Language and Culture Across Borders and in the Classroom: A Conversation with Olimpia Muñoz-López, Victoria Hernández Pando, Ana Griñon, Niamh Kelly, and Jakob Romine

This is part of our special feature, Imagining, Thinking, and Teaching Europe.


As part of this special issue on Imagining, Thinking, and Teaching Europe, this interview helps highlight the value of language and cultural exchange. Each year, the Spanish Ministry of Education and Professional Training welcomes thousands of “Language Assistants” from around the world to enter Spanish primary and secondary schools to both teach Spanish students their own respective language and to participate in cultural exchange. Most often, participants have recently finished their undergraduate study, and are looking for new life experiences. Language Assistants are given a stipend to cover basic costs in exchange for twelve hours a week of work with the students.

To learn more about the program, we turned to Olimpia Z. Muñoz López (Head of Service), Victoria Hernández Pando (Technical Teaching Advisor), and Ana Griñón (Section Head) from the Office of International Cooperation and Educational Foreign Promotion inside the Spanish Ministry of Education and Professional Training. For her expertise in linguistics, we also bring in Niamh Kelly, originally from Galway, Ireland, who was Language Assistant in 2008, and now is an Assistant Professor of Phonetics in the Department of English at the American University of Beirut. We also invited Jakob Romine, from Georgetown, Texas, a Graduate Teaching Assistant of Spanish at Texas State University, who was an Assistant from 2015-2017. This interview gives us insight into not just the background of the program, but also the experiences of former participants, who have both taken the experience with them in their careers.

—Louie Dean Valencia-García for EuropeNow


EuropeNow To start off, can you tell us a bit about the Spanish Ministry of Education and Professional Formation Language Conversation Assistants in Spain program today and its history?

Spanish Ministry of Education and Professional Training This program has quite a long trajectory. It began in 1938 with an exchange with the United Kingdom and has continued since, and in recent years has even expanded. With the objective of bettering quality education, the program seeks to promote intercultural education. Within the context of an active learning socio-cultural environment, students learn another language. Learning a second language favors an interchange of experiences and international connections with a society; accomplishing this requires both flexibility and adaptation. By working with teachers in their classrooms, an assistant participates in improving the comprehension and oral expression. Depending on the province [“autonomous community”], that might vary. Currently we receive 6,700 foreigners each year and approximately 850 Spanish Assistants go abroad as assistants themselves.

EuropeNow Who is the ideal candidate for the program?

Spanish Ministry of Education and Professional Training The ideal Assistant is someone who has recently graduated or is in their final year of studies. The program is tailored for future teachers. Assistants should have basic knowledge of Spanish to be able to take care of daily business once they arrive to Spain.

EuropeNow How has Brexit and the Coronavirus crisis affected the program and what can an Assistant expect next school year?

Spanish Ministry of Education and Professional Training For now, Brexit has had little effect, and the continuation of the program next year is secure. As for the coronavirus, some of the Assistants have returned to their home countries, but continue to collaborate online with the teachers with the hope of being able to return. Some have left the program entirely. It’s impossible to predict if they will be able to return, nor is it possible to guess what will happen in regard to the virus in the next academic year.

EuropeNow Turning to you, now, Jakob and Niamh, how did you first hear about Spain’s Language and Cultural exchange program and what made you want to apply?

Jakob Romine I studied English and Spanish as an undergraduate at Texas State, and as I neared graduation, I felt that I must immerse myself in the Spanish language to improve my verbal communication skills. I spoke with my mentor and with the Modern Languages (now World Languages and Literatures) Department Chair at my school about opportunities to teach English in Spanish-speaking countries. They both recommended that I look into Spain’s Language and Cultural exchange program, and I was immediately captivated by the idea. Spending a year in Spain, gaining some teaching experience—a government job, no less—, and having the time to adventure seemed like a dream. It was to be the first time that I would live outside of Texas, and although I wasn’t totally sure what I could expect, I felt certain that it was going to change my perspective.

Niamh Kelly I had finished my BA in Spanish and Psychology from the National University of Ireland, Galway, and I wanted to return to Spain where I had done my Erasmus year. I had some experience in Teaching English as a Foreign Language and when the position came up in Madrid, I jumped at it. In particular, I liked that it was in a bilingual school and that my role would be to work alongside the local classroom teacher.

EuropeNow Jakob, can you tell us what the application process was like for you?

Jakob Romine It wasn’t all that complicated, but it took some getting used to as most of the forms were in Spanish. In addition to the informative guides provided by the program, I found some useful blogs by current and former auxiliares[assistants] that helped me navigate the online application portal. It basically consisted of filling forms and uploading photocopies of official documents, a letter of recommendation, and a statement of purpose. Then, upon receiving an offer to teach in Valladolid, I had to visit the embassy in Houston to complete the visa application process.

EuropeNow Given that many of the Assistants go to both large cities and small towns, what does each have to offer an Assistant?

Spanish Ministry of Education and Professional Training In large cities, many Assistants find the diversity and cultural and leisurely activities very attractive, which is where most tend to go. However, to many Assistants’ surprise, small towns and villages, tend to be more welcoming for Assistants. It’s easier to really connect with Spanish people in small towns and people care for Assistants more than in large cities. In program evaluations, the degree of satisfaction of Assistants that were placed in villages is very high. Additionally, the stipend that they receive goes further in the countryside.

EuropeNow Jakob, you lived in both a large city and a small town. How would you describe both the city/town and schools to which you were assigned?

I lived my first year in Valladolid. The schools that I worked at were located in Arrabal de Portillo, about thirty minutes outside of the city. Valladolid is a beautiful little city full of history. It was the capital of Spain during the time of the Catholic Monarchs and was home to such literary figures as José Zorrilla and Miguel Delibes. Francisco de Quevedo and Miguel de Cervantes both lived for a time in the city, and Cervantes’ house is now a museum. Despite regional Spanish stereotypes of Vallisoletanos being closed-minded and conservative, I found a warm community of open-minded artists, musicians, and the like. Valladolid is small enough that one can easily walk wherever they need to go and big enough to not feel like a town with little to do. There was always an art exhibit or some cultural production to check out. Concerts and plays were common. Valladolid also hosts a weeklong film festival every year and a festival of street art. I later spent a year in Jerez de la Frontera in the province of Cádiz, in Andalucia. Quite a different experience it was. Although I did feel welcome in the land of flamenco and sherry, most of my time was spent reading in solitude because I didn’t feel the same sense of connection that I felt with the folks in Valladolid. Don’t get me wrong, I worked with some wonderful people and I made some friends in town, I just felt like I had to catch up on my reading and find some direction.

EuropeNow What tends to be the most difficult thing for Assistants when they arrive to Spain? What do they tend to gain from the experience?

Spanish Ministry of Education and Professional Training Assistants say that the most difficult part is the paperwork (particularly, the application for an identification number for foreigners, opening a bank account in Spain, and, sometimes, finding a place to live. It is also a lesson in “adulting” for many. They also always mention that learning more about Spanish culture and language is always a marvelous experience. Moreover, Assistants carry with them the friendships made at school and with the people they meet outside of school. In many cases, they take those people home with them forever.

Jakob Romine The greatest challenge proved to be my own doubts and insecurities about myself and my decisions. Everyone I encountered was very helpful and understanding. Although my Spanish was far from perfect when I arrived, the people I met were all very patient, and I found the environment to be conducive to learning.

EuropeNow What was your average day like as an Assistant, Jakob?

Jakob Romine While I was in Valladolid, I would carpool to Portillo with the school’s bilingual coordinator. I would attend a variety of classes, mostly at the secondary school. Once a week, I would go to the primary school and spend an hour with the oldest group of students there. Depending on the class and the instructor, I would sometimes read aloud in English from a textbook as students followed along. Sometimes, I would lead the class in a game or communicative activity that required the use of the target language to complete a determined task. Occasionally, I would bring a guitar and sing with the students. They were very receptive and generally excited about our interactions, particularly when we would play games or include music. It brought a great deal of joy into my life sharing time with the students, and I believe that my presence made their learning experience more interesting and fruitful. The schools I worked at had bilingual programs. This meant that half of the material was to be taught in English. I would therefore go not only to English classes, but also such classes as History/Geography, Physical Education, and Math.

During breaks, I would talk with students and teachers about music, art, life, and just about anything. In the afternoons, back in the city, I would walk around town, play music, and talk with friends in the bars and cafés. When I lived and worked in Jerez, I helped tutor the students who were preparing to take the Trinity College English competency exams.

EuropeNow Jakob, do you have one or two anecdotes about your experience that you would like to share?

Jakob Romine I was privileged to meet many people who shared their time with me. I made lasting friendships with folks who showed me the ins and outs of their towns. One such friend, Paco, showed me the different record stores in Valladolid and introduced me to the open mic. I met musicians with whom I have written and played on both sides of the Atlantic.

I met a girl one night at a little café where a violinist and an accordionist were playing a show. We danced and carried on far into the night, taking the musicians to other local watering holes, and ended the night with churros and chocolate in the wee hours. We have remained close, despite the distance, ever since.

There was a little café next to the school I worked at that acted as our cafeteria. We had two short recesses: during the first, we would have coffee in the bar and during the second, many would indulge in a small glass of beer or wine. Fresh tapas were always provided: pinchos de tortilla, bizcocho, ajo frito, etc. The family that ran the bar was very gracious and kind to me. I was welcomed into the kitchen where I learned how to make a tortilla de patata, the potato-based Spanish omelette. I can’t think of a more authentic place to pick up such a craft as a small café in a little Spanish village. The trick is to slice the potatoes as thin as possible.

EuropeNow After you finished the program, what was your trajectory?

Niamh Kelly I lived in Lisbon for a year, teaching English in a private school. The following year, I moved to the US to do my PhD in Linguistics at UT Austin. After that, I did a one-year postdoc at the University of Graz in Austria, and now I am at the American University of Beirut. I am currently doing research on the intonation system of Lebanese Arabic as well as on the variety of Armenian spoken by the Armenian population in Lebanon.

Jakob Romine Before returning to the United States, I travelled around Europe, visiting Copenhagen, Dublin, Edinburgh, London, Prague, Amsterdam and Lisbon. It was pretty affordable to travel around. Budget airline tickets were cheap, and lodging was never too expensive. When in Dublin, I took a bus to the coast on a whim. As I moved along down the shoreline, I noticed people dressed as if they had time-travelled from the early twentieth century. I discovered that it was “Bloomsday,” a celebration of the life and works of James Joyce. I visited his museum, an old Martello tower where he stayed for a few nights and that is the location of the opening scene of Ulysses. As I moved along, I followed a tour around Dalkey, saw some enthusiasts performing Joycean scenes, and continued my pilgrimage down the coast, hiking many miles, and eventually returning to Dublin on a train. This was all unplanned and felt very serendipitous.

EuropeNow Niamh, you participated in the program and are now a professor of linguistics, can you tell us more about your area of specialty?

Niamh Kelly I work in phonetics and phonology, which examine the sounds of languages. Broadly speaking, phonetics looks at how we produce speech in the vocal tract and the acoustics of that, while phonology looks at sound patterns across languages and how our brain categorizes acoustic signals into meaningful sounds. For signed languages, the study of phonetics and phonology is not about sounds but about visual characteristics such as movement, placement and orientation of the hands, among other characteristics.

I have always been interested in accents and I’ve always enjoyed learning languages. When I was in graduate school, I found myself really enjoying the courses in phonetics and phonology. I loved learning about how we produce patterns, and how some of these patterns are seen again and again across languages. For example, a common pattern called assimilation is that sounds become similar to sounds that are next to them. If you compare the /n/ sound when you say “ten eels” vs “ten pies,” you’ll notice that the /n/ in the second one is actually more like an /m/. This is because when you are producing the /n/, your lips are already closing in preparation for the /p/, so the /n/ ends up becoming /m/. Assimilation patterns happen across languages. I also found myself drawn to the experimental aspect of these fields, where you can record speech and measure its characteristics, whether that be vowel duration, or tongue height, or pitch changes, and so on―and use the scientific method to draw conclusions about these features.

EuropeNow Given your expertise, Niamh, can you describe some of the challenges that new language learners face, in particular Spanish speakers, when learning new sounds?

Niamh Kelly When learning new sounds, our brain can create new categories for them, or it can put these sounds into categories that we already have for our native language. Some of the difficulties come when the sounds in the language we are learning (usually called the L2) are similar to―but not quite the same as―our L1 (our native language). If a language class does not devote some time and practice to sounds, learners may not be aware that a particular sound differs from their native language. For example, Spanish /t/ is dental, meaning it is produced with the tongue touching the back of the teeth, while English /t/ has the tongue touching higher than the teeth, at the alveolar ridge. The two are similar, but they don’t sound quite the same. If attention is not drawn to where the tongue is touching and the subtle difference between these two sounds, the learner will continue to produce their native /t/ in the L2, and this will be perceptible to native speakers of the L2.

Spending some time on phonetics in a language class is crucial, because language production is so subconscious for us that we are very unaware of what is actually going on inside our mouths when we speak. When I teach phonetics, I bring lollipops to class, because having something solid in your mouth while producing sounds really helps us to notice the subtle movements of the tongue and jaw. Sometimes, it is actually easier for us to learn a sound that is completely different from those in our L1, for example, a click sound, because our brain notices immediately that it is new, and creates a new category, so this sound doesn’t get confused with anything in the L1.

EuropeNow What are some of the benefits of having a native speaker conversing with and teaching language learners—especially younger learners?

Niamh Kelly Research has found that for children to acquire a language, they need to be interacting with a real person. We use the verb acquire for children picking up their first language(s) and learn for anyone older than that who is purposefully and consciously studying a language, as these are two very different processes. Children do not acquire a new language from watching TV. They can of course acquire it from anyone around them who speaks it― and this person does not have to be a native speaker, but having a native speaker gives them detailed input that their brains can use to categorize sounds. For example, in most varieties of English, the /p/ sound in “pin” is not acoustically the same as the one in “spin”. The one in “pin” is what we call aspirated, that is, there is a little puff of air after it. The /p/ in spin is unaspirated. Try it out by placing a sheet of paper in front of your lips when saying both words―the sheet will move for “pin” but not “spin.”

For native speakers of English, our brains categorize them both as /p/, and it also knows that when speaking, a word-initial /p/ has to be aspirated while other /p/ sounds are unaspirated. These are details that we are not conscious of, but that children acquire based on the consistent patterns that we produce. Babies’ brains are basically running statistics on patterns they hear. These patterns are also language-specific. So for example, Spanish does not have aspiration with a word-initial /p/. It is difficult for a native English speaker to learn not to aspirate in Spanish because we do it subconsciously. Hint: For Spanish words beginning with “p,” pretend it’s a “b” and you’ll get rid of the aspiration!

EuropeNow Why do we have a foreign accent when we learn a language later in life?

Niamh Kelly There are two sides to this: production and perception. For some of the reasons outlined above, such as that our brains sometimes don’t create new categories for sounds in the L2, we may have difficulty even perceiving a sound. Children acquiring language are much better at noticing small differences that our adult brains ignore. If we can’t perceive it, we generally can’t produce it either. And sometimes we can perceive it, but still have trouble producing it. This is, once again, an effect of the phonology of our L1. For example, in English we don’t have /ts/ at the beginning of a word. So when we borrow a Japanese word like “tsunami”, we adapt it to the phonology of English, and drop the initial /t/. In the phonology of Spanish, there is no /st/ or /sp/ word-initially, so native speakers of Spanish who are learning English tend to create a new syllable by adding a vowel before the /s/. With practice and sufficient input, we can learn to produce sound sequences that are not in our L1, but it usually takes a conscious effort. On the bright side, there are cases of people who only started to learn a language in adulthood and who became native-like (based on accent ratings by native speakers). It seems that a big predictor of proficiency in the L2 is not so much talent as motivation. There is also a negative correlation with how much one is still using the L1. 

EuropeNow Going back to the Spanish Assistants program, what value does cultural and linguistic exchange have for Spanish students and the Assistants? 

Spanish Ministry of Education and Professional Training An Assistant isn’t just a linguistic model for students to better their ability to speak a language. They are also cultural representatives. What students learn through cultural exchange, is just as important as learning a new language. Through this program, students can learn new cultural habits, not just other languages. It is a window into a more globalized world, with a diversity of races, languages, and cultures—it helps to develop and reinforce values such as tolerance.

Jakob Romine The value of language and cultural exchange cannot be overstated. Such exchange allows the minds of those involved to expand. Perspective is widened, and the world of possibilities is shown to be truly limitless. Authentic connections are made between the students and the Assistants. We all learn through such exchange; it allows for remarkable personal and communal growth. Seeing how other people live and communicate with one another allows for deeper understanding of what ties us all together.

EuropeNow Is it necessary to have native speaker input when learning a language?

Niamh Kelly All of the above assumes that the goal is to sound like a native speaker ―which many of us want to achieve, and many parents want their children to achieve―but this is something that is viewed by some as problematic. It is worth questioning―or at least being aware of ―our attitudes towards this idea of it being desirable to have a “native” accent, and tied in with that, the attitudes we have towards speakers who have a foreign accent in their L2. There is something called accentism, where people are discriminated against on account of their accent. It also happens to people who don’t speak a “prestige” variety of their L1, that is, a variety that is considered to be “correct”. It should be noted that this concept has no linguistic basis, and the variety that is considered prestigious or “standard” has everything to do with power and social judgements and nothing to do with it being linguistically better.

We make judgements about people very quickly based on their accents, so we need to be careful about promoting the idea of “native speakers” as the ideal―one can be extremely proficient in an L2 and still have a foreign accent. So having native speaker input can be very helpful, but not having it should not stop you deciding to learn a new language. I once heard a phrase that stuck with me: having a foreign accent is not a sign of stupidity, it is a sign of bravery.

EuropeNow Any final thoughts, Jakob?

Jakob Romine I would highly recommend that everyone travel as much as possible. If given the opportunity to live for a time in another country, take it and live it to the fullest. Participating in Spain’s Language and Cultural exchange program changed not only how I see the world, but also how I live. I met people with whom I made lasting, meaningful relationships. I played music in the bars and felt at home among other like-minded musicians and artists.



Olimpia Z. Muñoz López is Head of Service, Victoria Hernández Pando is Technical Teaching Advisor, and Ana Griñón is the Section Head for Language and Cultural Diffusion in the Office of International Cooperation and Educational Foreign Promotion in the Spanish Ministry of Education and Professional Formation.

Niamh Kelly is an as Assistant Professor of Linguistics in the Department of English at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon. She completed her PhD in linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin in 2015 and was subsequently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Graz, Austria, before joining AUB in 2016. She uses quantitative methods to conduct research in phonetics and phonology, with a focus on prosody. She has conducted research on a variety of languages including Norwegian, Lithuanian, Welsh, Irish English, Palestinian Arabic and Teotepec Chatino.  She is currently examining the intonation of Lebanese Arabic and the effect of L2 Arabic vs English on plosives in Western Armenian.


Jakob Romine is a Spanish lecturer at Texas State University, where he attained his Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Spanish. He recently defended his master’s thesis paper “Nacionalismo, ironía y desilusión en la obra narrativa de José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi” and plans to continue investigating Latin American literature in a doctoral program. Although his most recent study focuses primarily on the concept of nationalism in early nineteenth-century Mexican literature, his research interests include the Spanish Golden Age, the American Beat Generation, and Borges, not to mention a deep passion for music and the cinema.


Louie Dean Valencia-García is Assistant Professor of Digital History at Texas State University. He has served as a Lecturer on History and Literature at Harvard University. He is the co-chair of the Critical European Studies Research Network and serves on the research editorial committee for EuropeNow. He is the author of Antiauthoritarian Youth Culture in Francoist Spain: Clashing with Fascism and the editor of Far-Right Revisionism and the End of History: Alt/Histories. Follow the CES Research Network on Twitter @CESCritEuro.



Photo: Ministry of Education and Vocational Training Madrid Spain | Shutterstock
Published on June 3, 2020.


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