Speak English? Volunteer in Spain!
Have all your expenses covered and meet incredible people in Spain; all simply for being a native English-speaker
What have I done? I wondered when I realized that two of my three weeks in Spain was to be spent in a remote restored village four hours from Madrid…and that I wouldn’t even be allowed to speak Spanish (a language I’m eager to learn). What sort of cultural experience is that?! I berated myself.
In retrospect however, I realize this program was the perfect way to meet many different people from all over Spain (and the rest of the world). And I certainly couldn’t argue with the price of the program either; in fact, having all my expenses paid in exchange for conversational English seemed too good to be true.
Vaughan Town (also known as Vaughan Systems) is one of a few companies dedicated to helping Spaniards improve their English skills. English is very important to Spanish commerce and business, so there is a booming market in English instruction throughout Spain.
This program differs from simple English classes though, in that Spanish participants are sent on a 5-day retreat where they are required to do only one thing – to speak English. Spanish participants are required to have at least a basic knowledge of English so that the conversations can flow relatively easily, since there is no grammar or vocabulary instruction – just conversation.
Because English is important to Spain’s economy, most of the Spanish program participants attend these retreats on their company’s dime. A much smaller contingent of participants are committed individuals or post-secondary students for whom the program is incorporated into their curriculum.
And the bill isn’t cheap either; the program fee covers not only the Spaniard’s accommodation, food, and transportation, but the expenses of the Anglos as well! The Anglos (as the English-speakers are referred to throughout the program) are rewarded for volunteering and committing a week to conversational English by having all expenses paid during the retreat.
The Accommodation, the Food
Vaughan Town operates out of a few different locations around Spain, all largely within four hours of Madrid. Accommodation ranges from established hotels in small Spanish towns, to restored villages (such as Valdelavilla, where I volunteered my own time) that are taken over by the participants and transformed into quaint “English” towns.
Each participant receives their own room with an ensuite washroom, and most locations offer some sort of internet connection and basic amenities. Some accommodations offer luxuries like swimming pools and tennis courts, while others are more basic but tap into the beauty of being nestled in the mountains with miles of walking tracks to enjoy.
Great effort is made to produce a well-rounded menu, with a breakfast buffet, and 3-course lunches and dinners. Wine is complimentary during lunch and dinner, however additional drinks must be purchased at your own expense.
Meals are relaxed, often taking about an hour and a half to enjoy, but are not necessarily “breaks” from the work of the day. Each table must have equal proportions of Anglos and Spaniards, and the conversation never stops. Luckily it is far from being a hardship, especially as the week progresses.
On arriving from Madrid, the Anglos meet the Spaniards (who have traveled from all over the country) at an orientation session, where the week is spelled out.
The master of ceremonies highlights surprisingly few rules. Most important is that nobody speaks Spanish; in fact if anybody is overheard speaking in Spanish it is grounds for dismissal from the program. This is truly an English-immersion program, and all participants are to respect this primary requirement.
Beyond that, some guidelines are laid out to help keep the week running smoothly; don’t discuss politics or religion, stay away from the standard repetitive cocktail party chat, and if you run out of things to talk about, grab a “conversation card” for some fresh ideas.
We are then shown our schedule for the next few days: a grid that breaks down each hour of the day. Breakfast is from 9-10 a.m., followed by four hours of “one-to-one” sessions, where Anglos are paired up with a different Spaniard each hour. You can do anything you like during the one-to-one sessions as long as you keep the conversation going; I enjoyed hiking the nature trails during many of my one-to-one sessions.
Lunch is enjoyed from 2-3:30, followed by free (siesta) time until 5 p.m. Everybody reconvenes with a group activity at 5 p.m., then two more one-to-one sessions begin at 6 p.m. At 8 p.m., a one hour variety-style show is performed starring the Anglos and Spaniards themselves; acting out short skits, performing in improvisation troupes, and even showcasing their talents with a poetry reading, song, or dance. Initially I thought these shows would be awkward and poorly performed, but for the most part they were the highlight of each day. If nothing else, they were routinely hilarious – even if it was a language barrier that made it so.
After a 9 p.m. dinner, participants can do as they wish for the rest of the night. In the first few days of the week, exhaustion sets in after a long day of intensive conversation and most people go straight to bed. But as the week progresses, friendships are forged, and conversation flows easier, more people tend to stay up and have a few drinks, play some cards, or even turn on some music and start dancing.
During some of the one-to-one time slots, extra activities are scheduled to incorporate variety and additional learning opportunities for the Spaniards. These activities include structured telephone conversations and interviews (since understanding a foreign language over the telephone can be quite difficult), conference calls, and formal presentations. And if you are lucky enough to be cast in the show for that night, you receive a few hours of structured rehearsal time in lieu of one-to-ones.
On the last night there is no 8 p.m. performance, and instead participants are given free time to prepare for the final diner and ensuing party. By this point in the week, most Spaniards’ English has improved to the point where they don’t have to “think” as much and conversations flow quite easily. There are some strong friendships (and occasionally even a romance or two), and the group easily parties through the wee hours of the morning.
There is a concerted effort on the part of the program coordinator to ensure a wide representation of Anglos from all over the world with different accents, ages, backgrounds, and careers. As such, there is a formal application process for Anglos to qualify for the program. Most importantly, the Anglos must demonstrate a general love of people and conversation, since it’s your conversational skills that make or break your ability to enjoy the week and provide value for the Spaniards.
Don’t worry however, if you can’t think of conversational topics off the top of your head. I wondered what on earth I would be able to speak about before I arrived, and was consistently pleasantly surprised at how quickly an hour passed in the company of a Spaniard I had only just met. Rarely did I broach the same conversation topic more than once, even with different people.
The Cultural Experience, the Friendships
After my first week of volunteering with Vaughan Town, I had made an amazing number of new friends. Despite my initial reservations about being culturally isolated on the program, there was in fact no other way I could have met so many different Spaniards from all over the country and had a chance to have meaningful conversations with them. These people don’t work in hospitality or tourism, or in any other way that I as a traveler could meet them. In getting to know all these “regular” people, I learned so much more about life in Spain than I could have imagined was possible.
So strong were some of the friendships forged with Spaniards that I stayed with one woman and her family following my first volunteer week, and after my second week of volunteering I stayed with another family for a few days. In addition, I have a small list of people to stay with around the country when I return to Spain. (And I will).
I also connected with a number of the Anglos from a wide variety of countries. I stayed with a few in Ireland and England, and enjoyed some day-trips around Spain with some others.
Only five days after an awkward orientation session with 35 strangers, saying goodbye is difficult. Photos and email addresses are exchanged, with promises to keep in touch and hugs doled out all around. We marvel at how quickly the group solidified and became friendly, and we reflect on the intensity of the program as being the breeding ground for what we hope will be many long-standing friendships.
Although few Spaniards will repeat the immersion program, one thought for many of the Anglos is: I wonder when I can come back.
For More Information
There are a two different companies operating English immersion volunteer programs in Spain. All expenses are paid for Anglos once you are in Madrid, including return transportation between Madrid and the venue, accommodation, food, and basic amenities. Both companies used to operate as one, but branched into two different organizations a few years ago.
Vaughan Town operates 5-night programs (Sunday-Friday), in three different locations around Spain.
Diverbo "Pueblo Ingles" conducts programs in different locations around Spain.
Nora Dunn became The Professional Hobo after selling everything she owned to travel the world in 2007. She travels full-time in a financially sustainable manner, enabled in part by volunteering in trade for accommodation (as she did — and hopes to do again someday).