned to teach physical education classes while the inner-circle speakers teach English and science. Teachers would also ask me to make a presentation about a famous holiday that I don’t even celebrate just because it is from a dominant English-speaking country. These scenarios are completely predominant and understandable. Perhaps the “nativeness” figure for some Spanish teachers is linked with racial identity, and the image of English speakers always comes from the inner-circle countries. But if the goal of the teacher is mainly to reduce the accent of Spanish students and to have the perfect English speaking model, this prejudice will not take them anywhere. Accent is inevitable, and it will never be a measure of English competency.

As much as this program caters to almost anyone who speaks English, the “nativeness” aspect is something the Language Assistant program is subtly looking for in the classroom. Having English speakers in the classroom is deeply rooted to the idea that somehow, students will speak the same way as a native speaker. But this creates a certain mindset not just for the student but for the teachers as well that some ways to speak a certain language is incorrect just because they don’t sound the same as a native speaker. This is also a common problem in the English Language Teaching industry. There’s a double standard here as they require “non-native” speakers more documentation and test results just to prove their competence as a teacher of a language they don’t normally use. The Auxiliares de conversación program doesn’t have this double standard, but it is somehow implied based on what the Spanish teachers demand from Kachru’s outer-circle English speakers.

Still, the Auxiliares de conversación program opened different opportunities for different people. Despite its expanding community, its main objective stays the same: to have language and cultural exchange in Spanish bilingual schools.

As I walked through this path for the last three years (and maybe a few more), I became more aware of its strengths and weaknesses. It brings out my passion for teaching the English language, but at the same time, it also brings out the struggle to compete with English speakers who learned English as their first language. But at the end of the day, this is not a battle I have to win. The chance to learn the English language as a way to communicate to the world must be a win for the language learners, and my role as an Auxiliar should help to achieve that.

Marianne Lorraine Samiling
Marianne Lorraine Samiling is currently a language assistant in Madrid, Spain. She graduated in 2018 with the degree in English Language Studies at the University of Santo Tomas. She loves learning about the correlation of languages and culture. She also enjoys taking photos and walking around the city in her free time.

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