From Southland to Santa Rosa

December 2011


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KEITH FERGUSON talks to Education Review about his South American adventure.

Q: What led you to Argentina?

A. I had taught Spanish for 10 years but had never lived in a Spanish-speaking country. While my reading and writing Spanish were adequate, I didn’t use the spoken language with confidence and needed to put myself in a situation where I had no option but to speak Spanish day-in, day-out. I kept putting off applying for the Language Immersion Award, but by 2010 I had run out of excuses not to apply. AFS choose where the award recipients are sent and work with countries where the local AFS organisation is strong. This year, seven teachers travelled to Argentina for one, three or 12 months.

Q: Where were you based and for how long?

A. I was based for three months in Santa Rosa, the capital city of the province of La Pampa, in the middle of the vast, sparsely-populated prairie that makes up much of Argentina.

Q: Were you involved with any schools during your stay?

A. I spent most of my time in four schools in Santa Rosa, observing in classes in subjects right across the curriculum and speaking to students in Spanish about many aspects of New Zealand and its culture. I also had a week in a small country town observing classes in another three schools. For four or five hours per week I helped out with English classes in the schools and in private evening classes.

Q: How has the exchange improved your Spanish?

A. The most significant improvement in my Spanish has been in my confidence using it in everyday situations. I learned from observing students learning English that they could communicate their intentions unambiguously, although their English was not perfect. By speaking without worrying about the mistakes I made, I gradually became more fluent. At the same time, I was alert to the language of those I was speaking to in order to correct my language another time.

Q: In what ways do New Zealand and Argentine schools differ?

A. The most obvious difference between the cultures of New Zealand and Argentina is in the overall economic level of the countries, with 2010 figures showing 30 per cent of the Argentine population living below the poverty line. For the education system, this means Argentine schools do not have the teaching resources we have. Consequently, the teaching methods I observed usually consisted of the teachers passing on their knowledge, with the aid of textbooks or, very often, photocopied textbooks, while the students would copy notes into the one folder they had for all subjects. Students did not have the opportunity or the resources to do their own research or inquiry.

Q: Did you find any aspects of your stay there challenging?

A.Yes, one very challenging aspect was to understand the Argentinians when they were speaking at their normal speed. I could usually understand quite well when speaking one-to-one, but at times in larger groups I had only a very general idea of what was being said, especially when I was not in a position to question what I didn’t understand.

Q: And what were the highlights?

A. I was lucky enough to be able to travel during Easter week to the north of Argentina, near the border with Bolivia, where I saw some of the native American culture and festivals. At this time too, I had the chance to use my Spanish to meet my everyday needs – transport, accommodation and food.

In the schools, one particular highlight was observing a class of six-year-olds learning English in an immersion situation. No other class issued me with a greater challenge for my own language teaching.

Another highlight was seeing that the students in the schools were just like those in New Zealand, with the same hopes and concerns for their future, the same interests and pasttimes and the same sense of humour. I was always made to feel very welcome in the schools, both by teachers and by students.

Q: Would you recommend the LIA programme to others?

A. Definitely. I am already strongly urging my colleagues to consider applying for the programme. It is both a personal and a professional opportunity language teachers in New Zealand are fortunate to have and ought to take advantage of.