An English immersion program in Spain

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Submitted photo.

Spanish students and English speakers in Barco de Avila.

What do 13 Spaniards and 15 Anglos have in common? The answer lies in the Vaughan Town experience. What exactly is Vaughan Town? It is an immersion program that is considered the most powerful and effective English-improvement program in the world within the time stipulated (six days). The Vaughan Town format is designed to force the student to overcome the psychological barriers to communication in English.

Our adventure begins on January 13 when we travel to Madrid, Spain where on a bright Sunday morning we meet our Spanish students. These Spaniards are all adult learners of English; they are professionals who work, for the most part, for American companies in Spain. One young woman is from Lima, Peru and she is starting a Vaughan Town program in Lima. Another young woman is originally from Venezuela, but, along with her husband and unborn child, has fled her native country to live in Spain. The Anglos are all from English speaking countries: Great Britain, Scotland, Ireland, Singapore and United States. 

After meeting our Spanish friends, we board a bus bound for Barco de Avila and the resort of Gredos. During this three hour drive, we get to know our Spanish students and they get to know us. From this time until Friday after lunch, they will not be allowed to speak one word of Spanish. The week’s mantra is: Speak only in English, speak constantly and soon you will begin to Think in English.

Submitted photo.

Anglos in Gredos. Rebecca and Sam Mikus (l.) with three other English speakers who took part in an immersion project.

Gredos was much like Granby- rural, quiet and idyllic. Sam and I felt right at home. Upon arrival we received the grand tour, procedures, schedules and do’s and don’ts were explained. We met our Program Director Daryl, and our Master of Ceremonies Carlotta. The group was very fortunate to have this twosome for the week. Daryl and Carlotta have worked together many times in the past, and they kept the week running smoothly. Carlotta entertained us with her theatrical skits and presentations. She was amazing!

Our day started with breakfast at nine and ended with dinner at nine. It is customary in Spain to eat your main meal at two and then have lighter fare at nine. Seated at each table in the dining room were equal number of Anglos and Spaniards engaged in constant conversation. By the way, Sam and I never sat together throughout the entire week. It felt kind of odd that here we were a couple married for 49 years and we didn’t sit together at meals. Most days we followed the same schedule: breakfast, two or three one-on-one conversations, telephone conversations with a problem to be solved, and a conference call with the Anglo leading the conversation and the Spaniards doing most of the talking. Interspersed with these conversations were different group activities such as skits, creative picture poses and presentations. For example, Sam, Beatrix (Spanish), Roz (British) Encarta (Spanish) and I presented a spoof on The Dating Game. What a fun time we had creating and presenting this skit. 

For the rest of the week our schedules were much the same. The Anglos rotated with the Spaniards so that we met with each Spaniard once or twice on a one-to-one basis. You may ask if we were given subjects to discuss with them. We were given a list of topics, but we never referred to them because we never needed those topic starters. We just shared and talked the whole 50 minutes. What we were given for each meeting was an idiom and a verbal phrase that we explained to our individual student. English is not an easy language to master because we have so many idioms, exceptions to the rules and colloquialisms. Throughout the week we were given a siesta time usually after lunch until 5, but sometimes if we hadn’t finished an assignment we used that time to finish it.

As we look back at the six days we spent with our Spanish friends at Gredos, our hearts are full. During this time with us, we experienced the joy of watching their spoken English blossom. The culminating activity for the Spaniards was a five-minute assigned topic presentation in English in front of their peers and Anglo teachers. They were very nervous, but they all did well. Sam and I and our fellow Anglos admired the work ethic of the Spaniards. These people left their families, some had young children, a few were single, but all of them were professionals who wanted to improve their English language skills. They chose to attend Vaughan Town. It was important to them.

For Sam and me, it was an experience we will never forget. We made new friends, both Spanish and English. On Friday evening, when we parted there were tears and lots and lots of hugs. We have many invitations to return to Spain and visit. We hope to do just that. The Vaughan Town experience enriched our lives. We felt we made a difference. It’s a very good feeling.

Hasta Mañana