Last Tuesday evening I found myself obliged to act the part of a wolf in an improvised mime performance of Little Red Riding Hood. The captive audience of around 40 people may well have laughed, but they also had to take their turn on stage, depicting fairy tales for the group. We did some other ridiculous things over the next few days – very few of them on our own initiative – for we were engaged in a learning programme.
I had volunteered to spend a week isolated with these people, half of whom were Spaniards learning English and the other half native speakers of English from around the world. We were in a rather nice hotel-complex, located in the hills to the west of Salamanca, attending an “immersion course” - so called because English was the only language allowed to be spoken by everyone present, including the hotel staff. The only Spanish sounds to be heard were the exotic, elegant names of the Spaniards which, for me, conjured up technicoloured scenes from their rich background of history, art and culture. In contrast, we Anglos mostly had stumpy, monosyllabic tags like Joe, Malc, Doug or Deb that cowered in the corners of our identity badges, trying to assert our “individuality” by denying all family connections. We might as well have been bar-coded.
So, from the start, it seemed a great pity that the beautiful and evocative Spanish language had to be replaced by the sprawling mish-mash of English; all for the sake of business, career promotions and the facilitation of international communication. Nevertheless, I settled to the task of conversing non-stop for 8 days. This may sound easy but the constant striving to understand and be understood is a tiring process, so we came to appreciate relief in the form of group activities such as silly games, an excursion to the local village, drinking, siestas and the (very) occasional free period.
In return for helping to develop the students’ foreign language skills, however, there was a valuable payoff. It turned out to be a great way to get to know something about Spain without having to bother to learn Spanish – a sort of free sample, or “try before you buy”. We found out about their food - we were in Iberica Jamon country, surrounded by the famous black pigs; we visited the tourist town of La Alberca, the first ever World Heritage site, protected as far back as the 1930’s; we encountered patriots of the separate and distinctive Catalan culture; and we learned a lot about Spanish football team allegiances. Culture, customs and family histories all came alive but, best of all, we discovered real Spanish people. Our close confinement with them revealed their charm, warmth, sociability, passion and sense of humour. We developed real relationships, quite different from those you could normally expect through fleeting contacts made during a typical visit.
The Spaniards, of course, will have had a different experience. Preoccupied as they must have been with the task they set themselves and confused, perhaps, by the variety of our accents, idioms and cultural and geographical references, many of them must have left the venue doubting whether they had made any linguistic progress at all.
In one respect, at least, we did all have a shared experience. When strangers are thrown together cliques soon start to form and, with a demographic which included 8 nations and spanned more than 40 years in age difference, there was plenty of scope for this social phenomenon. By the end of the week gossip was beginning to break out, sub-groups started to gather in secluded corners and would-be leaders and politicians began their canvassing. One wonders what kind of mini-society might have evolved by the end of a second week. Did the event organisers foresee this undesirable dynamic and decide that 8 days would be the optimal time-span for the maintenance of international harmony and understanding?