SPEAK is not a language school. It’s a language and culture exchange, which is not at all the same thing. At language schools, you have teachers and you have students and…that’s about it. The teacher stands at the front of a classroom and teaches, and the students sit at their desks and learn. But, being a Buddy and participant at SPEAK means that everybody is teaching and learning from each other.
You can also change your role in SPEAK language courses. You can be a student (or “participant”) in one class, and a teacher (or “buddy”) in another. Many people who are active at SPEAK have played both roles. In some cases even teaching and taking courses at the same time.
This opportunity to wear two hats is something that’s unique about SPEAK, and we wondered what it was like. So, we posed three questions to several people who had been both participants and buddies. Below are our questions and their answers.
Question #1: For those of you who have been a participant in one course and a buddy in another at the same time, what was it like?
“Tricky,” said Gavin Petersen, an Australian who is active with SPEAK in Leiria. “I went straight from teaching basic English to my German class as a student. It was a weird experience.”
“Easy, and not confusing.” said Ana Carvalho, who’s from Lisbon, and taught Portuguese while studying French at SPEAK there.
Maria Laura Picciolo, who’s from Italy, studied Spanish while teaching Italian at SPEAK in Madrid. She said, “It’s very helpful because you get ideas. You always remember what it means to be on the other side, and you can share both experiences.”
“It is an exchange of roles that helps put yourself in the place of the other,” said Isa Parra. A Chilean who teaches Spanish and studies German and English at SPEAK in Berlin. “If the instructor makes mistakes or if a student is distracted at some points in the class, you understand. You can advise your instructor about how you think the class could be more beneficial. Also, you can think about what your students need to learn more and better.”
“It gives me a great experience because while I’m a student I can feel what my students could feel, and it helps me to improve my teaching”, said Anna Khairullina, who’s from Russia. She has studied English at SPEAK in Turin while teaching Portuguese and Russian. “I also discovered some games while I was a student that I later applied in the courses I taught.”
Lía Tabilo, who is from Chile, has studied Italian and taught Portuguese and Spanish at SPEAK in Lisbon. “The absolute spirit of SPEAK is people exchanging knowledge and sharing experiences,” she said. “That is exactly what one gets from being a buddy by day and a participant by night.”
We then asked the next two questions of all our respondents who had been participants and buddies, even if not at the same time.
Question #2: Has your experience as a participant helped you to be a better buddy?
“Not much, I would say,” said Penelope Lecuna, who is from Spain. She has taught English and studied Italian at SPEAK in Madrid.
But several others said that their experience as participants had improved their work as buddies. Ana explained that she had started as a participant before being a buddy. “So when I started being a buddy, I was more aware of what would happen.” Lynne, who’s from Scotland, and has studied Portuguese while teaching English at SPEAK in Leiria, noted that “you can see what the students react to and also what they don’t react to, and how you can better involve them in future classes.” And Maria Laura told us that her experience as a participant gave her “insights on what to do and what to avoid.”
Lía and Gavin also thought that being participants was a good preparation for their work as buddies. “I have had the amazing opportunity to find better, more adapted ways to create empathy with the participants by being a part of their own culture, to observe and learn new codes for approaching people,” said Lía. And Gavin thinks that “it makes a better buddy, as you are more keenly aware of the difficulties facing a beginning student. Learning a language can be quite daunting.”
Others went into greater depth about how their experiences as participants had enriched the classes they had taught as buddies.
Isa replied, “Yes, my experience as a participant has helped me to be a better buddy because, in the end, you are a little ‘spy,’ a spectator in someone else’s class, from which you can learn what works, what does not work, and how to improve it. When you are a participant, you can see another buddy in action and evaluate their technique. It is likely that another instructor has different methods. You can always learn what is different, and thus complement and enhance what you are doing.”
“Having been a participant myself has certainly given me some additional understanding that I could bring to being a buddy, said Christine Eamer, a Canadian who has studied Arabic and taught German at SPEAK in Berlin. “It has helped me to identify certain styles that I particularly like, as well as others that I have identified as not for me.”
Finally, we received a response of “Yes, indeed!” from Pierre Masci. He’s a Frenchman who taught English and French and studied Portuguese at SPEAK in Lisbon. “It gave me ideas of things to do in terms of activities or group dynamics, and in terms of things not to do,” he said. “Mostly, in my case, I used as a buddy (and sometimes modified) quite a few activities that I had done as a participant.”
Question #3: Has your experience as a buddy helped you to be a better participant?
Most participants answered yes, and they tended to highlight three general benefits.
The first was an understanding of how important it was for participants to be active in class.
“It is frustrating when, as a buddy, you ask something and no one replies,” said Gabriel Amarista Rodrigues. Originally from Venezuela, and now a Portuguese citizen, Gabriel taught Spanish and studied Portuguese and English at SPEAK in Coimbra. “As a prior buddy, I know this, and tend to answer if no one else seems willing to do so. Also, I try to make others more relaxed and open to me and to each other. This way, the group will open up and share more during classes, which makes the buddies’ lives a lot easier.”
The second benefit was the realization that, as participants, they should tell their buddies if something is wrong with a class.
For example, Gavin noted that one’s experience as a buddy “reinforces the idea that students need to indicate when they don’t understand what’s going on.” And Gabriel said, “I offer help, as well, if needed, and try to give feedback to my buddies’ classes so they can improve.”
The third benefit was greater empathy for the buddies.
That was Anna’s take. “You know what it means to prepare the lessons, to be a little bit afraid at the beginning that maybe you are not a suitable person to teach and to explain. So when I became a participant, I think that I became less demanding in terms of the teaching approach. It helped me to be more flexible.”
Isa agreed. “My experience as a buddy has helped me to be a better participant because I know how much effort is behind being a buddy,” she said. “I know how much time has to be spent planning the classes. As a participant, I have more patience if the buddy makes mistakes, if the class is not entertaining, or if there are problems with the location of the class. I know that sometimes problems arise, and that the way the buddy solves them is the best way he or she can.”
Whether your experiences in learning languages at SPEAK will influence how you teach languages, or the other way around, one thing is certain: you will gain a much deeper understanding of the process of language education – what is involved, what works, and what doesn’t work. This will not only improve your own progress in learning a language, it will enable you to improve the progress of others. This is the great advantage of wearing two hats.