lunes, 15 de diciembre de 2014

Language and Identity

This week´s entry is guest post written by one of our Spanish students, Ashley.  She is here in La Paz to do research for her phd and is keeping an insightful and interesting blog detailing her experience of doing fieldwork abroad while negotiating a new life in a new city .
Check out her blog here:

Language and Identity: Who is that voice?

Language and identity have been at the forefront of my mind not only since I arrived here in Bolivia, but since I started learning another language. I am speaking Spanish when I am at home and a mixture of English and Spanish when I am out. Negotiating my way between the languages and attempting to express myself in a way that feels like me, like who I am at home, is extremely complicated. My engagement with language and identity is very brief here, however it is something I will be exploring in greater detail throughout the course of my research. For now, it is a brief personal reflection.


My interest in identity in general has always meant that I frequently take a step back in order to consider my own identity and how it may be changing. I am currently reading Connecting Self to Society by Vanessa May, a book recommended to me by my good friend Jenny. Thanks Jenny! This book explores the idea of belonging, from the different possible definitions that exist and the to how people place themselves in society, with their surroundings, family, friends, strangers. It is an interesting read, for academics and non-academics alike.

Moving away from home and everything that is familiar is difficult for anyone, and it is inevitable that being removed from the familiar and situated in an unfamiliar world can affect your notion of belonging, and of who you are and what you do. Whilst this sounds negative, and in many ways when I feel homesick it certainly is, it also provides the space to re-evaluate yourself, your identity, your likes and dislikes, the things that you are comfortable with and the things you might not be so comfortable with. The first thing I felt uncomfortable with was language, and I soon realized that living in a language which is not my native one, was having an affect on me, my personality, how people relate to me, and in turn, my identity.

Speaking Spanish

Speaking another language has felt strange. I realized earlier on today whilst talking to my husband on Skype, that that was the first I had spoken English today. I had my breakfast this morning and my host sat down to ask all about my day yesterday (as I didn’t get back in until after 1am), and our conversations are always in Spanish. Eli and Pepe, my hosts, do not speak any English at all.

Whilst I am able to express myself and people understand me, there are subtle things missing that I feel make me who I am. These might be things that you say that are funny or silly, that add some character to your expressions and descriptions. Those things in English do not often translate well to Spanish and instead I find myself feeling a little frustrated that I can’t be funny, or make someone laugh (intentionally). The ability to do so may come with time, but it certainly affects the way that you think people might perceive you, which is central to your identity.

I have also found it difficult to switch between English and Spanish. I have made friends with people from Germany, Norway and Belgium, and when I am with them, we switch between English and Spanish. Getting used to switching between the two will take some time. I have also found that speaking Spanish has affected the way that I speak English. Instead of saying I am going to my friend’s house, I have said “I am going to the house of my friend” (in Spanish “voy ala casa de mi amiga”). My English feels simplified at times and I realise how strange I sometimes sound.

When I listen to myself speak Spanish, it feels strange, as if I am listening to another person. The tone and pitch of my voice is different and my expressions are likely to be different too. It doesn’t sound like me. Who is that person?

Language and Identity

Identity must be considered alongside language in relation to language use, choice and preference. Whilst I talk about identity here, I do not consider there to be just one identity. Identity is, of course, ‘constructed’. We often have multiple identities, and they are reshaped and restructured throughout our entire lives. Identities are continuously being negotiated and re-negotiated. As I negotiate my way through the Spanish language, stepping every now and then back in to English, I can feel a change in my identity, or at least the one I am most conscious of.

It can be suggested that our realities are reflected in our language and so I often wonder what reality is being reflected when I speak in a language that is not as familiar to me, and one in which I cannot always successfully express myself. There is no real answer here, but it is something that I have considered deeply at various points over the last two days, questioning who this voice is that is coming from me, but not able to say exactly what I want it to. I feel like a child, frustrated and anxious; trying to understand and be understood.

The value of speaking another language

Negotiating identities does not need to be negative, and in fact I have come to really appreciate that I am able to speak a language other than English. There are people I have spoken with that I would never have had the ability to before. Not knowing another language means that there are a ton of people out there in the world that you can’t communicate with; a massive myriad of personalities that you’ll never get to know; a wide range of life experiences that you’d never get to understand. Learning a language is not easy, and speaking that language more than your native one is also not easy, but I appreciate the time and effort I invested (and continue to invest) in learning Spanish.

Before I left Scotland, people told me I would change and that I would come back a different person. I’m not sure that is strictly true. I have always been reflective about my surroundings, my feelings of belonging and the influences on my identity, but I do know that I appreciate language more than I ever have.

viernes, 21 de noviembre de 2014


 Last weekend one of our Spanish teachers, Carlos was kind enough to take a group of students and staff to the Ñatitas celebration at Cementerio General. Although I had previously visited Ñatitas, it was great to have the opportunity to go with someone more knowledgeable about this uniquely Bolivian celebration. This is really a “you have to see it to believe” kind of thing. Arriving at the cemetery, one is confronted by an array of skulls adorned with hats, sunglasses, smoking cigarettes and garlands of flowers. Around the skulls, families gather, chatting and drinking coke while musical groups play traditional songs nearby. The atmosphere is incredibly festive and happy, providing a strange contrast to the backdrop of mausoleums and graves. 

Below, Carlos will give you the low-down on the roots of this incredible Bolivian tradition.

This party is basically about sharing bread, candles, coca leaves and even cigarettes with the soul of the person remaining in the skull. In return we receive protection and good luck. The skulls are commonly found in small businesses in the city or country, especially near the door. They like privacy which is why it is normally a little difficult to see them, unlike during the ceremony of Ñatitas where the skulls are publicly displayed in the cemetery.

There are many theories about the origins of the Ñatitas. Some believe this tradition comes from the Aymara culture. The Yatiris used these skulls as lucky charms, not just for protection, but also to predict the future. Ñatitas were also used to ward off black magic. People in those days were so afraid of black magic that they would have a skull for the protection of themselves and future generations. The Ñatitas made up part of their will and would be inherited by the children after the parents died.

Another theory about this tradition comes from the Chaco war. According to some researchers, a single old lady, whose only son disappeared in action during the war, went looking for him when the war ended. The lady had dreamed about him dying on the battlefield and desperately went to the "Chaco" where found only a skull and took it as if it were from her dead son. She cared for the skull by lighting candles, talking to it and sharing coca leaves with it. She said her son was home and he was taking care of her house and businesses - which improved incredibly. The neighbour who saw this believed they could receive the same good luck and protection from the skulls as this lady did.

No matter the origin of this tradition, people enjoy sharing a day dancing and singing with the Ñatitas. Even though this is maybe not seen as an important celebration, like All Saints Day for example, it is important for the believers like me :)

jueves, 13 de noviembre de 2014

To Instituto Exclusivo and beyond...

Check out the new Instituto Exclusivo video made by Rebecca, one of our English teachers.  It gives a little taste of La Paz and life here at Instituto Exclusivo.  If you're toying with the idea of travelling it!  You won't regret it!  Latin America is so wonderfully diverse, with incredible people, places and cultures and by learning some Spanish, you will get so much more out of your travels.  Here at Instituto Exclusivo we provide our students with a safe, friendly place to learn Spanish that won't break the bank - pretty high concerns on any backpackers list (I say this from experience)!

So.....why come to Bolivia?

Por que no?! - You have nothing to lose!  Fear of the unknown puts so many people off travelling but it really is life-changing in the best possible way.  

The diversity - This country has so much to offer - from the jungle to the moutains and everything in between.  Think high plains, deserts, salt flats and hot hot heat. And Lago Tititcaca is pretty much as big as an ocean so we even have that ;)

The adrenaline rush -  and I'm not talking about the rush when you find out your long distance bus has a working toilet.  Tourism in Bolivia has grown rapidly over the last few years and extreme sports are really starting to take off.  A couple of La Paz companies who spring to mind for that sort of thing are Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking who provide crazy mountain biking trips in breathtaking locations and Urban Rush, if abseiling down a 17 story building dressed as spiderman is your thing.  From paragliding to swimming with pink dolphins there is something for everyone on this adrenaline spectrum. 

You get bang for your buck.  Hate saying it, but as a developing economy, prices are still very low here in Bolivia.  If you're coming in with dollars, pounds, euros etc your money goes will go an incredibly long way.  You can load up with as many llamas sweaters as you can fit in your backpack while still having enough left over to spend 4 days in a jeep touring the Salar de Uyuni before hot footing it to the jungle and going piranha fishing in Rurrenabaque. 

Last, but by no means least, Bolivian Spanish is easy to understand!  Might sound like a small thing but trust me, once you've heard two Chileans deep in conversation you'll realise how much easier it can be here.  
So what are you waiting for.....?

If this little list has whet your appetite then check out these links for more  information on Bolivia  - Bolivia Bella and Bolivia-online 

jueves, 30 de octubre de 2014

Dejemos entrar a las palabras

Generalmente cuando aprendemos un idioma recurrimos a diferentes medio para lograrlo, por ejemplo métodos de estudio individual, intercambios de idiomas en alguna reunión, una amistad o “algo más” con un nativo de otro país, o lo clásico, clases que tomamos en algún instituto o universidad. En esta última instancia, como estudiantes, siempre esperamos que el profesor haga todo lo posible para que podamos aprovechar al máximo de su clase. En algunos casos unos esperan la famosa “Osmosis”, en la que aprendemos sentados y de brazos cruzados y por el contacto visual nos transmiten el conocimiento de un nuevo idioma. O por simplemente hacer las actividades en la clase pensamos que nuestro nivel de idiomas mejoró considerablemente. Sin embargo, desde mi punto de vista como estudiante de inglés y profesor de español no todo depende del profesor para aprender un idioma, existen algunas estrategias para el estudiante que facilitan el aprendizaje de una nueva lengua ya sea para algo académico o simplemente para visitar o estar de paso en un país de lengua extranjera. Como profesor pude investigar sobre algunas estrategias y consejos que creo pueden ayudar a muchos estudiantes que desean aprender un poco más fuera de clase. Todo esto claro siempre que haya el tiempo para hacerlo. Porque el aprender un nuevo idioma no solamente es tiempo, es también dedicación y un poco de sacrificio de cada uno.
En esta oportunidad quiero hablar sobre el vocabulario. El vocabulario es una parte muy importante del idioma, ya sea si somos un nivel inicial, nivel intermedio, e incluso nivel avanzado siempre hay nuevas palabras que debemos aprender. En pocas palabras algo que siempre vamos a aprender y debemos mejorar sin importar el nivel en el que estemos, es el vocabulario.
Consideremos esto, en todos los idiomas existen miles de millones de palabras (tal vez estoy exagerando) y estoy seguro que para muchos estudiantes, especialmente iniciales, esto no es una gran motivación, de hecho esto nos desanima porque ya imaginamos listas interminables de palabras y horas de memorización. Pero hay que considerar que, nadie puede aprender tantas palabras, ni siquiera en su lengua nativa. Es más, si hablamos del vocabulario éste se divide en dos partes activo y pasivo. ¿Esto significa que debemos aprender dos vocabularios ? No, esto es sólo un tecnicismo. Veámoslo de una manera simple. El vocabulario activo se refiere a las palabras que usamos normalmente en nuestro día a día. Es decir esas palabras que usamos cuando hablamos con una persona sobre un tema cotidiano, por ejemplo de las vacaciones que tuvimos o de la fiesta a la que asistimos. Las palabras en estas situaciones son fáciles de emplear por que las conocemos por su constante uso. Y por otro lado, el vocabulario pasivo es el conocimiento de esas palabras que no las usamos día a día pero podemos identificarlas al momento de escucharlas o verlas. Por ejemplo cuando hablamos de unos temas legales, o de cocina especializada, está claro que podemos reconocer algunos términos y emplear estas palabras aunque no las hayamos usado por un buen tiempo. Las tenemos ahí en nuestra memoria y están esperando su uso, no muy común, claro, como las palabras de nuestro vocabulario activo
Con esta diferencia, podemos ver que los estudiantes tienen que trabajar más en su vocabulario activo, el vocabulario de todos los días. Es por eso que una buena idea para aumentar el vocabulario activo es limitar las palabras que necesitamos para ciertas situaciones, y no aprender todas las palabras al detalle por qué no las necesitaremos por el momento. Por ejemplo, imaginemos a Pedro, un turista que visita Sudamérica y necesita el español para comunicarse, Pedro tiene un nivel básico de español y ahora desea comprar recuerdos para sus amigos. A Pedro no le sirve estudiar un vocabulario general de compras para esta situación, lo que él necesita es un vocabulario limitado para facilitarle la compra de sus recuerdos. Entonces Pedro escribe una lista con todas las palabras (en su idioma primeramente) de los objetos que quiere comprar, después con la ayuda de un diccionario incluyendo el Internet puede traducir su lista al español. Haciendo uso del Internet, para ser más específico del traductor de “Google”, es posible incluso escuchar la pronunciación de algunas palabras que tal vez son difíciles para Pedro. Otra opción para la pronunciación es practicar las nuevas palabras con un nativo (mejor nativa para más emoción ;) ) De esta manera Pedro puede identificar y recordar una lista de palabras más simple y más útil para hacer sus compras.
Veamos otra sugerencia, supongamos que ahora Pedro tiene más tiempo libre y quiere aumentar su vocabulario para ir de viajes. Agrupar las palabras como una lluvia de ideas en esta oportunidad le permite no sólo buscar nuevas palabras sino también recordar aquellas palabras que se encuentran en su vocabulario pasivo, y de esta manera reactiva esos conceptos que aprendió en algún momento pero por la falta de uso no la recuerda fácilmente. Incluso esto puede ser un juego con algún compañero de viaje o compañero de clase, hacer una pequeña lista con todas las palabras que puedan recordar juntos.
Muchos profesores consideramos la lectura como el mejor medio para aumentar el vocabulario nuevo, esto porque encontramos palabras en contexto y el contexto nos ayuda, a veces, a identificar los significados de esas nuevas palabras. Veamos cómo usar esta destreza para incrementar nuestro vocabulario. Esta vez Pedro está de vacaciones y tiene que viajar mucho en avión o en bus por muchísimas horas o incluso días. Lo único que lo entretiene son sus libros. Pero Pedro no quiere transformar este entretenimiento en algo de estudio, entonces lo que hace es simplemente anotar o subrayar la nueva palabra para una revisión eventual. Incluso la lectura de periódicos (aunque son un poco más complicados) permite aumentar nuestro conocimiento de palabras nuevas, lo bueno en este caso es que podemos encontrar palabras en contextos políticos, deportivos, y económicos, mucha más variedad de conceptos.
Otra estrategia que ayuda, y pienso que mucho, para aumentar el vocabulario es ver videos especialmente de series (sugiero fuertemente las comedias  ) pero con su subtítulo. De esta forma al escuchar las conversaciones y leer los subtítulos podemos hacer asociaciones de palabras, ambas para el vocabulario activo o para el vocabulario pasivo. Lo mejor de ver videos con subtítulos es aprender muchas expresiones propias del idioma extranjero. Y además esto nos ayuda mucho con la pronunciación.
Hablar del vocabulario como podemos ver, es hablar de un conocimiento que nunca termina. Las palabras están a nuestro alrededor esperando entrar a nuestra memoria para ser usadas. Entonces démosles una pequeñas ayuda aplicando estas sugerencias que me sirvieron mucho y también a mis estudiantes de español. Es algo divertido que vale la pena intentar. Buena suerte :)
- Carlos

jueves, 23 de octubre de 2014

Three things learning Spanish taught me about teaching English

I first came to La Paz in January 2013 to participate in the UK Government's volunteering programme for young people, International Citizen Service. We had Spanish classes with Instituto Exclusivo, and for the first time I enjoyed learning a foreign language. I realised I had an opportunity to achieve my ambition of becoming reasonably competent in a second language and returned in January 2014 to teach English, learn Spanish and experience this uniquely diverse country once again.

Instituto Exclusivo is the best of the TEFL world for me. In the English department our students are mostly professionals in individual or small group classes or one-to-ones via Skype. There's also a real sense of community. My colleagues, the other English, Spanish, French and Quechua teachers, are more than just my colleagues, which is a great bonus to a workplace. I've had classes with three excellent Spanish teachers, and in the process learned a lot about how to teach. These are my tips for anyone just starting out in TEFL.

Don't simply beat people over the head with grammar

Even though it can be tempting at times. “He has, not he have!In my first Spanish lesson, altitude sickness still wearing off, we didn't rehearse verb tables but instead hit the ground running and learned a simple introduction: My name is James, I'm a volunteer, I've been in Bolivia for a week and I enjoy playing volleyball. It stuck in my head, and now I try to make sure my beginners know they can master a useful phrase right from the start.

Make them talk

My second teacher began every class with carefully-pitched conversation practice, and kept the questions coming almost relentlessly. How was our week? How is the volunteering going? What do I think about x? What does my classmate think? Do I agree? Why? Why not? It was an excellent technique. She made it impossible not to practise everything we studied. I use this now with my English students – NGO workers, conservation biologists, engineers – who often don't have the luxury of being able to practise English in their daily lives, so it's essential that they use it in the classroom.

Let it sink in

When I returned to La Paz a year later I re-started Spanish with my current teacher. As the complexity of the grammar topics increased, I noticed the value of really clear, simple, logically ordered presentations and explanations. She gives me plenty of time to think and ask questions if I need clarification. I think one of the most important activities as a teacher is sometimes inactivity or, rather, avoiding hyperactivity. Not speaking too much, not reformulating sentences unnecessarily, not changing subjects too quickly and not trying to do too much in a single lesson. The language needs time to sink in. It's far better for your students to understand one thing well than many things badly. Achieving this is obviously the challenge, and it means knowing a topic inside out before you teach it, explaining something concisely but comprehensively before you practice it, and being absolutely sure your students get it before you move on.
 - James

viernes, 17 de octubre de 2014

El Poder de las Palabras

El mundo se hace más pequeño y cada vez tenemos más contacto con gente de otros países, y otras lenguas es así que la comunicación entre las personas se ha vuelto tan importante, pero nada de esto sería posible si no existiera el instrumento básico de uso como es la palabra en sí misma, sin importar el idioma que se use la palabra será un conjunto de letras que darán un significante y un significado.

Ahora, imagina que no solo tratas de entender y mejorar tu vocabulario en tu propia lengua, sino que tratas de aprender una lengua nueva; es ahí donde vienen muchas preguntas a tu cabeza. ¿Podré aprender un nuevo idioma? ¿Va a ser muy difícil? ¿No voy a entender nada ni a nadie? ¿Nadie me va a entender?, etc. Todos esos miedos son reales y normales. Entonces cuando tomas la decisión de hacerlo aterrizas y entras en pánico, pero no es tan dramático como suena.

Desde el punto de vista personal, la experiencia de aprender una lengua nueva ha sido la entrada a un nuevo mundo, como pasar de una dimensión a otra con sonidos diferentes. Cuando decidí tomar este riesgo y responder estas preguntas por mí misma, sin que nadie me lo cuente o lo leyera en un libro, puedo decir que cambió mi vida.

No solo decidí aprender un idioma de manera repetitiva o memorística, sino que descubrí que las personas expresan mucho más que simples palabras al momento de comunicarse, expresan una posición, una creencia, un sentimiento, etc. La verdad es que nuevos pensamientos e ideas son creados cada minuto en todas partes y no están siendo traducidos instantáneamente. Las personas no solo queremos comprender el significante de una palabra, porque para eso podemos usar un diccionario sino que queremos entender un significado, es decir; la imagen mental, el concepto que representa y que puede variar según la cultura.

Así creció mi amor por las palabras, tanto que hicieron que me convirtiese en capacitadora de mi propia lengua. Ahora tengo la experiencia desde otro punto de vista y creo que poner a una persona ante una lengua nueva le abre la mente a un mundo diferente.

Además dentro del aprendizaje de un nuevo idioma se podrá trabajar con la integración de elementos culturales que ayuden a adquirir una competencia intercultural y así los estudiantes podrán comprender el contexto general de un nuevo idioma a través de las palabras. Claro que existen varios estudios en relación a este tema, la interculturalidad dentro de la enseñanza, pero lo que tratamos de hacer aquí es proponer una visión nueva y fresca de enseñanza basados en estos principios. De poder compartir no solo el conocimiento teórico con nuestros estudiantes sino también la experiencia de interculturalidad desde nuestra región.

- Adriana

martes, 7 de octubre de 2014

My Experience with Instituto Exclusivo

From Student to Teacher

When I first arrived in La Paz, Bolivia, I was pretty much alone. My Spanish was not great and I felt very lost and confused. I was here for work and only knew my boss. So I decided to sign up for Spanish classes. I was fortunate enough to notice the large “Learn Spanish” sign marking the excellent location of Instituto Exclusivo and signed up for classes. I thought this could be a great opportunity to learn Spanish, meet people, and discover more about La Paz. After an online test to figure out my level, I was ready to begin.
I was feeling a little nervous when I walked into school for my first day of class.  I didn’t know what to expect. But the atmosphere inside immediately put me at ease. Everyone greeted me, somehow knowing me by name almost instantly. I was offered tea or coffee, water, free wireless internet… This was where I wanted to learn Spanish.

Then I met my Spanish teacher. She was incredibly easy to talk to. We chatted about what I wanted to learn, how I wanted to structure my Spanish classes, in order to get the most out of my individual classes. I had never had a learning experience that was so perfectly tailored to me.

I began to look forward to my classes, coming early, staying after, just to hang out on the very comfortable couch and watch the people of all ages from all over the world come and go. I was always welcome here.

After a couple months of private classes, I learned that another student who was about my level was looking for a group. That sounded like a great idea. So we began group classes with another teacher, who was just as wonderful as my first teacher. In these group classes we were able to debate, to learn grammar, to chat, to learn Spanish in a new and exciting way. And more than that, we became great friends. We explored La Paz together, went out for meals, and practiced our Spanish even outside of school. She left La Paz after a few months but we keep in touch and hope to see each other sometime somewhere in the world.

Around this time, I needed a job. And the Institute needed English teachers! So I went through training, learned how the school works and how to structure my classes to best fit the needs of each student, and began the always changing, always interesting, always challenging job of teaching English classes.

I have a wide variety of students. Here in La Paz, I teach adults and children, advanced classes and beginners. I have students from Bolivia as well as Spain and I adapt my teaching style, material, subject matter, and process for each student. I also teach English online through Skype. I had to figure out a completely new way to teach in order to serve students from Brazil to France to Taiwan.

I have a great relationship with my students. I think one of the most important things when learning a language is to feel comfortable speaking it. So I try to make my classes a relaxed environment where students can chat, write, listen, and learn. I love the combination of teaching my students and at the same time learning from them.  

The number of interesting people I have met here at the Instituto Exclusivo is unbelievable. I love talking to people from all over the world, learning about different cultures and ideas. Some pass through quickly, only staying a week, while others stick around for a month or two.

I was supposed to leave La Paz in March, almost 8 months ago. I decided to stay because I love this city, I love the people I’ve met, and I wanted to experience life here for a little bit longer. Instituto Exclusivo has played a large part of my life in La Paz and I cannot imagine my experience without the things I’ve learned here, the time I’ve spent here, and the people I’ve met here.