Those Who Can’t…Teach! Volunteer Teaching for Your Own Good

By Riley Lynch

So you came to Xela to learn Spanish. But 5 hour days of immersion lessons and a string of dinners with your host family later, you still find yourself tongue-tied when the ayudante on the chicken bus comes to ask for the pasaje.

No one ever said mastering another language would be easy. But does it have to be so humiliating? In a word, yes. As a wise ski instructor once said, you’ve got to learn to like falling down.

Wooing the muse of espanol can be like going to the dentist: Open your mouth and there’s no hiding all the things you’re doing wrong. You know you should have flossed. You know you should have paid more attention when the teacher explained when to use the pretérito vs. the imperfecto. But what can you do about it now?

Teaching English as a foreign language can help. You can turn your limitations as a student into an asset as a teacher. You understand what it’s like to be lost without a machete deep in the jungle of syntax. Joseph Conrad, connoisseur of jungles and acquired languages put it this way: “The horror! The horror!” You’ve been there. You’ve done that. You’re wearing the t-shirt for the second time this week, and it really needs a wash.

The experience of helping others to find their feet in English will make you more tolerant of your own second language stumbles. You will also come by plenty of chances to put your Spanish to the test. Where else are you going to practice the imperativo, if not with a roomful of fidgeting, frolicking school kids. ¡Pongan atención, por favor¡

If you’re here for at least a few weeks, there are schools in the area that would appreciate your help. Ask your friendly coordinator if your school is associated with such a project. Otherwise, EntreMundos maintains a list of opportunities on their Web site (, some requiring only 2 weeks of commitment. Or drop by the weekly volunteer meeting of El Nahualat the Blue Angel Café, Mondays at 5:30 pm. They can put you to work the next day in an afterschool tutoring program, or if you’re craving a break from the urbane vida quetzalteca, they’ll lend you a mountain bike to ride out to one of the rural schools they support. You won’t ride alone.

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