Monday, October 22, 2012

4 Names for “Teacher” in Spanish

This week I’ll be going into my third week in Spanish classrooms, but even in that short amount of time I’ve picked up on the words the kiddos use to get the attention of me or the teacher I’m helping.

US highway exit sign
No Name by Patrick Spence on Flickr

1) profe

Pronounced “PROE-fay” [ˈpɾo.fe], this is a shortening of the Spanish word profesor or profesora, which looks like our word “professor” but means both university professor and teacher in any grade.

2) seño

Pronounced “SAY-nyoe” [ˈse.ɲo], this is a shortening of the Spanish words señorita (“Miss”) or señora (“Mrs.”). Two syllables are always easier to say than three or four!

3) maestro

Pronounced “mah-AYS-troe” [maˈes.tɾo] (locally “mah-EH-troe” [maˈe.tɾo]), this word (and the accompanying female form maestra) means “teacher,” plain and simple.

4) teacher

In Spain, they learn British English in schools, so they pronounce the word “teacher” as “TEE-chuh” [ˈti.tʃə]. Sometimes they do attempt the American pronunciation, but it comes out more like “TEE-chahrr” [ˈti.tʃar].

Bonus: my name

In Standard American English, my name “Trevor” is pronounced something like “TREH-vur” or “CHREH-vur,” depending on how you say the digraphs TR and DR in words like “train” and “drain.” But because Spanish kids often repeat my name as a mumbly “chrvr,” I usually tell them to use their word for “clover,” trébol, instead; this sounds like “TRAY-voel” [ˈtɾe.βol], complete with flipped Spanish R.

It struck me as kind of strange that Spanish students (at least, the elementary ones I’m working with) almost exclusively use these four terms to ask questions or say “hi!” instead of, you know, the teacher’s name (e.g., Señor García or Señora Álvarez). When I was in third grade, one of my classmates always referred to our teacher, Mrs. Copelin, as “teacher,” and thus gained the nickname “teacher.” I guess that’s just not as strange here.

If you’ve ever taught abroad, what did students call you in their language? And if you’re from elsewhere in the English-speaking world, is “teacher” a fully-acceptable substitute for the teacher’s name? Comment below!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

How Do We Define Where We’ve Lived or Traveled?

About a year or so ago when I was setting up my Google+ profile (still pretty quiet over there!), I had to fill out the box for “Places lived,” and I wondered: what does it mean to “live” somewhere? After some thought, I ended up selecting Indianapolis, Ind., (where I was born), Plano, Texas, (my hometown), Arkadelphia, Ark., (my college town), and San Pedro, Costa Rica (where I studied abroad for a month), but I still wondered why these four towns made the cut while other places I had traveled didn’t.

Costa Rican breakfast of gallo pinto
My last breakfast in Costa Rica
I ran into a similar dilemma with the social travel website Where I’ve Been (see this blog’s travels page for my map). On that site’s map, you can color-code U.S. states and countries depending on whether you’ve lived there, traveled there, or want to go there one day. This opens up a different can of beans, since I’ve flown into airports in Atlanta, Charlotte, Detroit, and Philadelphia, but never actually visited Georgia, North Carolina, Michigan, or Pennsylvania. To make matters worse, my family and I accidentally drove into Montana for a few minutes while visiting Yellowstone National Park a few years ago, but we realized we were driving the wrong way before we got out of the car.

So how can we say when we’ve really “been” to a place or truly “lived” somewhere? Here are some criteria that I think we can use to answer this question:


* Stepping outside: this involves getting out of the car, the bus, the train, or the airport and breathing in the air, walking around, talking to local people, and taking pictures

* Eating: this can include picking up snacks at the gas station or dining at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant

* Staying the night: whether you sleep in a hotel, a hostel, a tent, or on a couch, I think it’s safe to say you’ve been there


* Spending an extended period of time: my college roommate and I talked about this and we both settled on at least 3-4 weeks in the same place for studies, work, or volunteering, but we enter a gray area when we start talking about “slow tourism”

* Being a “regular” somewhere: being able to go into a bar, café, or restaurant and be recognized and on a first-name basis with the owners

* Doing chores: for example: washing your clothes, cooking for yourself, and sending and receiving mail

* Having local friends: when there are people who live in town that you hang out with regularly, be they locals or expats

Does these things above affect your own travel lists? Or you do have your own ways of figuring out “where you’ve been”? Comment below!

Monday, October 15, 2012

How Do We Define Language Fluency?

People often asked me, “so are you fluent in Spanish?” when I would tell them I was moving to Spain. I would usually answer with a “more or less, yeah” because, after all, I studied the language in college and would have no problem surviving on my own in any Spanish-speaking country.

Waterfall in Yellowstone National Park
Falls on the Tower Creek before Tower Falls, Yellowstone National Park
(Get it? Language fluency…flowing river?)
But these questions made me ask myself what do we really mean by “fluent”? Lots of times we have this idea of someone fluent in, say, Arabic or French, being able to completely understand the Algerians they’re talking to or the Belgians they’re meeting. We assume their accents could fool native speakers, and that their grasp on texting lingo and cultural references allows them to make jokes and allude to obscure pieces of history.

There’s a word for this: perfection. And, like Benny Lewis of Fluent in Three Months says, 100% perfection is not the same thing as fluency. Our definition of this word really needs to be much more fluid (*ahem*) and adaptable to personal contexts and situations. Since languages are used for so many purposes across countless locations and social strata, one person’s fluency may look different than another’s.

I propose a pragmatic definition of fluency, one where the second-language learner sets a specific, concrete goal to work towards. That way, when someone asks if they’re fluent in German or Japanese, they can say, “Well, I can talk to my grandfather in Poland about the Cold War” or “I can read my favorite manga comics in the original Japanese,” and those will be perfectly acceptable answers.

People in certain businesses may need to be able to explain blueprints to their employees or finalize €100 million-euro construction projects. They may need to be able to translate Renaissance literature or find equivalents for street slang. Perhaps their job involves interpreting between Chinese- and English-speakers on the Chinese mainland.

We cannot be all things to all people when it comes to speaking another language; even most native English speakers wouldn’t know most terms for practicing law or even be able to tell you what an obscure selection from Shakespeare means. We all specialize in something! So we shouldn’t worry about knowing everything in a foreign language.

For me, I think taking the DELE (Diploma de Español como Lengua Extranjera—Diploma of Spanish as a Foreign Language) test at the B2 level—the third-highest of the six tests—is a concrete goal that I’d like to work toward. Like fellow language assistant blogger Liz Pitt, I’m definitely conversationally fluent: I’ve already been confused for a native by another Spaniard, successfully rented a room in an apartment with Spanish flatmates, and asked for directions and information from complete strangers. But having that DELE certification from the Spanish government would, I think, validate my competence in the language as “fluent.”

But don’t feel like you have to take that test to achieve fluency yourself! I don’t know where my Spanish is going to take me in the future (teaching? multinational firms? government?) so I’d like to keep my options open by learning as broadly as I can. But if you just want to learn, say, enough Hindi to watch Bollywood movies or medical Spanish to talk to your patients, don’t worry about trying to plow through The New Delhi Times newspaper or Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

They’re always there if you want to keep going, though!

Would you consider yourself fluent in Spanish or another language? Why or why not? Talk about it in the comments!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Weekly Update 3: First Day of School Edition

After a week of planning, the people at my school finally got my teaching schedule finalized on Tuesday, which was my first day of actual work at the school (the previous week involved me sitting around or going to the provincial capital for other business). I’m assisting teachers in twelve periods of classes, ranging from 5-year-olds to 4th-graders and concentrating mostly on science (there is one English class, however!). Ideally, all the teaching would be done in English, but because the students’ level of English is pretty low (the teachers do know English fairly well, though), much of the classes are simply vocab lessons. Also, if I hadn’t studied Spanish in college, I don’t think I’d be able to get through this year without going crazy—I feel like much of my English teaching will have to be done in Spanish.

There are quite a few Moroccan students at school, making up maybe a tenth to a quarter of the classes. They all speak Spanish just as well as the other kids, which is great! A few of them have asked me if I speak marroquí—“Moroccan”—but not árabe—“Arabic”—which I thought was an interesting distinction. Maybe someday guys, but now you’re lucky I speak Spanish!

What I’ve been doing since last Friday:

* went to a live music performance with fellow expats

* bought groceries in a foreign country

* line-dried clothes from my fifth-floor apartment (it was terrifying initially)

* realized the hard way that stores are closed on Sundays

* cooked meals for myself and saved big €€€

* began teaching some CRAZY but super-cute Spanish kiddos

* went to the pharmacy and had to ask the pharmacists for medicine

* started reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

* caught my first cold in Spain

* learned the Spanish words for the parts of the body as my students learned the English words

Talk to y’all next week!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

What’s WhatsApp? The Spanish Alternative to Texting

Let’s face it—cell phone service providers aren’t exactly the most beloved companies, and with good reason: two-year contracts, intentionally feature-crippled phones, and limits to how often you can call or text your friends. Many people, however, are finding a way around a maximum of, say, 300 texts a month, by dipping in to their data plan and using alternative messaging services like Facebook, Twitter, or even chat.

WhatsApp icon on an iPhone
apps by Simon Q on Flickr
One service that has a huge following here in Spain is WhatsApp (pronounced variously as ['] ['ɣwas.ap] or even just [ɣwas]). It’s available on Android, BlackBerry, iOS, Nokia, Symbian, and Windows phones; i.e., most smartphones on the market.

Essentially, it gives you unlimited texting through your data plan. The program automatically reads your address book/contacts information and will tell you who is also using WhatsApp. When you send them a message via WhatsApp, instead of going through your cell phone company’s SMS service, it will bypass that for the data service. For me, this is great because I have only 50 texts a week on my pay-as-you-go plan but 100 MB in data. I can’t imagine one message being more than a few kilobytes, so percentage-wise, communicating via WhatsApp is a lot more economical. And if you happen to be connected to WiFi, it doesn’t cost you a thing!

I hadn’t heard of WhatsApp before moving to Spain, but apparently it’s used worldwide.

Do you use WhatsApp on a daily basis to keep in touch with friends? Or do you use another service, or simply have unlimited texting? Comment below!

Monday, October 8, 2012

How to Vote Abroad From Spain in U.S. Elections

Voting: it’s one of the fundamental rights of being an adult citizen of the United States. But just because you happen to be living abroad doesn’t mean you should be deprived of that right. In fact, it’s actually pretty easy to cast a vote for the candidate of your choice while overseas by requesting an absentee ballot. This is how to do it!

Oregon ballot
Vote Oregon! by Gary Jungling on Flickr

1) You request the ballot

Assuming you’re already registered to vote at your last place of residence back in the U.S., fill out the form called the Federal Post Card Application (FPCA) and send it to the official responsible for elections in your county. For example, the Texas Secretary of State’s website has a list of such personnel here. If you’re pressed for time, you can put your email address on the form and the election administrator/county clerk will email you your ballot for you to print off. You can even register and apply for the ballot before you leave the country; I drove to my county’s election office and handed the form in in person. says you can even email your form!

2) You receive the ballot

Whether you receive it via snail mail, e-mail, or even fax, select the candidates you want to represent you (as long as they’re not running unopposed *cough*my U.S. House rep*cough*) and sign and seal everything. Methods of mailing can vary a little bit; I received my ballot via email and wasn’t sure whether to print the “envelope” page on a physical envelope, so I just made sure to sign on every line possible and stuffed all the pages into a single, taped-close envelope. I believe if you receive the ballot via regular mail it should come with security envelopes and such for you to seal, sign, and stuff into each other.

3) You send the ballot

Go to the local postal service where you live and send your envelope back to the States to the address for your county’s election administrator. Congratulations! You have officially voted from abroad.

Backup ballot

If you still haven’t received your ballot and there are less than thirty days before Election Day, you can send an emergency or backup ballot called the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot (FWAB). Basically, you just write in the candidates you want and the offices they’re running for, or you can just vote a straight-party ticket and not worry about every individual race.


The deadline to send your FPCA is 7 days before election day, and the deadline to send your ballot is 5 days after the election (not sure if it means out of your hands or received by the government). So get to it!


* Federal Voting Assistance Program (the government’s website with all the forms you can think of)

* Vote From Abroad (associated with Democrats Abroad, but provides services regardless of your party affiliation)

* (my state’s voting information website with a good overview of the overseas voting process)

Friday, October 5, 2012

Weekly Update 2: Dragging My Luggage Across Town Edition

Well, guys, week two has come and gone and I feel like I’ve finally “arrived.” By that I mean I’ve gotten a cellphone, a national ID number, a shared apartment, a bank account, and a schedule for my job. It’s been rather annoying living out of a suitcase in a foreign country in three different hotels (long story) so I am relieved to have a small place to crash in at night and to do laundry in (I’ve worn the same pair of jeans since the airplane flight…oops). Next week—I think—I finally start work as a language assistant in some elementary music and science classes.

Jaén, Spain seen from the cathedral
Spending an afternoon in Jaén
Among other things, this is what I’ve been up to since the last time I posted:

* met basically the only redhead in Spain

* hiked 10 miles from the town where I work to Iznatoraf, a town of ~1,000 people on a tall hill overlooking the countryside

* ran into a random convention of mopeds at said hilltop village

* did “whatever I liked” on the first day of school (headmaster’s words)

* started reading Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone (and I got placed into Gryffindor on, so)

* was confused for a native by a Spaniard but Chinese and Turkish immigrants both asked me where I was from

* got my NIE (foreigner’s identification number), effectively residency for a year

* saw a classic car show of old European models

* attended orientation for the program in the provincial capital of Jaén and met tons of fellow language assistants there

* broke the rules and took (non-flash) pictures inside the cathedral in Jaén

* helped a grandma put her luggage in a bus station locker (while figuring out how it worked myself)

* found a room to rent in an apartment with Spanish flatmates

* got health insurance

* went to the last night of the Feria de Úbeda (town fair) with Spanish and expat friends alike

* opened a bank account with the Catalan bank “La Caixa”

Be expecting harrowing accounts of culture shock at school in next week’s edition; I know I’m in for a surprise with the little ones!

How to Apply for Your NIE in Jaén (and Get Your TIE)

If you’re a language assistant in Spain (auxiliar de conversación), by now you’ve applied for the program, gotten your visa, and at last arrived in the country.

But, because your student visa is good for only three months—and because you’re supposed to be working for eight—you need to apply for an NIE (número de identificación de extranjero), a foreigner’s identification number, and get the corresponding TIE (tarjeta de identificación de extranjero), a foreigner’s identification card. This will make your stay in Spain valid for around a year after arrival. Sweet! So, how can you get one?

Spanish NIE and provisional TIE
My provisional foreigner’s card (TIE) with my number on it (NIE)
Well, I’ll get to the nitty-gritty details, but first, let me say that my experience was totally abnormal from what you should expect.

As I’m teaching in a town in the province of Jaén (northeast corner of Andalucía), I had to go to Jaén capital to get the NIE. I made an appointment online for the earliest date possible, and my bilingual coordinator, Pedro, went with me to the foreigner’s office. We waited in line, took a number, and sat and waited some more. When we went into the room with police officers, I told the officer at my assigned desk that I wanted to apply for an NIE and showed him my placement letter and special letter from the regional government in Sevilla. Pedro also explained what I was doing in the country.

Foreigner’s office, Jaén
Foreigner’s office, Jaén
The police officer asked to see the ID page of my passport, glanced at the letters, asked where I was living, and took my photos. He didn’t even ask to see my application form, copies of every. single. page. of my passport, or proof that I had health insurance. He was super chill about everything; at the end he gave me a form and just told me to go to a nearby bank, pay the fee to the account indicated, and come back to get the provisional card with my number on it. So I did, and I got my card. Pedro and I were both surprised, but we didn’t complain!

Now, how did I prepare for all that? Well, Pedro and the headmaster at my school helped me out a lot, so my first advice is to ask your school for help. They have probably had many language assistants in the past and know the drill. They happened to have a document directing us to make an appointment at this website.

So, go to that link, select “Jaén” under “Provincias Disponibles” and then select “Expedición de Tarjeta de Identidad de Extranjero (Huella).” Then, make sure to enter in your passport and personal information before selecting an appointment date.

What to bring with you

* your passport

* copies of all the pages of your passport

* 2 color ID photos on a white background in carnet size (they have cookie-cutter-style trimmers if your photos are too big)

* application form EX-17 (assuming you’re not an EU citizen)

* your placement letter (carta de nombramiento)

* letter from the regional education department (Consejería de Educación) saying the same thing as the placement letter but basically begging the police to process your application ASAP

* confirmation sheet for your appointment

* your health insurance card (tarjeta sanitaria europea) or proof that you applied for it (I had a sheet called Anexo I)

What to do at the office

Subdelegación del Gobierno, Jaén, Spain
Subdelegación del Gobierno, Jaén
The building you’re looking for is the Subdelegación del Gobierno, a white, Art Deco-style three-floor structure on the west side of the Plaza de las Batallas in the city of Jaén. This plaza is at the intersection of the Paseo de la Estacíon (a road where the tram line runs) and the Parque de la Victoria, super close to the bus station.

The entrance to the foreigner’s office (oficina de extranjería) is on the north side of the building, facing the Calle Cruz Roja Española.

Inside, wait in line at the front desk to explain why you’re there to get a number (turno), and then wait until it’s called. Go to the table called, present all your documents, and if all goes smoothly, the police officer will give you a payment form. Take that with you to the La Caixa bank across the street and pay the fee (tasa) of €15—Código 012, Modelo 790—come back to get the provisional card, and you’re good to go! (Some days La Caixa doesn’t process such requests, so try the Unicaja to the south like I did.)

You’re supposed to come back in a month and a half to pick up the card (TIE), but…they didn’t ask for my email or phone number so I guess I just…show up? More posts to come, for sure.

Spanish TIE
UPDATE: Today, November 26, I went back to Jaén to pick up my TIE—the ID card—having waited more than 40 days, and was in and out in literally one minute. After I showed the lady at the counter my provisional NIE with proof of payment, she told me to come into the office (bypassing everyone in the waiting room!) where a police officer went to go retrieve the card.

The only problem is that it expires on May 31, 2013, the last day of the program; my plane back home leaves Madrid in the middle of June and I am planning on walking part of the Camino de Santiago in between the last day of school and that flight. Travel blogger Liz Carlson had a horrendous experience trying to get her card renewed when she changed regions for her second year in the program, so I hope things go a little more smoothly for me. But…that’s a problem to worry about another day!

If you have any questions post below—or if your experience was different, please, do tell!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

On Power Plugs and Voltage in Spain

Whether you’re moving to Spain or just simply traveling there from, say, the U.S., something you should prepare for is the change in electricity and how to use it.

However, it’s not as easy as simply plugging in an adapter to the wall outlet and then charging your toothbrush or laptop. There are two things you need to take into account when bringing gadgets and gizmos abroad with you.

1) The type of plug

Here I’m talking about the physical prongs that stick out of the power cord and plug in to the socket in the wall. For instance, in North America, we use a plug style with two parallel vertical blades with holes along the side, sometimes with a third round grounding prong:

American power plug
Power Plug by Melissa Venable on Flickr
…which plugs into this kind of outlet:

American power outlet
Thursday Challenge Power by ShellyS on Flickr

In Spain and most of Europe, they use a similar dual design but with two round prongs instead of blades:

European power plug and outlet
Source: Wikipedia
It’s pretty easy to stick an adapter onto the end of your power cord or the prongs that stick out from your device and charge it directly from the outlet. But before you do that, you need to make sure that it won’t get fried when you plug it in.

2) The amount of voltage

In the U.S., the electric current flows (ahem) at 120V, but in Spain, it runs at 230V. This isn’t a problem, for example, if your laptop charger has “Input: 100-240V” because that means it can run on both the American and the European voltage. However, if it only has a “120V,” like my electric toothbrush, then there’s just no point in bringing it. Leave it at home, bring a regular or battery-powered toothbrush, or just buy a new one once you’re abroad. Otherwise, the extra voltage will fry it.

Still, if you absolutely must have a certain appliance, you can get a converter that will drop the voltage down from a European to an American current; however, I’ve heard people having only mixed success with such contraptions.

Do you have any experience with electricity abroad? What has worked or hasn’t worked for you trying to use your American gadgets on European power? Comment below!
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